skills


by Gay Degani

“There are two ways to become a better writer, in general: write a lot, and read a lot. There are no other steps.” – Leo Babauta

So often new writers (and experienced ones too) find themselves hanging out by the refrigerator, flipping through television channels, or cleaning out closets, all because they don’t know what to write or if they’ve starte

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d, where to take their stories. Eventually most find a way to break through, but I want to suggest something less fattening than eating ice cream and more useful than Wheel of Fortune.  Although I admit these two things might lead to an idea, and I know cleaning closets worked for Eminem, but choosing to study a story you admire is more likely to get your head filled with ideas and ways to make them work than anything else.

Back when I was teaching, I discovered a somewhat old-fashioned essay by Mortimer J. Adler in English 1A textbooks called “How to Mark a Book.”  At first I thought students would be put off by the author’s style, yet reading it for the first time, I knew I had to assign it. Adler offers one of the most essential tools for learning: how to have a conversation with the author of any text.  Not only did I have to make sure the kids in my class used this tool to learn to write, but I would need to incorporate it into my own discipline.

What Adler professes is that reading must be active, not passive and the best way to do that is to read with a pencil in hand, and underlining key ideas, scribbling questions and thoughts in the margins, using a “star, asterisk, or other doo-dad” to return to paragraphs for rereading, numbering sequences, circling phrases, and using white spaces to outline.  He claims that by marking a book a reader becomes an alert participant, his thought processes are triggered, and his ability to remember reinforced.

It’s obvious that marking a book helps students to study, prepare for tests, and carry what they’ve learned with them longer, but how did this help me as a writer?  How does it help you?

Writing a story whether flash or longer can be a daunting task.  We wonder when we sit down at the keyboard how other writers do it day after day, piece after piece.  Adler’s essay gives a way to discover how to find out, how to have a conversation with the author of something we admire.

He teaches us not to deconstruct in the literary analysis kind of way, but in the “how did he/she do that” kind of way.

Let me repeat Adler’s three reasons to question a text.

  1. Staying alert
  2. Thinking
  3. Remembering

Staying Alert

Normally when we read—especially the first time through—we read for the story, taking in language and meaning as we do so.  This is most often done passively for pleasure, but as  students of writing, we need to go back with all our faculties engaged with a pencil or pen in hand,  circling this image, that phrase, underlining words that suggest a theme. asking ourselves, how did the author paint that picture, how do I know this character is angry, why do I feel like crying?  Questioning “why and how” helps writers to understand what choices the author has used to put us into the story.  We need to be alert to do this.

Thinking

When we are alert to everything in the text, we are thinking, asking questions, wondering.  We notice specific words and realize how an old man “shambling” is different from an old man “strolling.”  How we can picture exactly a pine or a palm when those specific words are used instead of “tree.”  Also more complex issues are untangled.  Why do we know one character is conflicted and another one is unaware?  We are forced to look at dialogue, adjectives, subtle hints that build to an awareness of state of mind.  When we read for pleasure, we may notice these things, but when we underline them, put an asterisk next to a paragraph, and go back through, puzzling and studying, we are engaged in learning.

Remembering

Memory is reinforced when we are questioning a text.  Because we are alert and writing things down, outlining the structure, exploring the dialog, we are aware that these are things we want to remember and the act of engagement boosts memory.  Next time we are trying to convey a character in just a few words because the word count is 100 or 500 or 1000, we will remember that word choice is essential, that every word used MUST convey some meaning and consequently, we are less likely to settle on first thoughts.  We will remember our pleasure at discovering how another writer stirred us and we will want to create that emotion in our own readers.

