Thomas Jay Rush

by Thomas Jay Rush

Flash Fiction Chronicles interviewed Warren C. Easley about Every Day Fiction’s Top Story for September, “The Promise.”

FFC: Congratulations on being named for the second time this year with Every Day Fiction’s Top Story of the Month.

Warren C. Easley: Thank you!

FFC: The number of reader comments on this piece was huge. What do you think struck people about the story? Do you even know? Can an author really know what will or won’t strike his readers?

WCE: It is hard for a writer to know what’s going to strike a chord with readers, and it’s probably not a good idea to worry too much about that. Better to write what strikes a chord with you and hope for the best. Kat is a smart, courageous young girl who, despite being disadvantaged, prevails against long odds. I think there are a lot of kids out there like Kat, and happily the theme seemed to resonate with EDF readers.

Warren C. Easley

FFC: As a reader, I think you’ve captured the voice of the young girl well. As I read your piece, Kat appears to be about ten or twelve years old. I like how tentative she is: “I didn’t like Duane, but couldn’t say why,” or “I don’t know,” when her grandfather asks how Duane is treating her. In the end, though, this tentative “nervous bird” acts very decisively. Tell me about Kat the character? Do you see her as tentative or decisive?

WCE: Having raised two daughters helped me capture the voice. I pictured Kat as an 11 year old, so you hit her age right on the button. Of course, any eleven year old thrust into the situation I describe in “The Promise” would be tentative, but the more important source of Kat’s hesitation is her integrity—she’s reluctant to speak ill of someone without good reason. I suspect she learned this from her Pop Pop. Once Kat figures out what Duane has done, she’s all action. Going down that dark alley at three in the morning took guts.

FFC: Pretty early in the story, the reader is tipped off that Duane is the culprit, especially when the mother tells Kat not to say anything to the police. The tension in the story builds, I think, not because the reader is wondering who-done-it, but because the reader is wondering if Kat will be okay. The readers is concerned that Duane will hurt her in some way. Talk about building tension in a story. How do tension and plot interact?

WCE: Yes, I’m sure most readers had decided Duane was up to no good after the first paragraph. As you point out, the tension develops because Duane knows Kat heard him sneaking back in. In addition, Kat made it clear to her mother that she suspected Duane of killing Pop Pop. We’d like to think the mother would play this down with Duane to protect her daughter. But her motives are ambiguous at best, so we don’t really know what she’ll do. This ratchets the tension up even further. Kat is in great danger and needs to act fast.

How do plot and tension interact? Tension is high when the stakes are high, and the plot dictates what the stakes are going to be. But making the tension palpable and immediate, well that’s where the writing comes in! In flash fiction, every word counts. I like to focus on details like facial expressions, what the eyes are doing, and physical reactions to up the suspense.

FFC: I’m always interested in the process of revision. For me, it’s one of the most difficult things about writing a story. It seems that each time I revise one of my stories it gets worse, more convoluted, more confusing. Tell me about your writing process. Do you revise heavily? Do you write something and put it away and then bring it back out later or do you finish something in a single sitting like some lucky writers I’ve heard about?

WCE: My process for writing flash fiction is to get the story down without worrying about the number of words. The first draft of “The Promise” had well over 1,500 words. With the framework in place, I start to cut, basically challenging each and every word. Lots of good sentences get whacked in this process. Normally, the revisions don’t alter the basic structure of the story, but it may take five or six passes to get something lean and decent.

I’ve never been able to shelve something and come back to it. I get too wrapped up in the story to put it down.

FFC: I’m equally interested in the process of inspiration. The question is simply put: where did this story come from?

WCE: For flash fiction or even a novel, I need the kernel of an idea to get started. It’s usually something fairly specific, an incident, not a broad concept. In the case of “The Promise,” I read about a crime in the Portland area that was solved when the police found a cell phone the way Kat did. I loved the idea and that got me thinking. Incidentally, it’s interesting to me how strongly cell phones have impacted mystery writing. You can’t write a mystery today without fully accounting for the damn things at all times.

FFC: That’s funny. You mentioned earlier novel writing. What plans do you have in that regard and what differences (or similarities) do you see between writing a novel and writing flash fiction?

WCE: I’ve just signed a three book deal with Poisoned Pen Press to begin publishing The Cal Claxton Oregon mystery series. Claxton is an ex-prosecutor from L.A. who has moved to Oregon to reinvent himself as a small town lawyer following the suicide of his wife. It doesn’t take long for trouble to find Cal, who’s dogged about finding the truth and likely to help an underdog, no matter what the consequences. The first book, Matters of Doubt, will appear next summer.

Novels take months if not years to write and days, if not weeks, to read. Flash Fiction compresses both time lines mightily. The payoff for a flash fiction piece may not be as far-reaching , but it’s quicker and more concentrated, like taking a small bite of a very rich food. I love both genres.

FFC: Wow! Three books! I bet our readers would be interested to hear about that. How long had you been shopping it? Any tips? Any mistakes to avoid? What did you do the day you signed? Are all three novels already written?

WCE: I finished Matters of Doubt early last spring, the third book in The Cal Claxton series. I queried Poisoned Pen immediately since I’d received some “friendly” rejections from them, i.e., rejections with a couple of pages of critique and suggestions. I didn’t hear anything back on the query, so I finally wrote the submissions editor a quick e-mail. It turned out they had changed their submission process, and I had fallen through the cracks! I resubmitted using their new process, and the rest is history. So, it’s important to follow up!

I’m agent-less and unpublished except for the two flash fiction pieces at EDF. [Interviewer's interjection: Whoa!] But, I set up my website to showcase the potential of the Claxton series. I think that helped my cause. The best advice I got was from a submissions editor who said something like this after reading and rejecting one of my manuscripts—“The manuscript is good, but I don’t know who you are. When I google you, nothing comes up except some scientific papers. You need to develop a platform and begin to market yourself. It’s a small business and we all know each other, so get involved.” Of course, this advice is nothing new, but coming from a submissions editor, it got my attention. I immediately set about building a website.

When I got the news from Poisoned Pen, I didn’t come down for about three days. I took champagne to my book group and we had cake and wine at my critique group. One more thing—a good critique group is important, I think. Mine is great. There are five of us (two mysteries, two YA, one fantasy) and we meet every other week without fail. I can’t credit this group enough…

FFC: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Good luck with your writing.

WCE: Thanks.

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Warren C. Easley lives on a ridge overlooking the Willamette Valley near Portland, Oregon. He is the recipient of the Willamette Writers Kay Snow Award for Fiction, and his short stories have won several awards. His novel, Matters of Doubt, a Cal Claxton Oregon mystery, will be published by Poisoned Pen Press this coming summer. In it, Cal Claxton decides to help a young homeless man accused of murder even though it puts his reputation, his business and even his life at risk. For more about the Cal Claxton Oregon mysteries, visit Warren’s website at www.warreneasley.com.

Thomas Jay Rush has been a house painter, a carpenter, an oil well roustabout, an actuarial analyst, a researcher at IBM’s Watson Research Center, and the owner of his own software company. Recently, he was named Poetry Editor at Rathall Review, a literary magazine associated with the Creative Writing Program at Rosemont College. Mr. Rush lives with his wife and three children in Southeast Pennsylvania. Visit his website here.