strategy


by Susan Tepper

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Nathaniel Tower is a writer, teacher, runner, coach and juggler. He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Bartleby Snopes. His short fiction has been published in over 200 online and print journals and has been nominated for numerous awards. You can read more from Nate on his blog.

Susan Tepper:  So what are you like to live with?

Nate Tower: I’m not hard to live with. I’m not the type of person who leaves the toilet seat up or tosses knives slathered with peanut butter in the sink. I try to be tolerable. Yes, I spend too much time on the computer, listen to loud music, and sometimes keep strange hours, but I do my best not to bother anyone. Honestly, I think living with me is pretty easy. Every roommate I’ve ever had has found me agreeable.

Nagging Wives

ST: Hmm… I often wonder how the toilet seat up became a  yardstick for what is  a good or bad husband? At any rate, you wrote a  story collection  titled  Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands that  I would call dramatically funny. I’ve never used this term before but I like it for your book. Are you naturally funny? Does your wife laugh at you? With you? At you in secret?

NT: Dang, what a loaded question. Let me address the toilet seat first. I’m not sure why anyone would ever leave it up. Think of all that goes on in that bowl. Do you really want your whole bathroom constantly exposed to that? Toilets aside, I can now focus on how funny I am. I taught high school English for 9 years, and my students thought I was hilarious. At least one told me that I should’ve been a comedian instead. Looking back, maybe that student was just telling me I was a lousy teacher. If I did a stand-up act, people would demand a refund. But I wouldn’t give them one. But being a comedian isn’t about being naturally funny. I guarantee that 75% of the people I’ve met have laughed. My wife is one of those people. She laughs with me at least twice per week and at me at least once per week. I’d feel confident saying that 50% of my jokes make at least one person laugh. I’d also say that people laugh at me when I’m not trying to be funny with at least 50% success.

ST: Well, you certainly have your stats in order. Since we’ve never met in person, I can’t vouch for your on-site funniness. But I can vouch for the book’s funniness, which totally slayed me. Political satire is at work in this collection. I’m going to “mask” one of your story titles, so as not to give a spoiler alert.

In your story The A Party, a husband and wife attend a particular event at the wife’s insistence. She seems a most modern gal, while the husband is rather conservative (at least by Northeast Democratic standards). You split husband and wife into two dissenting political ideologies. That not only made the story brilliant, and original, but added the ingredient most crucial to all fiction: tension.

NT: I’ve so rarely gotten political in a story, yet several people seem to think this is the best story I’ve written. My intent was never to write a political story though. I was focused on the challenges presented in the relationship. Of all the stories in the collection, this one probably has the most potential to offend. It has the equal potential to offend both sides of the issue. And maybe that’s the best way to write a political short story.

ST: Love is all about politics, though, isn’t it? Who wins which domestic war, who defends what principles (like the toilet seat), who gives up territories in acts of appeasement. You, as the writer, know this instinctively and that’s why these stories play out so well. Conceptually bringing to mind that film “Enemies: A Love Story.”

Your story Skydivers and Pornographers is a total humdinger. It is completely off-the-wall, yet I bought in to every word, every bizarre sexually charged scene. I wanted to meet Marcus, myself, by the time it was over. Can you give us a hint of where this story came from within yourself?

NT: Every writer needs a story where the main character is a porn star, right?

ST: If you say so, Nate. You have brainwashed me into going along with any story idea you develop.

NT: As for its origins, I think it follows a similar line as The A Party. You take two characters with very different ideologies/backgrounds/lifestyles. There’s your tension. You throw in some porn elements. Just imagine what it would be like married to a porn star. Seriously. What percentage of people would feel comfortable in that situation?

ST: None that I know! Or at least who’d admit it.

NT: Of course, that topic in itself isn’t wild enough. So we need a porn star who can “act” while performing astounding feats of physical endurance. Again, a story with what are essentially two so-called ‘enemies’ trying to work things out together, or gain the upper hand.

ST: I bet it was fun to write.