In her book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose calls this “close reading.” She says this changed for her when one of her high school teachers asked the class to compare the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear.  “We were supposed to go through the two tragedies and circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness, and vision.” (p. 4)  Of the experience she says, “I felt as if I were engaged in some intimate communication with the writer, as if the ghosts of Sophocles and Shakespeare had been waiting patiently all those centuries for a bookish sixteen-year-old to come along and find them.” (p. 5)

Mortimer Adler and Francine Prose have helped me become a better writer by suggesting I turn to the stories I love and examine them more closely, that I become an active participant in reading rather than a passive one, assuming with this mindset, I will better absorb the skills needed to write.  Some of that, of course, eventually does happen, but why wait?  That carton of rocky road will still be in the freezer tomorrow and the television isn’t going anywhere.

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Gay Degani has published fiction on-line and in print including her short collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, a staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at Words in Place. She’s had three stories nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. Her novel, What Came Before, is live in serialized format at Every Day Novels. It’s also available from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

 

 

Lucinda Kempeby Lucinda Kempe

Writing comes naturally to me—I have been a diarist since age thirteen—writing succinctly has not. About a decade ago, I wrote a 160,000-word draft of a memoir that consisted of a dense, expositional narrative juxtaposed against over-long passages of dialogue. I abandoned it. What I had written only a masochist with a machete could or would slog through.

Honestly, I did not know how to write differently. However, by focusing on the short form, the conventions of writing flash, I have become a better writer of the long and have refined my skills to shape memoir moments into “story.”

About three years ago, I received an invitation to the Flash Factory, an office at Zoetrope.com, an online writers’ site. I had no idea what flash fiction was, but I jumped into the weekly prompts. I had a lot to learn and unlearn. My first flashes were arc-less non-stories, or moments/ mini scenes. Scenes I could do. I have a theatrical background. Literally and figuratively. What I did not know was how to write a compressed piece of prose with an arc where something happens, that something is resolved, and changes.

Flash taught me how to hone dramatic moments. In Something About Your Mother below—a “memoir flash” based on a true event—I compressed a long scene into a dramatic moment where a cruel child tells a terrible lie to another child, leaving in only the most relevant words, details, and dialogue. In memoir, the writer uses fictional devices to create “story” based on personal memory versus pure fictionalization. Ditto “memoir flash.” What could have been a fifteen-hundred-word chapter is now less than five hundred words.

In the story, I introduce the protagonist Lucinda playing a game. Immediately, the antagonist, Cam, arrives and interrupts her play with a lie. This happens within a few short sentences. Upset about the lie, Lucinda runs home to her grandmother and the two of them go onto Chestnut Street to learn if the lie is true. When Mama rides up on her bike, the effect of the lie on Lucinda and Mamoo allows the reader to see the three familial relationships and reveals a universal truth about the cruelty of children.

Did the actual event happen in such a compressed period? Of course not. Things like dinner, baths and or phone calls interrupt real time events. However, what flash has taught me is that fewer words said well are better than many words meandering around with no end in sight.

I have become a better writer of memoir because of the skills I’ve learned from writing flash fiction: to strive to make every word count. I even do a bit of fiction on the side, which is great. It gives me a break from myself!

The 440-word flash below originated from a prompt—to write something about your mother.

Something about Your Mother

Busting ass backwards out of the Lime’s driveway, I laughed.  “See if you can catch me.” I raced to the corner of Chestnut and Second.

“Hey, Lucinda!”

I looked at the short, blond-headed girl two years older than my twelve who blocked my escape path with her expensive French bike.

“Hi, Camille.”

Her eyes scanned my Tomboy-scraped and bruised knees. I scratched my arm irritated by a sting and stared at my neighbor, Cam Mercy. Her younger brother Phinizy was my friend. Phin, I liked.

“Lucindah,” she said, playing with the pronunciation. “Or do you prefer Kemp-e?”

“Whatever.”

“Ya’ll have funny names.”

With a mother named Jay, a brother named Phinizy, and an uncle named Walker, well, what could I say? Bait her? No. I waited.

“There’s something I have to tell you about your mother,” she said, smiling in a way that didn’t look happy. “She’s been in an accident…on her bike. A car hit her. I think she’s dead.”

I looked at her bright white sneakers.

“Did you hear what I said?”

