Workshops


by Gaius Coffey

A consistent theme in writing books and blogs is the advice to seek out honest feedback. It’s a pretty straightforward argument — if you’d thought there was a problem in your prose, you’d have fixed it, right? So, any remaining problems are problems you cannot see. You cannot fix problems you cannot see, so you recruit somebody who can. A trusted reader.

It’s difficult to imagine any credible objection to that position and the majority of writers pay lip-service to the importance of seeking out good critique.

But what do writers do with that feedback?

When experienced writers talk about critique on forums, they repeatedly assert that it is up to each individual to choose how to respond. After all, some critiques say more about the person making the comment than the work they are talking about. Some advice is not in line with what the writer intends. And, yes, some advice is just wrong. To incorporate every single piece of advice and respond to every criticism is to edge toward madness.

And I have no difficulty with that position either.

But there’s a conflict somewhere in here. The feedback that is most likely to be discarded is the feedback the writer finds hardest to accept. The hardest feedback to accept is likely to be an issue the writer can’t see. And that strikes at the whole purpose of feedback; to highlight issues that the writer can’t see.

It is common for writers to follow a statement about the importance of critique with a caveat about types of critique they ignore. This can take a number of forms;

  • “…doesn’t [read my genre / get my work / like my style]…”
  • “…not really my target audience…”
  • “…they can’t see I was using [technique] deliberately to [something else they missed].”
  • “…I switch off when they start quoting [rule]. A good writer knows when to break the rules…”

Insidious statements like these undermine critique even before it is given. They are attractive because there is often a grain of truth in them, but they betray a prejudice on the part of the writer about who is “qualified” to comment on their work. That prejudice makes it too easy to discard opinions without thought.

To benefit from feedback, writers must be open to hearing, and considering, honest opinions about their work. That means respecting readers and accepting that their reactions are valid whether or not they “got” what you were trying to do. But if I am advocating listening to everyone who comments on your work, how do you avoid the spiralling madness of a critique junkie struggling to satisfy conflicting and confusing comments from multiple sources?

To paraphrase Neil Gaiman (point 5, here): Listen to all your readers to find out where the problems are, but use your own judgement to determine if they are valid and how to resolve them if they are.

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Gaius Coffey’s story “Alone, Not Lonely” was shortlisted for the 2010 Fish Publications One-page Story competition. His story “Terry and the Eye” was Every Day Fiction’s most read story in March, 2010. He lives in Dublin with his wife, two cats and a baby daughter; the latter being as much an inspiration to write as an impediment to writing resulting, on balance, in bafflement.

by Michelle Reale

Michelle Reale: Len, first of all you are one of my favorite flash fiction writers. Second, you are extremely prolific—lucky for your readers! How do you manage this?

Len Kuntz: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. I’ve wanted to be a writer since age nine, so it’s very flattering and humbling to have someone like my stuff. I’m very lucky, because I retired from the corporate world about six years ago and now I write full time. I try to write every day. I try to get 2,000 to 4,000 words down, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Even though most people call me prolific, the truth is I’m kind of a slacker and should be writing much more than I do. Honestly. I mean, I have the ability to write all day, every day. I just fight what all writers fight—that subconscious which will have us doing almost anything—yard work, dishes—but write.

Michelle: How did you start writing flash fiction?

Len: I didn’t even know what flash was. I started writing seriously about two years ago. They were all 4,000 word short stories. I sent them to the traditional lit journals via postal mail—it was arduous, archaic and, I eventually realized, idiotic. Then I learned about the online literary community. I was fascinated.

It sort of blew my hair off. People like Kim Chinquee, Brandi Wells, xTx, Roxane Gay, Matt Bell and Meg Pokrass—they were the early ones who really inspired me, and I basically just studied the hell out of them, trying to learn the craft by reading everything they wrote and submitting to the places where they got published.

Michelle: You are a poet, as well.  Do you write in both forms concurrently or do you tend to concentrate on one over the other for a certain period  of  time?

Len: Actually, it just depends on what I’m reading at the time. Whenever I read poetry, I feel this huge surge to  compose poetry. Same with flash. Same with novels. When I write a novel, however, I have to consciously stop reading flash and poetry or it’ll pull me too far away from the bigger story.

Novelists are my heroes. Teachers, soldiers and novelists.

Michelle: Which form do you believe expresses what you want to say, best?

Len: Flash is my favorite. I like something sharp and tight, like getting a bullet to the heart, so that the person walks away shaking their head, feeling a sting for the rest of the day, if not longer.