NT: A great deal of fun.

ST: What will come next from the inspiration of Nate Tower? Or do you prefer Nathaniel?

NT: In my daily life, I much prefer people call me Nate, but I like using Nathaniel when I am in author mode. It sounds more distinguished, doesn’t it?

ST: It does! Like Hawthorne, at the very least.

NT: Yes! I could see people, years from now, talking about Nathaniel Tower’s 21st century classic. But I can’t see anyone talking about the work of Nate Tower. Can you imagine a teacher asking his students, “So what do you think Nate was really trying to say with this talking wildebeest?”

As far as the next round of inspiration, I have a few things in the works. An on-going serial novel up at JukePop, Misty Me and Me, which, coincidentally, is kind of an adventure porno story. But not as dirty as it sounds. I also have a novel I’ve been tinkering with for almost 5 years now called The Funeral Attendee. Maybe I will get that all polished up this year. Lastly, I am trying to figure out what to do with my mini-novella, One-Time Use. It’s about a revolutionary new procedure called The Stas Penis that is billed as the future of sex: it enhances pleasure (for both parties), prevents STDs, and has a special feature to keep unwanted pregnancies to a minimum.

ST: Maybe you should get it patented.

NT: It may end up being the feature story in another collection this year. That new one would be a bit more wild than Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands. If you can believe that.

ST: I believe… I believe…

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Susan-Tepper200wSusan 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 2013, 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 Jim Harrington

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I posted a link to 10 Self-Limiting Habits Successful Writers Don’t Have on our Facebook group a few weeks ago and asked readers to list the one habit that best described them. Some of the habits listed in the original post were the “Habit of only writing when you feel inspired,” the “Habit of playing it safe,” and the “Habit of constantly comparing yourself to others.”

I chose #5, the “Habit of negative self-talk,” partially described as writers who “have a habit of running thoughts like ‘I can’t,’ ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m going to fail for sure’ in their heads all day.”

Thinking about this some more, I realize I was wrong. Yes, there are magazines that I will most likely never appear in. But not because I’m not good enough. I have over 200 publication credits. A few of my stories have been selected for “Best of. . .” anthologies. And I’ve been paid for a few stories. No, my stories won’t appear in certain magazines, because those magazines demand a style different from what I’m comfortable writing.

Could I learn to write in those styles? I don’t see why not. I never wrote fiction of any style until later in life. I don’t read a lot of horror fiction, but I’ve had a number of stories published in horror magazines. So, it’s conceivable that someday, if I choose to apply myself, a story of mine might appear on one of “those” zines.

I also manage the Six Questions For. . . blog, where I ask editors what they look for in submissions (and what they don’t want to see). A couple of times after reading an interview I wrote pieces based on the responses and submitted stories. I found the challenge interesting. And guess what? The pieces got published! One I remember appeared in Weird Year. The editor wanted well-written stories that were…well…weird. Here’s what I sent him.

The moral? I am not an inferior writer, and negative self-talk is an erroneous concept. I can write anything I want if I apply myself.

And so can you.

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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 Susan Tepper

Web-Editor

Stephen V. Ramey lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania, once the tin plating capitol of the world. His work has appeared in various places, including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Liquid Imagination. He edits the annual Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink, and the speculative twitterzine, trapeze. Find him at http://www.stephenvramey.com.

Susan Tepper:  “Glass Animals” is a provocative title for a story collection. Do you feel that we, as individuals, represent glass animals?  The combining of the two words is compelling because it is somewhat of a contradiction, if you think of animals in terms of wild animals.

Stephen V. Ramey: Thanks, Susan! Provocative is good, right? “Glass Animals” is one of the stories collected in the anthology and my first impulse was to name the book Glass Animals and Other Stories. It struck me in that moment that the entire collection fits the bill. What I was creating was a glass menagerie, a display of unique characters miniaturized for flash, arranged carefully within their respective niches. Pick them up, though, turn them on your palm, and imperfections appear: fissures and lumps and tiny flaws of form. The figures might crack under scrutiny, or perhaps become even more beautiful, but, yes, I did look for ways to expose hidden truths, one by one by one.

