strategy


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

It’s like the pangs of afterbirth. There’s your lovely story, ready to send out, and you can’t for the life of you think what to call it.

Happened to me once. Put a working title on a flash piece so I could at least submit it. Revised the title when I did the rewrite, but knew it was still a dud. The right one finally came to me, literally in the nick of time, shortly before the due date, so to speak. And to my enormous relief, one commenter remarked that the title was perfect for the tale. If she’d known how I sweated that one. . .

I’ve looked in some strange places for titles. I loathe, fear and despise mathematics, but my offspring has a gift for it. Go figure. And it so bothers me, being locked out of that world he inhabits so naturally, that with the bounteous help of Wikipedia, I’ve named a number of my stories for mathematical or scientific concepts. Those titles sounded so elegant, while making me feel closer to my kid. And strangely, they expressed just what I wanted to say.

Without the intuitively perfect title, a story’s luster is a little dimmed. And a bad or mediocre title may keep readers away from a piece they might have truly enjoyed.

If you’re struggling to name your story, take a little break. I once had to leave something alone for a couple of months, until my main character’s voice called to me so clearly that the right title fell naturally into place. It was frustrating not to be able to submit something I believed in and had worked hard on, but part of growing into your craft is recognizing when you haven’t fully achieved your intent, and waiting until you do.

Resist the urge to slap something on your story because you’re facing a deadline or just want to mark it as completed. You don’t want any child you love to go out into the world ill-named.

____________

 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 Rohini Gupta

A previous version of this post appeared on Rohini’s blog.

Rohini Gupta

A friend asked a question: Why do you write?

I thought about it and I had no answer. Why do I write?  I have been writing all my life—but why?

It’s rarely easy. Writing itself is an effort of will, usually a balancing act, caught in the cracks between work and family commitments. You must take whatever moments you can, steal time to write, cutting out other pleasures in a desperate and sometimes secret attempt to squeeze a little more writing time from an almost empty tube.

You might drift into many professions because it just happened that the opportunity presented itself but not this one. Writing is a treadmill—if you are not running desperately in place to keep up you will get thrown right off it.

Money is not the reason either. It is not a profession which leads quickly to an obese bank account. Sometimes, as in poetry, it leads to no bank account at all. Poetry is notorious for it—poetry and money just don’t live in the same town.

Does that ever stop poets from writing? Of course not.

So what is it? Success?

Very few writers achieve success. In the days of traditional publishing, many writers never got published. In today’s age of self-publishing you can self-publish and then just disappear in the flood of other books.

A handful achieve fame and fortune. But that has never stopped anyone from writing.

So what is it? What keeps you going, year after year, alone, doubting yourself, struggling with the knives and daggers of rejection, wounded over and over and yet picking yourself up from the gutter again and again, reinventing yourself when all doors seem to be shut, losing yourself in another story while the old ones moulder unread.

It’s a minor miracle that anyone lasts in this field—but some do.

You grow two skins. One is tender, soft and sweet, with the poet’s fingertip sensitivity and the openness to the flow of words.

The other is tougher than rhinoceros hide—you need that when the rejections begin. Make no mistake, you will always need the rhinoceros hide—even success cannot insulate you.

So why go through all that and write?

Why?

You do not write for the externals, for the gains. It is something internal. The act of writing itself.

You don’t write for readers. Your readers are usually your writing friends and writing group members. Will you have millions of fans one day? You can hope but you cannot be sure. Even successful writers are not sure.

All books are not equal, even by the same writer. Writers say that a book from which they expected great success flopped and another, written in a spare thoughtless moment, somehow caught the reader’s imagination. Readers may love you or ignore you, but will that stop you writing?

So why do you write?

You write to write.

Something magical happens when you write and especially when you write poetry or fiction. You connect to the creative part of you, what you might call the Muse.

It opens a universe. It takes you out of yourself. It fills you with magic quite unknown in this prosaic, unimaginative world. For that magnificence what will you not do?  Everything else is dwarfed by those starry moments.

So perhaps, that is the answer to why you write.

You write for companionship—your own.

You write to meet yourself at the deepest and most profound level. The ancients called it ‘yoga’—union with yourself.

You write because without words to express it, the world is brittle and prickly and almost unlivable.

You write to survive and you write to become.

Most of all, you write because it gives you wings.

____________

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.