Michelle: One of your predominant themes seems to be the body, which fascinates me. Stories such as “Thoroughly Modern Families,” “Skin,” “Motion Sickness,” and “Medicine and Meat” are incredibly inventive and vivid. How do stories like these come about?

Len: You picked some of my more bizarre pieces there! For longer stories, I usually have a theme or idea in mind. With poetry I find a line I like and just start writing. But I never really thought I had a fixation with “the body.” Maybe I do. Usually my central themes are about broken people, damaged families, abandoned or wounded children. All of the pieces you mentioned above cover those subjects. “Medicine and Meat” is a tough story (“You wouldn’t expect a little girl like me to have such a big penis inside her panties, but I do…”) about rape and vengeance. The body parts are sheer symbolism.

Michelle: Your micro piece “A Parent Your Own Age,” hit me in my solar plexus. I read with an eye towards poignancy. If there is suffering, I am sure to find it. I don’t want to pick apart the piece so much that the mystery and magic is laid entirely bare, but please talk about the writing of this piece.

Len: I wrote that at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop this summer. We were doing days of free writes. One day we were given a selection of titles, so I picked “A Parent Your Own Age.” Without saying too much, I know someone like the woman featured in the story, and so I tried to imagine what her life might have been like—all the raw tragedy—that eventually brought her to the polished, steely sort of way she ended up being as an adult. I think we all have had bad things happen to us, dark secrets and whatnot. I like to bring that to life. I don’t know why, exactly, but it’s the stuff I’m drawn to and that I find interesting. Happy stories don’t do a thing for me.

Michelle: “Happy Campers” made me squirm. You so nailed those types of conversations where people who love each other often have: passive aggressive with anger pulsating just beneath the surface. Does the “chick squirrel” really want the “red-faced curmudgeon” to choke to death in the woods?

Len: Maybe. Well, yes and no. Some spouses have that love/hate thing, don’t they?

Michelle: I have been fortunate on many occasions to receive incredibly kind kudos from you on my work and encouragement to go further. You are a wonderful presence on Facebook and you always have something nice to say to everyone—you are incredibly supportive. Tell me how the online writing community of flash fiction writers inspires you and how it has changed and/or influenced your writing.

Len: Well, Michelle, you’re a fantastic writer. Really, you are, so it’s easy to tell you that. As writers, we’re so lucky to have this incredible community to associate with. It makes the world small. And I love all things writerly. People like Sara Lippman, Meg Tuite, Robert Vaughn, Nicolette Wong, Cheryl Gardner—they’ve really gone out of their way for me and what’s impressive is—with the exception of Sara—I’ve never even met them. I always feel compelled to tell someone when I admire their work. It’s actually a thrill to be able to connect with other authors (remember, I love all things writerly.) Plus, I know how good it feels to have someone say, “Nice job.” It can get very lonely, this writing thing we do, to the point where you go, Why even bother? So, a kind, honest word from someone goes a long way.

Michelle: Who are your flash heroes and why?

Len: There are so many. Here are some I haven’t mentioned yet: Aubrey Hirsch nails it every time. Julie Innis—she can be incredibly poignant or remarkably funny, often at the same time. Riley Michael Parker writes with razor blades. Brian Olio paints gems like “she’s a name you once knew, the death of a star.” Kevin Sampsell says the things we’ve all lived. Barry Graham makes an overloaded ashtray seem sexy. Ben Loory—every one of his stories is a fable with loads of depth. And Sam Pink—I don’t even know if this guy is a real person, but he once wrote a 50 word story about a Jolly Rancher that was brilliant.

Michelle: Give your most sage advice to flash writers new to the form.

Len: Read lots and lots of flash. Write every day. Find a mentor or two. Learn to ask good questions. What do you do when you aren’t writing flash? I read a lot. I’m a runner. Plus I love movies and great TV like “Dexter” and “Six Feet Under”.

Michelle:  Time for Michelle’s “Flash Challenge!”  Here are your words should you choose to accept: Exhibition, bombast, fingernails, spirals, turbulence, plasma, barrage, conjecture and , last but not least, guts.