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ST: Provocative is very good, Stephen!

 SVR:  We are glass animals. A veneer of civilized behavior glossed over animal urge makes us fragile.

ST:  Your answer here raises that issue of why people still engage in atrocious forms of behavior toward other humans.   Such as genocides and ethnic cleansings.  Some social scientists have written that it’s stamped into the DNA.   Do you go along with that hypothesis?

 SVR: Ah, nature or nurture. It’s never that simple, I think, but yes I do believe there is a genetic component to our behaviors. In the 90′s I attended a lecture by a Richard Alexander, a prominent Animal Behavior researcher. He looked into the audience, which consisted largely of young scientists, and said, “Whichever of you identifies the gene responsible for we-they thinking, will be famous.” He called the issue of tribalism the single biggest problem facing humanity, and encouraged young scientists to engage in research to identify its core causes and find ways to mitigate its impact in the world.

ST:  It sounds like a fascinating lecture.  I’m so interested in this sort of thing and how it impacts us, and of course then it impacts the art we make.

SVR:  In an increasingly global, technologically advanced civilization, this tribal impulse can cause huge problems. The thinking that: My religion is right, my country is best, my skin color is more evolved.  Troubling. To me, this is similar to addictive personality, in which the first step to overcoming the behavior is to recognize that it exists, with the goal of blunting the impulse before it can manifest.

ST:  Speaking of troubling behavior, let’s discuss your story Sacred in This Light.  This story is lyrical prose with legs, one that creeps up on the reader.  It’s a story of a profound misdeed.  You wrote:

The ground is a battlefield of shadow and light.  Do worms worship flame?  Will ants build monuments to this night?

Despite everything going on this story, I didn’t hate your character.  I should have, but you turned me!  And I still don’t know how you did.   Rather, I found myself startled and absorbed by it all.

SVR:   I think the attraction of this particular character is that he sees the wonder of the world around him; he feels the passion we long to feel in our lives. That’s an attractive quality, at least until we think through what he’s actually  done, the real consequences of it. One of the things I try very hard to do in the stories I write is to understand the motives of my characters at a deep level. I need to love them before I can do them justice on the page.

ST:  Yes!  We need to ‘love’ our characters, whether they are good, bad or indifferent in their made up worlds.  It’s the only way to move them through the pages as alive, believable, realistic beings— not cardboard cut-outs.

Another favorite of mine in the collection is Collision Course.  It starts off straightforward, then keels into another realm.  You wrote:

Ralph’s wife left him for a plumber. He did more than snake their shower drain, it turns out.

Did you, as its author, know the story would veer into this other zone?  Sort of like The Twilight Zone.

SVR:  Ah, poor Ralph… alas, I knew him well. I wrote this story to a visual prompt, as I do for so many of my short pieces. The prompt was a photograph of an outdoor seating area for one of those posh downtown restaurants with the table umbrellas and waiters in white uniforms carrying drinks on trays. I will never understand how this morphed into:

Ralph drives a bus for the city.

But it did, and the story just ignited after that. This is how it often works. I’ll throw a line onto the page and it will interest me, and I’ll follow it up with another that interests me, and all of a sudden I have this morbid philosopher bus driver taking down notes on the shadow forms of reality while he drives a bus through his normal route. It was the shadow forms that threw me onto a new course, and Ralph’s sense of victimization that drove the story to its almost inevitable conclusion from there. This was an intense writing experience. Ralph was just so real to me in his disconnect.

Back to your question, though. No, I had no idea this story would veer as it did. It just sort of took over.

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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 2013, 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 Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Tip #1: Recognize it’s a mythological beast. 

 You might be having trouble writing what you want to write, but you’ve got plenty of words in there. Don’t doubt that!

Tip #2: Don’t scorn those random thoughts! 