 

by Jim Harrington

jimharrington2

I asked members of our Facebook New and Emerging Writers Group if they listened to music while they wrote, or if they preferred silence. It wasn’t a scientific poll, and only a handful responded. The majority replied “yes” or “it depends.” One stated having music playing through earbuds while writing in Starbucks was a necessity. A few indicated they wrote best in silence.

What prompted the question was a series from a few years ago called Inside Creative Writing by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, in which he lets listeners peek over his shoulder while he writes a story. The series consists of seventeen one-hour sessions. If nothing else, you should watch the first twenty to thirty minutes of Session 1 to learn how Mr. Butler chooses a story and begins the writing process. Part of this is selecting music to play in the background. And if you listen long enough, you’ll see that he changes the music to match the mood the story grows into.

Even though the response was small, the comments echoed others I’ve read. I fall into the “it depends” group. If I don’t have music playing, it’s most often because an idea came to me and I rushed to get words written down before they scurried into a deep, dark abyss. By the way, I have some light jazz playing as I write this.

When I play music, it’s either jazz or classical, and it must be instrumental music. Singing, for some reason, is distracting. When I stopped to reread what I’d written to this point, I noticed my foot tapping to a blues beat. I wasn’t aware of this until I paused. So, singing equals distracting, tapping foot equals not distracting. I wonder what else I do while in a writing zone that I’m unaware of. I’d ask my wife, but I’m not sure I want to know.

One required series of courses for my undergrad work in music education was on the history of the major periods of classical music (Renaissance, Baroque, Classic, Romantic, etc.). The last course was Twentieth Century Music, where we studied the later, atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg, works like Dripsody by Hugh Le Caine, where a single drop of water was replicated many times and permuted into a rhythmic piece, and 3′ 22″ by John Cage.

In the latter, the performer sat at a piano for three minutes and twenty-two seconds doing nothing. What did you say? Sat? Didn’t play anything? That’s correct. The idea was to show the audience that there is no such thing as silence.

One of my professors experienced this first-hand. He befriended a gentleman who claimed to have built a completely soundproof room. Interested, the professor visited his new friend to experience the room for himself. When he stepped out of the room, he said,

“I thought the room was soundproof.”

“It is,” said the friend.

“No, it’s not. I heard two sounds, a high pitch and a low pitch.”

“Oh, those. The low pitch was your heart beating. The high pitch was blood moving through your veins and arteries.”

I know, creepy. However, it does show there’s no such thing as silence. As humans, we train ourselves to block out unwanted sound (a.k.a. noise). Don’t believe me? Here’s an exercise.

Step One: Get a kitchen timer, or open your smartphone’s timer app, or guesstimate a time.
Step Two: Set the timer for two minutes.
Step Three: Turn off any music playing.
Step Four: Sit back, close your eyes, clear your mind of all thoughts, and listen.
Step Five: When your time is up, write down all of the sounds you heard.

It was pretty quiet this morning. Here’s my list.

two cars drove by
a car door shut
the furnace turned on
an unknown buzzing sound (probably from our ancient refrigerator)
a clock ticking
my mother called—had to start over :)

 Of course, your results will vary. Some sounds can be ignored (cars driving by), others can’t (mother’s call). And some sounds may provide a story prompt. Play “what if” with the sounds on your list to see if any of them lead anywhere.

Playing music or requiring silence when we write is analogous to outlining vs pantsing. We need to find out what works best for us and not determine our process based on what others do. Experimenting is part of this, also. If you’ve never had music playing, put some on. If you always write with music in the background, turn it off. See what happens.

Another thought came to me as I read the responses to my question. Would it help set the mood and develop characters if the music playing in the background reflected the time period of the story? For example, for a historical piece would it be helpful to play music from that era, like Glen Miller for a story set in pre-World War II America. Or maybe music from Star Wars, or Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss (a theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey)? Don’t have any of these pieces in your music collection? Online services like Pandora, Spotify, and others have the capability to fill the void.

 ______________________

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 Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

Over the next few months Flash Fiction Chronicles will be taking an in-depth look at Genre. Each month we’ll define one of the most popular genres and its related sub-genres, with input from writers and editors in that field.

Before we start however, I talked to authors and editors working in Romance, Fantasy and Science Fiction,  and asked them if genre matters and why. Then we talked about the things that, regardless of genre, make a flash fiction piece successful.

Does Genre Matter?

“Friendships have been forged and broken over the question ‘What is science fiction?’”
-Linda Nagata

Ask any writer “What do you write?” and watch their eyes narrow as they try to define exactly what it is that they do.