Len: Here you go…

Monsters

She could be anybody’s monster, but she’s mine to tend. One day my wife says I have to choose and so I do. “Really, Len?” she says. “Really? You’re choosing her?” When we were very young kids, my sister was still happy. She had a filmmaker’s imagination. Then Mom remarried and Sis’s stories got darker and darker. Each night she told me a story about a monster that lived under our bed, how this part-wolf part-serpent would fly the neighborhood at night, searching bedrooms for young children to eat. “You don’t have the guts to leave me,” my wife says with bombast. But I do. I leave. *** At my sister’s, the proof is everywhere–her shredded fingernails, pupils pulsing like copper spirals, the tang of tar hanging heavy yet strangely invisible in her apartment. “It’s not what you think.” She’s a thin sheet, bones, limp flesh and cloth. When we were kids our stepfather used to beat her for no reason, with a barrage of blows. Sometimes he made up reasons to be ruthless. “What?” she asks, smearing a pink plasma of mucus across her cheek. It’s not hard to conjecture how we’ve gotten here, to this moment and this place on the planet, but it doesn’t make this any easier. I make for the door but she blocks the way. “I thought you loved me,” she says. Her hair is a mop of tangles, her skin pale as curdled cream. “I do,” I say. “I do, but I can’t.” “You promised.” Her voice is jagged, laced with desperation. “It’s not too late to start fresh.” She cackles, filling the air with spiced turbulence. “Well, I’m not going to do it. No way. I can’t.” “Fine.” “Call the hotline.” “You’re my hotline.” “I’m not going to kill you. Not a chance.” “It’s not me, you’ll be killing. You know that.” “He died last year.” “No,” she says, jabbing her chest with a finger. “He never died. He’s here and I can’t stand it.” “Please.” “The monster’s still here.” *** That night we sleep under a full moon staring at us with its one, voyeur’s eye. Her head is curled under my arm. “Thank you,” she says. “I mean that.” The pillow doesn’t seem thick enough, my hands don’t seem strong enough, but I’m wrong. I’m wrong about this.

Michelle: Awesome, Len.    Thanks for offering insight into you process and for such a great flash piece!

Len: Thank you so much, Michelle. Your kindness means a great deal to me.

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Len Kuntz lives on a lake in rural Washington State.  His writing appears widely in print and online at such places as Elimae, The New Verse News, Red River Review and also at lenkuntz.blogspot.com.

Check out some of Len’s stories mentioned in this interview:  “Thoroughly Modern Families”, “Skin,” “Motion Sickness,”  “Medicine and Meat,” and “Happy Campers.”


 

by Sam Painter

This is part of an intermittent series about first publications and anticipating first publications.

I am still a virgin, a publishing virgin that is. The only places my literary work has appeared are on Mom’s fridge and in the waste can. Thirty-plus rejections so far, but I’m undaunted. In fact, I recently took stock and realized that my stories suffer from passive language, poor plotting, and no audience appeal. I joined Critters Workshop and Critique Circle in the hope that these groups will be able to help me improve.

I’m reading more too. Best Fiction on the Web, Barcelona Review, The New Yorker, and Smithsonian Magazine. This last is nonfiction, but their writers have great style. I’m reading plenty of other respected magazines too, and analyzing what good writers do to construct their prose. By comparison, my work is terribly unsophisticated and my style boring.

Writing is a lot like my day job in the office. I can idle the time away or I can apply myself to the task. I recently received a promotion and a raise because I worked for it. If success was easy, everyone would be a star. We tend to personalize the writing experience because it is a creative endeavor. That’s wrong, at least for me. Writing is a job. It’s valuable for me to maintain my objectivity. It helps me overcome my natural bitterness at being rejected.

Cover letters are a lot more important than I initially realized too. They won’t necessarily help you get published, but since I improved my approach to editors, I am getting more cogent feedback including tips about what I can do to write better. This has helped me. In fact, it was an editor who suggested I join Critters Workshop, but more to the point: I’m learning about the basics of what it takes to write well and sell a story.

Yesterday I deleted several stories from my folders. They were fairly worthless and it would be too difficult to bring them up to snuff. It felt as if I was abandoning my children. A tough decision to make, to admit I was wasting time when I wrote them, but I think it was a big step in the right direction.

I see more and more that writing is entertainment, just like singing or acting. You have to provide the reader with the whole package, not just a few fancy lines or high notes. Vividness and je ne sais quoi are great for icing the cake, but the real dessert is thematic content the reader can identify with. What do people want to read about? Themselves. Experiences they can relate to. This is a simplistic approach with plenty of exceptions, of course, but it’s the bones of the body. Without a structure around poignant content, the story collapses. No one wants to read it.

Like most writers, I enjoy creating characters and settings. It’s fun! And when you get that smattering of dialogue at a crucial moment in a story just right, there is a tremendous sense of fulfillment. When that dark room is illuminated by your words and the warmth from the crackling fire is palpable, when you create a visual image that is impossible to forget, that moment is frozen in time and you are suddenly something more than yourself. It’s quite visceral for me. But again, this is the fun stuff. Plotting and pace and all those boring details are the lynchpins of good writing.