I heard loud. I flew around the corner, pushed open my front gate, and tore up the three front steps. Pounding on the door, I screamed.  “Mamoo, Mamoo!”

My grandmother opened the door.

“Mama? Where’s Mama, Mamoo?”

Mamoo looked startled.

“Camille Mercy said Mama was killed by a car.”

Mamoo’s eyes got big as raccoons. She grabbed the top of her sweater with her little hummingbird-sized hands. “What? No. She went to Zara’s….” She walked past me, down the steps, past the gate and out onto Chestnut Street. I followed behind her.

“To Zara’s for cigs, on her bike,” she muttered, turning to me, her face ashen as an elderly gnome. I came and stood beside her and together we looked towards Jackson Avenue. I could see Cam, in her yard cattycorner from our house, watching us.

Mama, I thought, no, no. Mama who took me to the bars. Mama who brought strange men home. Mama who told me daddy was crazy. Mama who I hated to love. Mama who I loved to hate, please don’t go. I squeezed Mamoo’s hand so hard she gasped.

We stood staring down the street when a figure on a three-speed Raleigh appeared in the distance. A figure wearing Bermuda shorts and a Greek captain’s hat rode up and stopped the bike right in front of Mamoo and me.

“Poots! Mother! Why how delightful to have a welcoming committee!”

I smiled bigger than I had in years. I looked across the street into the Mercy’s yard. Cam had dissolved into a puff of smoke, her bike tossed on its side.

 [The Dirty Debutantes’ Daughter]

My journey from long-winded expositional narrator to flasher reminds me of the A.A. Milne story, In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle, where Pooh and Piglet get lost taking the long way around a short bush.

One further plus I discovered. Flashing in public is an addictive habit that is actually good for you.

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Lucinda Kempe is a writer and memoirist.  Flash Fiction Chronicles, Fictionaut, MudJob, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and The Short Humour Site have published Lucinda’s flash. Upcoming work will be at Metazen and Referential Magazine. Lucinda loves flashing and lives to do more of it publicly.

 

 

 

 

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From the archives, reprint from May 15, 2009

by Gay Degani

I am not a patient person. Never have been. And when in the past (a rolling, long-ago past) I couldn’t master something immediately, I assumed I had no talent and no skills and I gave up.

No talent. No skills.

These are two distinct attributes. Having talent is terrific and it certainly makes following your passion rewarding, but talent is only half the formula.

Having skill is absolutely necessary (watch American Idol if you don’t believe me). But getting these skills isn’t an immediate process. And if you’re talking about becoming an expert at anything, you’re talking YEARS of practice. That’s where patience comes in.

Robert McKee (the writing coach whose book STORY is an excellent resource) said that all we can do is to “take out our little bit of talent,” push it around every day, apply our hard-earned skills and hopefully, that will result in something worthwhile. I’m sure I don’t have that quote exactly right, but you get the gist. It takes both talent and skill to become good at anything and skill takes patience.

Last night when I went to bed I was miserable. Things at the end of my current work-in-progress were not working out. The whole thing felt stupid and, heaven forbid, CORNY. In the old days, I would have felt doomed. I would have thought of quitting. I would believe to the depths of my being that my writing sucked. And I sucked.

But this morning, I remembered I have developed a skill-set to help me solve the problems in my story. Hmmmm. Imagine that!

I read about two or three pages in the middle, did a little editing, and suddenly I knew how to solve the story problem at the end. My mind was asking questions that only an “expert” would know to ask.

I moved away from the computer and started to scribble notes of what exactly had to happen for the whole story to make sense. I was so shocked at how easy it was, I started doubting it would work. But in typing the notes, I’m sure it does work. And it isn’t corny. Maybe a little corny, but I still have time to fix that. Wow, it’s working!!!