The genre question is difficult because humans — and the stories we tell — are complicated. Researcher Pavel Frelik explains,

“Any text — whether genre or mainstream — will inevitably inhabit more than one and usually multiple generic territories.”

So why do publications and bookstores insist on requiring stories to fit into one genre or another?

The quick answer is: audience.

“The advantage of writing in one genre is that an author can build a reader base that is dependable,” says Kat de Falla, publisher of Romance Flash, a site dedicated to a single genre. “Harlequin is a great example of using a formula that works, that brings readers back again and again to the same kind of story.”

Faith Brougham, writer and Fantasy flash fiction editor, agrees.

“Know your audience,” she says, adding that this is crucial to the success of your story in the marketplace.

Understanding readers’ expectations is key to placing your work in the right publications, or in the places where your readers hang out. Remember, genre classifications are less about defining your work and more about helping readers to find the kind of stories they enjoy.

Finding Common Ground

Short-short fiction is often discussed in language familiar to comedy writers: timing, the wind-up, the punchline.

Comedian Bob Newhart made his name with a stand-up routine based on one-sided telephone calls. In a recent interview, Newhart said,

“That applause at the end of the routine? The people are actually applauding themselves. What I’m saying is not necessarily funny; it’s what you don’t hear that’s funny — and the audience supplies that.”

Flash fiction, in its brevity, is like a one-sided conversation where the reader supplies the information the writer can only hint at.

Newhart explains why this relationship between the storyteller and the audience works.

“It presumes a certain intelligence in the listener and I think they appreciate that.”

Writing about flash fiction, S. Joan Popek points out that

“The writer must depend on the readers’ experiences to fill in the gaps.”

Understanding genre is one of the ways you can find an audience that shares your interests, experiences and the imagery you need to use to compress your story into the flash fiction form.

Beyond Genre

Of course, if we’re going to talk about genre there is a question we need to address: does the definition of ‘a good story’ change between genres?

Mark Budman, publisher of the longest-running online ‘zine for Flash Fiction, Vestal Review, doesn’t think so.

“We don’t pay attention to a genre. If it works, it works…I don’t want to impede the writer’s creativity, and I want to give the reader a variety of experience.”

In talking to many genre experts for this series, I discovered several themes running through all their advice.

Emotion

Regardless of genre, all the experts agreed that what readers (and editors) crave most is a connection with the characters.

“Emotion, emotion, emotion,” says Kat de Falla, when asked what makes romantic flash fiction work.

For Linda Nagata, too, it goes beyond simple mechanical writing skills.

“A great story from any genre needs to be well-written and emotionally gripping with interesting, well-drawn characters.”

Vestal Review‘s Mark Budman looks for that connection with the reader in a slightly different form.

“Energy. The high level of energy that sustains the story. It’s like short distance running.”

(Notice how no-one stressed ‘good grammar’, or ‘original ideas’ or even ‘sticking perfectly to the word count’ when defining a successful flash fiction story?)

Effective Language

Faith Brougham has some great cross-genre advice for flash writers. Since there is little room for world-building in her favorite genre, fantasy, Brougham says,

“Only describe what’s different and what matters. Everything else is filler. Leave it out.”

So much for ‘what not to say’. How do we keep short-short stories from becoming dry lists of ‘things that happen’? In her classic essay on Flash Fiction, Camille Renshaw says,

“In a short space some thread must hold the story together. A recurring image can always do this.”

Write A Great Ending

With so few words, how are we supposed to end stories? We’ll explore this more in our genre series, but the cross-genre advice was clear. Whether you choose a twist ending, to end on a declaration or a piece of dialogue or a poignant image, the most important thing, summed up by Mark Budman of Vestal Review, is to stop when you have

“delivered the punch and run out of breath.”

 

And on that note, see you next month for the first of our in-depth looks at different genres.

____________

Julie Duffy writes short fiction and is the host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay.org.

 

by Aliza Greenblatt

Daniel Zundi

Daniel Zundl writes horror, science fiction and other speculative fiction. He lives in northern New Jersey with his wife. In addition to his current career as an immigration attorney, he was a pyro technician, a grounds keeper and a video store clerk. In addition to writing, his hobbies include hiking, fishing and hunting.

Aliza Greenblatt: So if my research is correct, I believe “Digital Commute” is your first publication. Congratulations! How does it feel to be a published writer? How long have you been writing stories?