Now, the real hat trick is to squeeze all that into only a thousand words. Flash. A good flash story has all the elements of a novel in microcosm. Plot, pacing, description, characterization, denouement, etc. You could easily use a thousand words to describe a flash story. Which reminds me, I recently received a rejection from a three-person editorial staff that I got a kick out of. The rejection was literally longer than the story.

Flash fiction, for the most part, is a punch in the face. You need a hook, a plot blob, some razzle dazzle, and by then, you’re finished. Each word must pop and the entire flash story has to sound like a string of firecrackers. That swarthy aquiline visage arranged atop the character’s cliff of shoulder becomes, in flash, a hawk-like face. The resounding explosion emanating from the barrel of that gleaming revolver is an echoing gunshot. And the stylish pleated auburn skirt that hugs a woman’s tantalizing figure is known as a jersey dress. Flash. It’s quick, like melting ice cream on a boiling summer afternoon.

It is harder for me to write flash fiction than a novelette. I’m not a fan of this minimalist era of ours. But readers are just too darned busy to read for more than five minutes. In this “Kindlian” era flash stories will ultimately generate more profits than novels. It is the market that dictates the product, after all.

I’d like to finish with a comment about Flash Fiction Chronicles. It is unique, and a valuable resource that I was thrilled to discover. Beyond the obvious attribute of the listings, there is a fount of valuable information, great links, and advice from professional authors that dilettantes like me are very lucky to find available.

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Sam Painter was born at Great Lakes Naval Base. He lives in Cicero and works in Chicago in a sales office. An inveterate computer geek, Sam hopes someday to enlarge his circle of friends to three. He is an aspiring writer with a very large dictionary that seems to be mising one word. That word is failure.

by Jenn Alandy

reprinted from First Person Plural, published Wednesday, July 6, 2011

I was twenty-four years old when I discovered Welcome to the Monkey House. A former writing teacher, Lisa Alvarez, deepened my appreciation for Kurt Vonnegut by introducing me to this short story collection. Some of the stories were familiar to me, while others – like unopened gifts – were brand new. One of these gifts was a particularly uncharacteristic Vonnegut story entitled “Long Walk to Forever.” In this peculiar and sentimental story, there is no dystopia, there are no Trafalmadorians, no United States Handicapper General, and no Suicide Parlor Hostesses. There are just two young adults named Catharine and Newt.

Catharine is on the verge of marrying another young man named Henry Stewart Chasens, but Newt shows up at her door unexpectedly to visit and notices that she’s clutching a bridal magazine, presumably dreaming of a fruitful, fairytale-esque future. Newt, ever present-minded and spontaneous, disrupts her daydream and asks her to take a walk:

“A walk?” said Catherine.

“One foot in front of the other,” said Newt, “through leaves, over bridges—“

You see, much like Catharine, many emerging writers tend to be farsighted and dream of the fanciful end results: a future book deal, a future six-figure advance, a future book tour. Instead of focusing on the present, writers dream about publication. But this is not why we should write, nor is it why I write.

The same year that I opened up Welcome to the Monkey House, a friend gave me a copy of John Fante’s Ask the Dust. In the preface, Charles Bukowski (another literary hero of mine) describes Fante’s books as “written of and from the gut and the heart.” Bukowski goes on to write that each line of Fante’s prose “had its own energy and was followed by another like it. The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it. And here, at last, was a man who was not afraid of emotion. The humour and pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity.”

I was inspired. I decided that this was going to be the standard that I held myself to, that I was going to challenge myself to write “from the gut and the heart.” How was I going to start?

“One foot in front of the other—through leaves, over bridges—”

Though I was in the middle of a cross-country move and disheartened that I would be leaving Lisa Alvarez’s workshop, I picked up my pen again. I unearthed old stories from a banker’s box that I had kept at the bottom of my closet. I read them. I cringed. There were long periods of time where I didn’t write. Then, in the middle of my sixty-hour work weeks, I thought about what I would write instead – I thought about it on the metro, in my office during the day, at the restaurant where I waited tables in the evenings. During slow nights, I would sit at the same table as the delivery drivers and cooks and scribble fragments down in my journal. Then, I came across this call for submissions on Lisa Alvarez’s blog.

W.W. Norton wanted to publish a collection of extremely short stories that were 25 words or less. 25 words? I thought this would be a good exercise for myself and focused on carving a feeling on the page, one word in front of the other . . . and then on August 17, 2009, on a whim, I clicked send.

