strategy


by Thomas Kearnes

ThomasCow

I haven’t written a story under 1,000 words in well over a year. Even then, I wrote only one new flash during all of last year and just two new ones in 2012. I’ve published older pieces here and there, either sprucing up something previously left for dead or remarketing a piece after its original online home went dark. That said, I’ve definitely kept busy. I crank out roughly three short stories a month, maybe four or five if they’re on the shorter side (say, 2,500 words). If school and work eat up my leisure time, I feel secure in the knowledge I have enough shorts available for publication that I needn’t worry about running low and missing an opportunity.

None of this, however, explains why I’ve drifted away from flash in the last couple of years. The discipline was certainly good to me. I’ve found homes for far more short-shorts than I have traditional shorts. Part of that, though, is due to the fact I’ve written far more flashes than longer pieces. To decompress after tearing through a new first draft, I scanned the last couple of years of FFC. I paid special attention to revered flash writers (like Randall Brown and Meg Pokrass) explaining the appeal of the discipline and what they believed made flash a discipline unto itself as opposed to just a really short story.

I’ve come to the conclusion that despite whatever flash publications backed my work, I was never really a flash writer. At least, not in the vein of those I’ve been learning about through their own explanations and their work itself. My most dramatic difference with what I assume is the prevailing wisdom on flash is that I refuse to embark on a first draft unless I have a three-act narrative securely in mind. (Yes, sometimes I outline my longer shorts.) Depending on images and sounds and unicorns to convey my message to readers freezes my heart with terror. Narrative is the backbone of my fiction, the base from which all other elements originate. I admire flashes that eschew conventional storytelling, but I’ll never pretend to understand how they work.

I kept plugging away at the discipline, however, and I’m not proud of my reasoning. Simply put, I considered a 1,000-word story far less of a gamble of time and energy than a 20-page marathon. If a flash fails, you’ve only lost an hour or two. If a story five times that length fails, you’ve lost one or two weeks. The arithmetic seduced me. Also, there are scores more venues seeking flash than short stories, at least online. If a particular flash was reasonably well-executed, marketing was sometimes a breeze. Contrast that with having to pound the pavement for a year or longer with a short story, even a terrific one.

Also, it’s only recently that I acquired enough confidence to hop from one longer piece to the next. I’ve received enough positive feedback from peers and editors to believe I can pull off a work of fiction that’s 4,000 words or longer. My problem now, and what will continue to be my problem, is selecting the most compelling premise of the dozens I have swirling inside my head. (There are plenty of bad ideas in the mix, of course.) Still, it’s a huge relief to know I can construct a narrative of enough complexity to run past 15 pages.

Perhaps another reason I clung to flash fiction so long without truly understanding it was that I was too nervous about striking out in new directions. As any of you familiar with my flash fiction can attest, I had a basic formula: let one scene in kitchen-sink realist style play out in real time. Occasionally, I experimented with second-person narration or quasi-prose-poem affectations, but well over three-fourths of my flash stories fell under the “one-scene wonder” category. It still humbles me to realize that all along, I was submitting to editors who likely viewed scene-driven flash as the mark of the amateur. (I should also mention that back then I rarely read flash publications or flash writers discussing their craft. I was petrified I’d discover everything I was doing was wrong, wrong, wrong.) What can I say? I was an amateur, and my one saving grace was a knack for conjuring lapel-grabbing premises.

Also, flash fiction allowed me to rummage through all the baggage of my romantic and sexual pasts and still convince myself that I was creating actual art instead of psychotherapeutic dribbling. Yes, I know, a couple of years ago, I encouraged all of you to excavate your personal histories for flash. If you decide to do this, however, I’d caution that you embark on that particular first draft because you firmly believe general readers will enjoy it, not because you just need to vent.

All this said, I will forever be thankful I toiled at flashes for as long as I did, because it gave me a crash course in several aspects of fiction writing and publishing. Most importantly, I learned to line-edit, cutting every unnecessary word, every deadwood phrase. This skill has served me well with my longer fiction, often allowing me to excise as many as 750 words from a first draft. Secondly, I learned how to conduct myself with editors far more quickly than if I’d been submitting only longer pieces.