Daniel Zundi: Yes, this is my first published work. To be honest, it feels a little surreal. I got the news that my story was selected for publication the day before I was getting married, so it was pretty much one of the best weeks of my life. I’ve been writing fiction since I was eleven or twelve. Kind of an embarrassing story, but my first works were writing fan-fiction for a friend’s newsletter. I found I enjoyed it so much I just kept writing even after everyone had lost interest in the newsletter. When I first started writing I never thought about publication, I did it because I found catharsis in the narrative process. Things in a story don’t happen by accident, nothing’s random. I like that.

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

DZ: Process is a very generous term for my writing style. Usually, I get an idea followed by a manic burst of creative energy in which I write as much as I possibly can in one sitting. Then, bit by bit, I flesh out the skeleton of the idea until it can stand on its own. I usually ask one or more friends to read it, use their notes to make changes or argue with them about why I don’t think it needs to be changed (and then make the changes they suggested anyway). Afterwards, I let it sit for a day or two and re-read it. If I still like it after all that I start submitting it to various venues based on the content of the story.

I think that the most important part of the writing process for me is fleshing out the bones of a story. A good concept is important, but for me turning that concept into a story is difficult, it requires a flash of inspiration. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a great idea but I couldn’t make the characters come alive or turn it into a narrative.

AG: On your  blog there is line which I love: “I think that all great stories start, in some degree, as an escape from the ordinary, a way of looking at the world around you and seeing something bizarre and interesting.” What were the seeds that started this story?

DZ: My wife provided the seed of this story. We were talking about teleporters and she said the word “digitizer,” which I think is from the Tim Allen movie Galaxy Quest. But it occurred to me that if a teleporter existed it would have to compress the information of the thing it was transporting into a form that could be used by a computer, namely binary. I also knew that audiophiles prefer analog formats, especially records or reel-to-reel tapes, because the analog form contains more information than the digital. I wondered what the rounding off of a person might be like. The fact that my daily commute was a little over an hour a day gave me the idea to explore the concept through the everyday user, a lawyer like myself.

AG: The theme of this story is  captured in one line: “A million inconsequential advances added up to an unrecognizable future.” Do you see this happening with some of the technology we have now? How?

DZ: Absolutely. For example the communication industry has changed the entire shape of our society, from the language we use right down to the way we walk down the street. Even the physical landscape has changed; the mountains near my home town are lined with cell towers. We’re living in a world where connectivity is the norm and solitude is strictly for the eccentric.

Cell phones for example have become the mechanism through which people digitally commute. In my parent’s generation, if a person wasn’t at work they weren’t accountable to their bosses. Now, if my boss wants to reach me he can call me, and if that doesn’t work he can text or email me. I no longer have an excuse for not being reachable. I’m not necessarily saying these advancements are bad, they allow me personally to keep in touch with people I haven’t physically seen in years, but I do think that depending on how a given technology is used it can be a force for good or ill.

AG: As I read the story, it occurred to me that the pieces the narrator lost of himself were things he might have lost anyway as he aged. But in this case, the change happened much more rapidly. Do you think the narrator will learn how to cope without his missing pieces? Would anyone believe him if he tried to explain?

DZ: Wow, that’s a complicated question. I wonder to what degree the narrator’s losses are real or just imagined and if those that are real can be attributed to the teleporter instead of the inevitable march of time. I guess that doesn’t really answer your question. I think it will be very difficult for the narrator to cope. To some extent everyone struggles with aging and losing their abilities, it’s the struggle against time that keeps the anti-aging industry in business.

The narrator’s problems are more serious because, even if just in his own mind, he has only himself to blame. He saw that things were changing, he knew from his phone call to the company that he would lose parts of himself, yet he continued to teleport. When he looks in the mirror and sees an unfamiliar face looking back at him it will be difficult to blame anyone but himself and guilt might be the hardest thing he has to face.

Whether people will believe him is another complicated question. How do you prove you can’t taste a particular flavor anymore? I think a portion of the population, namely those without teleporters, would be more inclined to believe him, if simply because they think the rich are getting their comeuppance. At the same time, I think people who just bought a teleporter would be reluctant to believe him. Trying to convince someone of something subjective is practically impossible

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?

DZ: Well, to be honest with you I have ADD so my attention is usually split between a number of endeavors. Right now I’m editing a manuscript for a novel, writing the first draft of another, I have two completed stories I’m shopping around and a half dozen other stories I’m in various stages of writing and editing. Other than Digital Commute, I don’t have anything else your readers could view right now. However, I will post any updates about my writings on my blog.

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

__________________

Aliza profile-pic-2Aliza 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

 

Next Page »