I had just taken my first step.

On October 13, 2009, I received the following e-mail:

Dear Jenn,

Thanks for submitting to this anthology. I must say I enjoyed
“Checking In” very much and would like to accept it for publication . . .


In a short essay for Quarterly West, George Saunders (a modern-day Kurt Vonnegut and yet another literary hero of mine) writes “Publication in Quarterly West was a huge and defining moment for me because it meant that, to somebody out there, I was making sense . . . I had gone deep into my mind to get the story, and someone out in the world got it, which meant that I wasn’t a crank, wasn’t insane, was,in fact,in a small way, a Success.”

Our Hint Fiction editor, Robert Swartwood, had received more than 2400 stories and selected about 100 for publication. Something about my story stood out and made sense, and this “Success” was a side effect of merely focusing on carving out “a feeling of something,” word by word.

The art of Hint Fiction has challenged me to put a microscope on my prose and make every word count. If I could carve something out of 25 words, I could carve something out of 2500, 5000, even 10,000 words. I just had to do it one word at a time. And, thanks to writing workshops at The Writer’s Center, I have also found excellent teachers – just like Lisa Alvarez – in John Morris andDan Gutstein. They have been there to encourage me and my fellow writers to tell the best stories that we can, regardless of length.

Hint Fiction was published last November. We received favorable mentions in The New Yorker andNPR, and my story was referenced by Maggie Galehouse, book editor at The Houston Chronicle. I also participated in Hint Fiction contributor readings/signings at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena in November of 2010 and at KGB Bar in New York City in February of 2011, where I had the opportunity to connect with other emerging writers just like myself.

But, none of this would have happened if I didn’t take that first step, if I didn’t stay focused on what was right in front of me, if I didn’t first focus on writing from the gut and the heart. My journey has only just begun.

How can you begin?

One word in front of the other, through leaves, over bridges –

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Jenn Alandy was born in Houston, Texas to Filipino immigrant parents. She was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and received her B.A. in English from the University of California, Irvine. In 2008, she received a Carlisle Family Scholarship to attend the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Jenn currently manages a process serving company in Washington, DC and volunteers as a tutor at the Washington Literacy Council. Jenn resides in Rockville, Maryland, with the love of her life. She has been a member of The Writer’s Center since 2009.

 

by Jim Harrington

Below is a list of online critique groups. They all cater to experienced as well as novice writers. The approximate number of current members, if known, is included in parentheses.

  • Every Day Fiction: Our host has a very active flash critique forum. If interested, go to the Forums page and reply to the Join the Flash Fiction Workshop message. Membership is free, but users must register.
  • Zoetrope.com: The Zoetrope Flash Fiction section is a moderately active forum. Members are required to review stories in order to submit their work for critique. A place to ask questions and join in on discussions also exists. Membership is free, but users must register.
  • The Flash Factory (about 50): The Factory is a private office inside Zoetrope devoted to the writing, critiquing and discussion of flash fiction. Membership in Zoetrope is required. Weekly writing contests are held based on prompts provided by the previous weeks’ winners, and host Richard Osgood posts a 5 to 50/55 challenge every Sunday. Most users submit a few stories in the main Zoetrope flash section before contacting Richard requesting access to The Factory.
  • Pam Casto’s Flash Fiction Workshop (FF-W) (limited to 65): “FlashFiction-W is a free online workshop for flash fiction (aka short-short stories, micro fiction, sudden fiction, skinny fiction) and related types of short-short writing (haibun, prose poetry, flash memoirs, flash creative nonfiction, short-short plays). Participation is mandatory and all workshop members use their real names.” Learn more here.
  • CrimeFicWriters (30): CrimeFicWriters is an online critique group for authors of short crime fiction, including, but not limited to, flash. For more information, check out the group’s page, or email Chris Rhatigan.” Membership is free.
  • A Flasher’s Dozen (25): This group formed in 2006. Sandra Seamans, the moderator, provides a prompt each Friday “to help nudge the muse,” or members may submit stories based on their own ideas. Learn more and sign up here.

If you know of any other flash critique groups–online or not–send me the group name and contact info. I’ll post a note about the group and add them to our list.

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Jim Harrington discovered flash fiction in 2007, and he’s read, written, studied, and agonized over the form since. His Six Questions For. . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” He’s also the Markets Editor for Flash Fiction ChroniclesFlash Markets Page. He can be reached at jpharrin [at] gmail [dot] com.

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