I’m not saying here that what I do is brilliant or even interesting to anyone else. But it is to me. To see that I will allow myself to make mistakes, to go on tangents, to think I suck, and then get back to work. To take out my “little bit of talent” and my years of practice, and actually be able to have answers, know what comes next, delight myself with a surprising ending, that for me, is success. And when I discover the NEXT problem, I will have skills to solve that too.

This idea of having patience–and I suppose, FAITH IN THE WRITING PROCESS–is a gift to me. A gift I’ve given myself over the years by focusing on learning the skills I need to do what I want, and letting my little bit of talent take care of itself.

I’ve gone off and expanded this topic at my blog, Words in Place.  To read more, click here.

 

Gay Degani has been published in two mystery anthologies, in THEMA Literary Journal and on-line at Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Tattoo Highway, and Salt River Review. “Spring Melt” was a finalist for The 2nd Annual Micro Fiction Award and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  “Monsoon” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2007 Fiction Open and “Wounded Moon” was short-listed for the 2008 Fish Short Story Prize.  Gay is the editor of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles. She blogs at Words In Place.

by Erin Entrada Kelly

The thesaurus is a ferocious enemy of the novice writer. The adverb has long held the nemesis position, but I offer the thesaurus as a worthy contender.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that novice writers who choose to invest their creativity on a thesaurus are often defensive about it.

Below is an excerpt of a YA manuscript that I recently edited for a beginning writer:

Samuel’s nine-year-old body moved as fast as it could as he took off running down the block. It was a game of chase, and Maria was behind him. She ran with great precipitateness.

There’s more than one problem with the above excerpt, but since we’re focusing on the evil thesaurus, I’ll only pull out the most obvious peeve buried in these thirty-three words: the word precipitateness.

I saw “precipitateness” and suddenly I was no longer running with Samuel as far as his nine-year-old body could take him. Instead I’m going: Huh?

Yes, I know that precipitateness is a word. I even know what it means. But why is it sitting in this paragraph? A word as clunky and awkward as this should be living inside a medical journal or the Oxford English Dictionary, not in Samuel’s game of chase with Maria, unless they’re chasing bad writing technique.

I marked the word and explained why it didn’t work. In true defensive fashion, the writer mounted her defense—one that I’ve heard before when writers defend high-dollar words in otherwise casual prose. She said that I wasn’t giving young readers enough credit.

Blasphemy!

The trouble is she wasn’t giving herself enough credit. But it can be near impossible to explain such things when you’re battling against the comfortable weight of the thesaurus.

I have trouble understanding what writers don’t understand about the value of using the right words—and by “right words” I don’t mean words that a typical American adult would flunk on a spelling test. I’m talking about the real right words.

In my quest for understanding, I’ve broken down the various arguments I’ve heard from novice writers who are determined to keep a thesaurus within arm’s reach. I’ve offered logical counterarguments. At least I hope I have.

  • I don’t want to keep using the same word. This is the most common defense against poorly used dialogue tags. Writers get tired of saying ‘he said’ and ‘she said,’ so they cleverly insert substitutions, like ‘he howled,’ ‘she screamed,’ ‘he growled’ or ‘she whispered.’ Here’s the problem: They aren’t clever. They are the opposite of clever. If you’re writing good dialogue scenes, you won’t need clarifiers like “howled” or “screamed” and if you do, then you aren’t writing good dialogue scenes.

  • I want the writing to stand out. Writing doesn’t stand out because of the individual words you use. It stands out because of how you use them.

  • I don’t want the writing to be simple. Unfortunately when you substitute simple words with complicated ones, you come off as simple. It’s ironic, I know. But it’s true. Imagine you’re having dinner with someone you just met. Instead of saying “I love this restaurant. I hear it has the best food in town. I suggest the fish,” the person says, “I have great adulation for this establishment. I’ve apprehended information that it has preeminent comestibles. I adduce le poisson.” What are you going to think? If you’re anything like me and most other people, you’re going to think two things: 1) Why is this person talking like that? 2) What’re they trying to prove? The answer to the first question is that they have taken the easy road rather than the creative one and all that has been proved is that they don’t trust themselves enough to have a compelling conversation without relying on fancy words.

