by RK Biswas

Ekphrasis is not a common literary art form as far as fiction is concerned, unlike its use in the case of music or painting. How can one category of prose try to relate to another by delving into its essence and spirit and still manage to come up with a story that narrates the original story without becoming a copy or a caricature? A question like this begs another: How can a cat disappear into thin air, leaving behind its smile intact?

Seabrook Cover

Going by William Todd Seabrook’s chapbook, The Imagination of Lewis Carroll, it is all perfectly possible, and as easy as finding a wonderland beneath the ground, as long as one is willing to lose one’s conventional senses, conventional essences, and conventional ideas of what a writer is supposed to do. Carroll’s Cheshire cat did just that; un-cat itself I mean. And we, the readers, can too, so long as we are willing to enter Lewis Carroll’s mind through the tunnel, or rabbit-hole if you will, that Seabrook has dug in his chapbook, published by Rose Metal Press.

As Michael Martone says in his introduction, “It is into one of these mad elastic petrified steam-punked tropic jungles of a book of wordy words that William Todd Seabrook prospects here, using the fracking apparatus of flash fiction to crack open the quarried quarry and mine the refined riches he finds elaborated within Lewis Carroll’s work.” He explains further, more succinctly (lest we wear the Mad Hatter’s hat the wrong way or pour the potion down the drain, perhaps!), “this is a gutsy book as it confronts the exhilaratingly convoluted quagmire of high Victorian nonsense with a minute poacher’s spade shaped from a sterling coffee spoon.”

A “gutsy book that confronts…with a minute poacher’s spade….” This is what the reader encounters right from the start, during that golden afternoon when Seabrook’s Lewis Carroll begins to disappear, not the way the Cheshire cat does, but almost as if he is being consumed by his own story, each physical sense at a time. Carroll has no power to stop it, for every time he tries to end the story, the imaginings, by saying “the rest, next time,” the three Liddell sisters cry out, “it is the next time.”

In Seabrook’s chapbook, we trace Lewis Carroll’s life and imagination through this portal of “next time,” which lets us grasp the kernel of his sensibilities, and creativity, without being tied down to physical reality. Needless to say, the situations that spring up from the pages are indeed about being in the ‘next time.’ No present time can be more bizarre. So it has to be a time that cannot be clocked at all. Readers on a quest will certainly be given answers. Just as all ‘ravens and the writing desks had answers, and none of them actually right.’ Not one from the total of 500, asking the same question; so it is here as well.

Seabrook is after all imagining what Lewis Carroll did—digging a hole and closing it up again, ‘leaving his discovery to be discovered by other (children), again and again.’ We are taken by the hand down Seabrook’s rabbit-hole, and not only led through events in Carroll’s life that wound up in the book but also the other way round; book life and real life events being interchangeable. The experience is akin to Alice falling, very slowly, with plenty of time to look about her in the tunnel.

In The Imagination of Lewis Carroll, we witness an execution, watching young Lewis in the crowd screaming “Off with his head” along with everybody else. We have tea with a Bishop and the grown up Carroll, notorious for his books already, in which his Excellency is shown the door for taking life too seriously. We participate in Carroll’s relentless micro-management of his characters and their appearances, watching helplessly with John Tenniel, the illustrator of his book, but in the end finding them exquisite, because we are on Carroll’s side. We suffer his three-day-long sermon along with his congregation, but in the end we want more, whether it makes any sense or not. We read his essays, and agree (with him) that “a mathematical student must keep his head level at all times–that way it will be much harder for it to roll away.” We practise turning our names into Latin and then anglicizing the Latin names, because we have been convinced that readers of nonsense must be twice removed from reality always. It is of course no surprise that we side with Carroll during his duel with Lord Viscount Newry, even when he steps over his opponent’s broken body, because the duel too is part of “fits of nonsense, completely absurd, but still, it is all that matters.” Like Carroll, we imagine time to be accurate always, and stand in wonder at the intellect pouring forth from his ambidexterity.

Literary largesse, and certainly when it is of genius proportions as in the case of Lewis Carroll, does not come without its shadows. In Seabrook’s retelling of the writer’s life, opium dims memories and knowledge, instead of slowing them down and fading away; life is laid out like a chessboard, and the Red Knight sleeps soundly, knowing that he has already won.

According to Seabrook, Carroll created 5000 card games, as well as word games. After his death they uncovered a chessboard where all the kings, queens, knights, rooks and castles had been replaced with pawns, and behind the board was a picture of Carroll, sitting alone, toying with the world in his head. It gets progressively darker, in spite of the innocence that was Carroll’s hallmark. The controversy in his real life (about photographing children in the buff) has been captured with irony, tenderness and sorrow, paying homage to his friendship with the real Alice. His terror of the Jabberwocky is as real as Alice’s in the book. The looking-glass reflects in reverse. Constantly looking at the world through the mirror, therefore, will take a toll. And Carroll’s interaction with the physical world becomes increasingly fragmented.