My manuscript format template–how I love it. An idea pops into my head–sometimes just a title without a story–I save it into my template, sometimes just name it “New Story/Date,” and don’t worry about it. I haven’t lost that brilliant sentence that just doesn’t happen to be attached to anything at the moment; and when something else isn’t working out, I can browse all those many, many beginnings and see if any of ‘em want to grow.

Tip #3: Don’t try to squeeze out the baby before its time.

I’ve found that my best stories seem to write themselves, and they get mighty cranky if I try to force them.

Tip #4: Throw something on the page.

Banal dialogue, laborious description–anything. A blank page is just–blank–but put a few words on it, and you have something to tinker with.

Tip #5: Don’t treat your creative writing like a production line. 

I’ve read plenty of advice on dealing with that phantom, writer’s block–have a routine, write for a minimum of fifteen minutes every day, etc. etc.–and that may work for some people, but to me, that’s turning joy into misery; art into factory work. I promise you, you haven’t written your last good thing ever; the well isn’t dry. Referring back to Tip #1, you’ve probably got too much in your head rather than too little, and there’s a crush at the door, and they’re all saying, “After you, my dear Alphonse.” Get up, go do something else–preferably not on the computer, if that’s where you write–and, like Scarlett O’Hara, remember that tomorrow’s another day.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Angela Rydell

Angela Rydell

 The very short story writer compensates like a blind man navigating the world with his all senses heightened—empowered because of it, not beaten down.

Flash writers confront a challenge unique to the genre. We’re not just short story writers but “very” short story writers, keepers of the koan-like question, “How do you get more out of less?” The answer requires not just craft but craftiness. Fewer words expand rather than diminish the possibilities for creativity—as long as you’ve got a few tricks up your sleeve. The very short story writer compensates like a blind man navigating the world with his all senses heightened—empowered because of it, not beaten down. We take advantage of what we’ve got to work with, including the mystery of ambiguity.

Visual artists understand this mystery well. We’ve all admired the artist who skillfully creates a line drawing. My husband recently said of an artist friend of his, “In one line—barely picking up her pencil—she can draw a baby jumping over the moon.” This is the “less is more” we strive for.

A colleague of mine, Laurel Yourke, teaches ambiguity by invoking that classic optical illusion of the vase and the faces. The picture captures more than one image simultaneously, depending on your perception. But the lines are clear, as are both interpretations. They might take you a little while to find, but they’re both there. Ambiguity isn’t vagueness. The Latin ambi translates as “on both sides” or “both ways.” That’s the kind of ambiguity we need in a flash—clarity and mystery simultaneously. A few well-defined lines invoke multiple interpretations, and the reader’s imagination fills in the rest.

So what are some techniques we can use to make that happen? Here are seven suggestions for finessing ambiguity in a flash:

1) Maximize both denotation and connotation. A single word can provide more than one meaning. Consider the title of Nicky Drayden’s three sentence story “Pushover,” from Hint Fiction. Here’s the last sentence: “He’s worn me down, weaker than that railing at the canyon’s rim.” Our mind bridges the gap between title and the implications of “worn down.” Picks up on that weak railing, the significance of “canyon’s rim.” Meaning expands as we fill in the blanks, make the connections, and imagine an implied conclusion.

2) Focus image. Home in on a central image or object that stands for more than one thing. In “79:PM,” a story in Amelia Gray’s delightful first collection AM/PM, the protagonist admires her partner’s unusual gold leaf tattoo which makes “a pattern of fish scales across his spine.” She tells him it’s beautiful, and he responds in kind:

“You’re beautiful,” he said, turning his head halfway.
“Not as beautiful as a gold flake.”
He considered it. “Maybe not. It was a very special process.”
“Must have been,” Tess said. She felt sure she would die alone.

The story hinges on the tattoo, and conversation around it. That last line, delivered succinctly, resonates emotionally because each character reacts not just to each other, but to what the image represents. It’s less a question of beauty than where their relationship’s headed.