  • I read Great Expectations or [insert laborious novel here] and it had big words that I didn’t understand. Don’t compare your work to other writers, especially if they are widely considered to be one of the greatest novelists in literary history. Just because James Joyce wrote a 265,000-word novel doesn’t mean that your WIP is the next Ulysses. You can’t break the rules unless you know what the rules are.

I wonder how much creativity would come from the minds of writers if they didn’t rely on crutches. We all have them. Thankfully mine isn’t a thesaurus. I learned long ago that more often than not, a dollar-fifty word is worth less than a penny.

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Erin Entrada Kelly is staff editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her fiction has been published widely in places like Keyhole Magazine, Monkeybicycle and the Kyoto Journal. She was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer National Fiction Prize and the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. She currently has two novels under representation with the Jenks Agency and works as a freelance fiction editor, as well as assistant editor of Thrive Magazine. Read more at www.erinentradakelly.com.

by Joe Kapitan

When I was just starting to write, an author friend of mine posted a link to an essay by the great Tim O’Brien published in the August 2009, entitled “Telling Tails.”   Back then for me, reading O’Brien’s essay was the perfect guidance at the perfect time.  At the risk of cheapening his message and certainly its delivery, I’ll summarize what I learned, but my summary below should not be a reason to skip reading his essay.  Quite the contrary–I hope it sends many of you off to read it.

O’Brien writes that, from his experience, failed fiction is usually caused by a failure of imagination, and if not by that, then by failure of any emotional gravitas or thematic “weight.”  If we turn those statements around, O’Brien believes that successful fiction must have both imagination and emotional heft.  And I say he’s right.  Recall the stories that have gripped you as you read them, and that lingered inside you long afterward.  I’d say they did so because they engaged your intellect and your emotions at the same time.  Consider the classics of short fiction.  Does Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” have both?  Absolutely.  How about O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi?” Yes indeed.  And it’s not just the classics; it’s modern short fiction as well.  What about George Saunders’ “Pastoralia?”  Definitely.

Just yesterday, I read Haruki Murakami’s new short story “Town of Cats” in The New Yorker, and not surprisingly, it nails both.  And that’s important, because one is not enough.  An imaginative story with cardboard characters who aren’t feeling, aren’t at risk, aren’t struggling with something is nothing more than a curiosity, like a pastry shop with windows full of delicious treats that never seems to be open for business.  Curiosity disappears fast when there’s no promise of a deeper experience.  And what about the opposite—emotion gushing from sentences, but all stuck in an uninspired and cliched setting?  Boring puffery, like reading the entire Hallmark stand at the drug store.

In his essay, O’Brien creates some of his own scenarios of repairing these shortcomings, and then holds up Borges’  “Aleph” as a prime example of both fundamentals successfully met.  The concept of Borges’ Aleph, a singular point containing everything, is certainly imaginative, and O’Brien highlights Borges’ exquisite description of it as the main character observes the universe within that singularity.  However, if Borges had stopped there, it would have been a well-executed curiosity bereft of any real power.

Thankfully, he didn’t.  Borges was simply setting up his sucker-punch to the reader’s heart, at the moment when the main character sees, within the singularity, explicit letters written by his love to his arch-enemy.   Now, with a story that reaches both the reader’s intellect and awakens his or her human feelings of betrayal and jealousy, Borges created something satisfying and memorable.

I use Tim O’Brien’s exercise often, to identify what is lacking in my weaker stories.  I simply take a look at the questionable piece I’ve written and ask myself these two simple questions:

Is there something here for the brain to eat?

Is there something here for the heart to eat?

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Joe Kapitan is a full-time architect from Cleveland, Ohio, where the sun doesn’t shine from November to April, giving him ample time to write pale and cranky short fiction.  Read Joe’s definition of “compression” in fiction at Matter Press, and then read how he applies that theory in this flash fiction piece Important Tips on Designing Your Dream House.

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