The pseudonym—Lewis Carroll—increasingly takes charge of the man christened Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, until the latter is certain that it is not his real name. And we may assume that it was as Lewis Carroll that he won the deadly duel with Lord Newry in 1862, even though it was Dodgson who fired the shot, eschewing a mental duel for a physical one. Dodgson remains a child at heart though, refusing to let the “harsh penetrating eyes” of adults to influence him. In the end, his obsession with childhood and the characters he created, especially Alice, hacks away at him. The world outside Alice’s creator can neither be controlled nor contained.

Seabrook vividly captures Carroll’s terror of being alive in the casual chattering of people long after he is dead, “a terrible fate.” He’d rather be extinct. But in Seabrook’s imagining, Carroll suffers a similar fate at his burial, after dying of pneumonia. Nevertheless, he doesn’t become a prized exhibit in a museum like the dodo. His afterlife, according to Seabrook, is a happy world, where Carroll makes peace with his tormentor, his muse, his alter ego. In Seabrook’s own words:

It is time to wake up,” Carroll said. “One can’t sleep forever.”

But who is dreaming whom?” The Red King asked, adjusting his spiked crown.

I should think we are all dreams,” Carroll said. “I can’t imagine anything more.”

What a beautiful imagining of a great writer’s life, lived after his physical life is passed. This is how every lover of Carroll would wish him to be, and for that we must give thanks to William Todd Seabrook for letting the imagination of Lewis Carroll in our lives, making us “fat with words,” “swollen with jam.”

___________

Rumjhum Biswas

RK Biswas’s novel Culling Mynahs and Crows was published by Lifi Publications, India in January 2014. A short story collection—Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women—is forthcoming in mid 2014 from Authorspress, India. Another story collection from Lifi Publications, New Delhi in mid 2015. Biswas’s short fiction and poetry have been published in journals and anthologies, both in print and online, all over the world. Her poem Cleavage was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. In 2007, her story Ahalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s notable stories of the net. Her poem Bones was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at http://www.rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com

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.

 

 

by Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen

Due to some recent life changes, I’ve had to limit my writing and editing time drastically; stories, though—characters’ situations, lines of dialogue, phrases and titles—keep flipping me around at night. I guess the simplest answer to the question “Why do I write?” is that the ideas keep coming. Brilliant or bollocks, they keep coming.

But why do I write flash fiction? It started at university—or it tried to. I was making up 16 hours of undergraduate English in a summer so that I could start a graduate program in English lit (I’d majored in music and music business as an undergrad). On one of my papers, my Victorian lit professor wrote that my essays were like tiny stories—I think she might have used the word “gems,” but my self-congratulatory memory might have sneaked this in. The papers were those 500-word ditties we’re all familiar with. Later in the semester when I told her I was writing a screenplay, her reaction was “You should write short stories.” This was 1992. I published one short story in the university’s journal in 1993, but between then and 2007 I wrote two screenplays and three novels—never another short story. Call me hard-headed. Go ahead.

Maybe I was resisting “tiny” and “short” and “ditty”—and not only because I’m relatively tiny myself. Maybe I was under the impression that “tiny” meant unimportant, that what I had to say wouldn’t fit into “tiny.” Maybe I’d read way too much Henry James and George Eliot. You are, after all, what you read. (And if this is true, I’m Bill Bryson and Virginia Woolf’s unlikely lovechild.) My love for other people’s words is another reason I write. And edit.

The often condensed syntax of sudden fiction represents a uniquely contemporary voice. Trimming syntax urges the eye along so that the reader experiences text almost in a single moment. Of course this is impossible, but it seems to be the goal. Technology keeps changing the way we read. It’d be dishonest to say some (many?) contemporary writers are not reacting to current tastes and reading formats when choosing to write shorter texts. In Internet writing workshops and communities you’re much more likely to get feedback on a 500-word piece than a whopping 5000-worder. Just have a look at a few litzines’ word-limit guidelines. Scrolling sucks, and it definitely contributes to carpal tunnel syndrome. Faster online fiction is healthier fiction.

As fast as it is to read, though, sudden fiction can take a long time to write (I don’t write sudden fiction because I like to write fast). It’s rare that I’ll sit down at my computer and whip out a 700-word story that I love at first read. It happens, but I usually come back to the story after a week with ideas that rip it apart. Then more ideas rip it apart two weeks later. And so on. Each ripping strips unnecessary bits, refines character—and sometimes completely screws the story to hell and back; yet more often the story evolves, becomes bigger and rounder as it grows smaller, tighter. Tight is, after all, the new big.