I’ve learned that speculation about my future as a writer or about the future of publishing itself is a waste of time. Maybe flash will continue to rise in prominence. Maybe flash will hit a dead end once faced with a general readership that has no clue how to appreciate it. Maybe scene-driven flash will come in vogue. After all, even unicorns can overstay their welcome.

____________

Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. His two collections are Pretend I’m Not Here (Musa Publishing) and Promiscuous (JMS Publishing). His fiction has appeared in Litro, The Adroit Journal, The Ampersand Review, PANK, Word Riot, Eclectica, SmokeLong Quarterly, wigleaf, Storyglossia, A cappella Zoo, Spork, The Pedestal, Digital Americana Magazine and elsewhere. His work has also appeared in several LGBT venues, such as Diverse Voices Quarterly, Diverse Arts Project, Educe Journal, and the Best Gay Stories series. He is studying to become a drug dependency counselor. He lives near Houston.

[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 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

 

by Rohini Gupta

Rohini Gupta

There are many reasons why writers fail and one of the biggest–and deadliest–of them is distraction.

You probably recognize its symptoms. You are working well and then you feel like taking a break. Then you remember unfinished chores. You think, let me answer my email and then come back. That is the untimely end of your writing day.

At night, you wonder what happened, where the day went and why was it that, once again, you got no writing done.

There are people for whom this is a chronic condition. I have a friend who leaves early morning on an errand and comes back, late at night, having done a lot of small unconnected things, but not the errand.

Been there, done that.

There was a time when I, too, lived in that garbage heap, amid the obscenely unfinished story bits, novel ideas, dangling lines of poems, rotting remnants of chapters and books. I felt trapped and frustrated and needed a way out but everyone I asked was in the same leaky, listing, capsizing boat.

I had to turn inwards and look at my own behavior instead.

The breaks were the problem. Once I took a break I never returned. So I tried to take no breaks at all. That was even worse. My writing bogged down at once and my stress levels hit the roof.

So, I asked, what happens when I take a break?

That was when I saw that invisible, insidious second bird.

This is how it goes.

Every few hours, distraction hits. One shy bird alights on your shoulder whispering, don’t you want some coffee? Ignoring it does not help. It will not go away.

So, you follow the first bird and make a cup. So far, so good.

The mischief begins here. Distraction never comes alone. It comes in flocks. The first bird leads to a second, Now that you are up, why not finish that job you keep putting off?

If you go there it leads you to the graveyard of writing dreams.

It is difficult to see, but once I caught sight of that second bird, the solution turned out to be surprisingly easy and immediate to implement. It was one of the most important things I ever learned and it took me all the way to the publication of a book.

It worked for me. It worked for a few others who had the same problem. Maybe it will work for you and take you right to the threshold of your dreams.

This is the key.

That first bird is your friend. When it shows up, suggesting a break, take one. Even a long one. The length does not matter. You need that break to refresh and recharge. Take as many breaks as you need.

The second bird is your enemy, the masked and cloaked super villain who only wants to see your writing career die. It reminds you of all the things you have not done.

It has repetitive complaints–too hard, too long, too terrible.

This is too hard. How about working on that story you put away a year ago?

It’s taking too long, why not finish a quick one first?

The first draft is terrible, better try something else.

The second bird speaks in the voice of your doubts and fears and takes you down a very dark road indeed.

What you have to do is wait for it and recognize it.

When it does appear with its siren call, be firm, no, I am going right back to the very sentence I left. Be determined and return to the same page. Be clear in your mind, I will finish this before I go to anything else.

I always finish what I start. I am a finisher.

Get into the habit of finishing everything even if it is worthless. A particular story may be no good but the habit of finishing is worth all the wealth in the world.

That one small adjustment will enable you to leave the junkyard far behind and enter the blue summer skies of writing completion.

It’s a very simple rule.

Go with the first bird and take all the breaks. Relax, enjoy.

Then, return and pick up exactly where you left off.

Never, ever, follow that career destroying, morale sapping second bird.

____________

Rohini Gupta is a writer living by the sea in Mumbai, with a houseful of dogs and cats while working on short stories, poetry and a book. Her blog is at http://wordskies.wordpress.com.

 

 

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