3) Use dialogue that does double duty. Look at the excerpt from Gray’s story again (quoted above). There’s no chit-chat or extraneous information. The dialogue’s got more than one job to do: It delivers theme. Delivers character. Provides surprising turns. Bare essential plot tensions—that “yearning, challenged or thwarted,” Robert Olen Bulter calls for in his essay in the Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Dialogue, too, is best when it shows rather than tells.

4) Milk metaphor. In Robert Schuster’s “Eclipsed” (from Jerome Sterns’ classic Micro Fiction collection), the 250 word story opens with the central metaphor, which cuts to the heart of the story—fear of death:

“Anxious not to miss the coming darkness, Gavin woke early and watched Dad construct the viewers from boxes. Behind his pile of aluminum foil, cardboard and glue, Dad said: ”You see, when the moon passes in front of the sun, like this,” he held up his hairy fists before his eyes, ”my head, the earth, gets dark.”

The story centers on the eclipse, a strong symbolic core, as a young boy contemplates his father’s mortality. Double meaning abounds from beginning to end—the literal eclipse and the metaphorical.

5) Exploit contrast. Throw a purple pillow on a yellow couch, and because the colors are opposites on the color wheel, the pillow pops. In “Athens by Night” by Sandra Jensen, barely a line goes by without some kind of intriguing contrast. The setting embodies opposition: It’s Valentine’s Day, yet there’s a break up. They’re at the Athens Hilton—high status. But the young pov character is “drinking Coca Cola.” “Demitris the millionaire” proposes to the pov character’s mom, and the scene toys with highs—it’s a rooftop bar—and lows, plummeting at the end to the blunt, “We remained poor as dirt.” The juxtaposition inherent in good contrast allows readers to see distinctions even more clearly and intensely. Opposition’s implicit, and writers say more with less.

6) Nail irony. Reality’s hard to pin down, even in a three-hundred page novel. But irony, the ultimate literary contrast, nails incongruities between expectations and the realities we’re confronted with. Much good flash fiction thrives on it. Another memorable story from Sterns’ Micro Fiction collection, Maryanne O’Hara’s “Diverging Paths and All That,” finesses double irony as distracted Dollar Saver customers watch “Nixon resign on twenty TV sets” while a boy filches “Hershey bars and Bic pens” and quips, “I really save my dollars here.”

7) Embrace context. The phrase “context clues” might sound like a blast from the past, a high school English teacher telling you how to suss out meaning. But think of it in reverse. What clues are you going to give your readers so they can figure out what’s happening in the brief light of your flash? Too few, and readers scratch their heads, unsure whether a story that starts “shots pounded around him” is about a guy in a bar or a war zone. If the story doesn’t clear that up pronto, it’ll fizzle fast. Yes, you want to leave room for the reader’s imagination to fill in blanks. But you mustn’t leave too many blanks or too few clues to bridge gaps. A few context clues can make all the difference.

Whether or not Hemingway penned the classic six worder “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn,” the story’s stayed with us in part because the context (implied in “for sale”) allows readers to interpret the underlying tragedy. Like the clean structure of a good joke, very short stories need set up. But set up doesn’t mean a lengthy or even brief explanation of who’s who, where characters are and why readers should care. Often immersion’s the way to go. Let context clues orient the reader as the story unfolds, even if the whole story’s just a sentence or two. Subtly offer readers just enough clues to the mystery that lies ahead.

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Angela Rydell is a poet, novelist, short fiction writer, and writing instructor. Her stories and poems have appeared in journals both in print and online, including The Sun, Indiana Review, NANO Fiction, Flashquake, Crab Orchard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review and elsewhere. Angela’s flash fiction won the Portland Review’s inaugural Flash Fiction Friday contest, was a finalist in the American Short(er) Fiction Prize, and received honorable mention in the New Millennium Writings Awards Flash Fiction Contest. She lives in Madison, WI, where she teaches creative writing courses in UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies, including the online workshop Fiction in a Flash.

 

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