Each time I finish one of these tiny stories, I have to look at what I’ve created and ask myself. . .Is this whole? Is the reader’s eye urged along? Will the reader have the same visceral reaction to this moment as I do? Will these characters, whose visit was so brief, stay with the reader beyond the reading? Or is this just a ditty?

I hope other writers of sudden fiction will agree with me that we write sudden fiction because we have so many different moments of being to share: those particularly deep moments my mother Virginia Woolf talked about. In this way, we’re more like painters, songwriters and chefs than novelists.

You know, it might be as simple as feeling satisfaction in the completion of all those ideas that keep coming, the opportunity of plumbing, shaping and completing not just a few pieces of art but many—that’s why I write flash fiction.

____________

Christopher Allen is grateful to have his sudden fiction in Indiana Review, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly’s Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine and many other great places. His book reviews have been featured at [PANK], Word Riot, The Lit Pub and Necessary Fiction, among others. He’s won some awards and come close to winning others. He keeps trying, and so should you. He lives in Germany and blogs at www.imustbeoff.com about his slight travel obsession.

 

by Andreé Robinson-Neal

Andree-New

August is known for the dog days of summer, described as the “most sultry period” of the warm season; it certainly fits the line-up of passionate and seductive pieces FFC dished up last month.

What better time than the first part of the month to consider submitting your flash fiction? August started with a snapshot of flash fiction markets that were waiting for your words. And speaking of words, we were treated to another visit from Matt Potter and some of the authors involved in the Year in Stories over at Pure Slush, who gave insight into the process of participating in the project. Be sure to visit Pure Slush to read the full interviews.

Susan Tepper connected with Robin Stratton for an in-depth UNCOV/rd discussion about genes, jeans, and love. Robin offers a number of salient points about inspiration, motivation, and how to weave a story from what may initially seem disparate ideas. Sarah Crysl Akhtar helped us keep those creative juices flowing, but in a different direction by reminding us to check under the bed twice; she offered us a well-received piece of horror fiction from the EDF Archives as the month continued to sizzle along.

Joanne Jagoda and Ethel Rohan took us for a mental ride as they each shared about their writing journeys. Jagoda white-knuckles us through the power of beshert and how it, combined with a “take this job and…” attitude, led her to a writing addiction. Rohan offers a few preciously spicy words about the rebelliousness of flash, while Sarah Crysl Akhtar allows us to ponder the possibilities of crafting a story around a character who, by her very nature, is a woman of few words, and provides powerful pointers on the importance of language; with proper attention, words become images that open a world of possibilities for both the reader and writer.

Jim Harrington took us to Singapore for a visit with the people behind The National Schools Literature Festival, which is an effort that encourages literature education for secondary school students. Participants have the opportunity to create flash fiction submissions of 200 words for the event.

As August turned the corner into its final full week, Christopher Bowen offered an in-depth review of T.A. Noonan’s Four Sparks Fall and introduces us to CCLaP Publishing. Julie Duffy brought us another entry in her continuing tour through genre, this time wrangling with slipstream with the help of E.S. Wynn, who reminds us that the final frontier is anything but. Aliza Greenblatt introduced us to EDF’s top author for July, Tina Wayland, who shares that her writing process is not neat or straightforward.

The month closed its doors on the unofficial end of summer right where it began by offering updates on flash markets. As we draw the shutters on the tourist stands and hustle the children back to school, let us grab our pads, pens, styluses, and keyboards if we allowed them to gather dust through the dog days–there are markets to conquer and flash stories waiting to be written. And as you peruse the FFC pages, you will see that our colleagues in the business are already busy as September moves forward!

____________

Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury–both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.

by Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

No longer simply a genre of heaving bosoms and discreetly closing doors, Romance burst into the digital age as one of the broadest, most forward-looking—and profitable—genres in the publishing business. Harlequin was the first major publisher to make all its books available as ebooks. Romance titles represented $1bn in sales last year, or 13% of the adult fiction market.  Academic conferences on Romance as a genre have been held as such august institutions as Princeton University.

There couldn’t be a better time to be writing Romance, so whether you’ve ever hidden a Harlequin between the covers of the latest Pulitzer Prize winner, or if you have no idea what all the fuss is about, prepare for a brief encounter…with Romance.

The Basics

A Romance story has two crucial elements, according to Romance Writers of America (RWA), who should know what they’re talking about:

  • A central love story
  • An optimistic ending

The Central Love Story

Romance comes in many flavors (and many sub-genres: Contemporary Romance, Historical, Paranormal, Regency, Multi-Cultural), but every story must have a central love story between two characters.

Marcy Kennedy, author of A Crash Course In Romance Sub-Genres, points out that “those two ‘people’ don’t have to be human.” This is certainly the case in the popular sub-genre of Paranormal Romance, where the love story can be between a human and a supernatural creature (think “Twilight”).

The most important thing is to show readers why these two characters belong together. “We need to know why they belong together,” says Kennedy. “Even if they don’t see it at first (and they shouldn’t)…you’d be surprised how many authors forget that they can’t just tell the reader these characters are perfect for each other—they need to show it too.”

Unless you’re writing erotica, there has to be more to the lead characters’ attraction than just lust.

Readers of Romance want to relive the rush of falling in love. More than that, Romance readers want to feel “emotion, emotion, emotion,” according to Kat de Falla, editor of Romance Flash. For a central love story to work, the writer has to combine the escapism of meeting and falling in love with the agony of all those near-misses, all those obstacles that come between the lovers, before they ultimately end up together.

The Optimistic Ending

Ah, the happily ever after…

Well, it turns out that Romance doesn’t require a Happily Ever After. In fact, in flash fiction, you’re unlikely to have time to construct a Happily Ever After (more on this later). Instead, Romance, according to RWA, merely requires an optimistic ending. The possibility of a Happily Ever After. This is good news if you’re a writer who doesn’t want to end every story with the characters getting together in the second last paragraph. Instead of consummating the relationship at the end, you can leave your characters on their way to a happy-for-now ending and still satisfy dedicated Romance readers.

Marcy Kennedy shares one more definition, though:

“If you have an ending that’s sad or bittersweet, you’re probably writing women’s fiction (think Nicholas Sparks) rather than Romance.”

Romance Sub-Genres

There are many well-defined sub-genres in Romance. While some can cross over (like Contemporary and Paranormal, or Historical and Mystery Romance) others cannot. Regency, for example, is set in a strictly defined time and place (the 1790s-1820, in Great Britain) and couldn’t be mixed with Contemporary Romance. Fans of Regency Romance are looking for Jane Austen-esque wit and banter, social scandal and innuendo, not sex scenes, whereas Contemporary Romance fans are probably looking for a more realistic kind of escape.

You can find a good definition of many of these sub-genres both at the RWA site and in Marcy Kennedy’s primer, but if you really want to know what these sub-genres’ audiences expect, there is no substitute for reading it yourself.  Luckily, hundreds of new Romance stories are published ever month, in every conceivable sub-genre. However, before you get excited about the size of the audience and decide to switch to Romance and cash in,  LaShaunda C. Hoffman, editor of Shades of Romance, has a word of caution.

“As a writer you have to find the sub-genre that you are comfortable writing in.  If you pick something you don’t care about, it will show up in your writing.

In other words, even if Paranormal Romance was still the new big thing, it would be dangerous to try to write it if you weren’t reading (and loving) the sub-genre.

How To Woo Romance Readers

“Romance readers are idealistic believers in eternal love and in the incessant search for one’s soulmate,” says Kat de Falla of Romance Flash. “If an author can elicit an emotion from a reader, they are doing their job.”

Just because there is a formula of sorts to a Romance doesn’t mean your writing can be formulaic. Characters must be rounded. They must have character traits that make them attractive and inner demons that cause problems. The settings must be well-researched and there must be tension…lots and lots of tension.

“We know,” says Marcy Kennedy, “the couple in a Romance will end up together. It’s a Romance after all. But as we’re reading, we should feel like there’s no possible way for this to work out for them. Part of the fun in reading a Romance is in the agony that comes from worrying they won’t end up together after all and the emotional release when they finally do.

She adds that one of the ways to add tension is, “..whether you’re building toward a kiss or much more, drag it out. Give them a couple of “almosts” before the actual act. Torture them and your readers.”

But just throwing obstacles in their paths (or removing them) isn’t enough. Remember that every development should further the plot by developing the characters. Kennedy explains,

“Every time your characters are physically intimate—regardless of whether that’s holding hands, hugging, kissing, or sleeping together—it needs to forward the plot. It should mean something more than simply the physical act. The ripples from that touch should be felt across their relationship, across their relationship with others, and across the external circumstances in the story. A touch is never just a touch in a truly great Romance.”

Romance In A Flash

In Flash Fiction the challenge is in the constraints: what to include and what to leave out. Now that you know the two essential ingredients for Romance (the central love story and the optimistic ending) it’s a little easier to make those choices.

The challenge now becomes how to, as Kat de Falla says, “make us believe these two people belong together” without “rushing a story just to keep your word count,” a pitfall highlighted by LaShaunda Hoffman. “Readers can tell when a story is rushed.”

One suggestion on how to handle the shorter length comes from Marcy Kennedy who suggests that you write a story about a “meet cute”: the moment a possible romantic duo first meet. This moment should be unusual in some way—awkward, embarrassing, funny, oppositional—and then, “The tension in the story should come from whether or not these two characters will come through that moment with a desire to see more of each other.”

Follow this advice and readers will fall for your writing, in a heartbeat.

 

Further Reading

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Julie Duffy is a writer of short fiction and host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay May.

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