Entries tagged with “writing”.

by Gay Degani

“There are two ways to become a better writer, in general: write a lot, and read a lot. There are no other steps.” – Leo Babauta

So often new writers (and experienced ones too) find themselves hanging out by the refrigerator, flipping through television channels, or cleaning out closets, all because they don’t know what to write or if they’ve starte

gay deganifor WCB choice 3

d, where to take their stories. Eventually most find a way to break through, but I want to suggest something less fattening than eating ice cream and more useful than Wheel of Fortune.  Although I admit these two things might lead to an idea, and I know cleaning closets worked for Eminem, but choosing to study a story you admire is more likely to get your head filled with ideas and ways to make them work than anything else.

Back when I was teaching, I discovered a somewhat old-fashioned essay by Mortimer J. Adler in English 1A textbooks called “How to Mark a Book.”  At first I thought students would be put off by the author’s style, yet reading it for the first time, I knew I had to assign it. Adler offers one of the most essential tools for learning: how to have a conversation with the author of any text.  Not only did I have to make sure the kids in my class used this tool to learn to write, but I would need to incorporate it into my own discipline.

What Adler professes is that reading must be active, not passive and the best way to do that is to read with a pencil in hand, and underlining key ideas, scribbling questions and thoughts in the margins, using a “star, asterisk, or other doo-dad” to return to paragraphs for rereading, numbering sequences, circling phrases, and using white spaces to outline.  He claims that by marking a book a reader becomes an alert participant, his thought processes are triggered, and his ability to remember reinforced.

It’s obvious that marking a book helps students to study, prepare for tests, and carry what they’ve learned with them longer, but how did this help me as a writer?  How does it help you?

Writing a story whether flash or longer can be a daunting task.  We wonder when we sit down at the keyboard how other writers do it day after day, piece after piece.  Adler’s essay gives a way to discover how to find out, how to have a conversation with the author of something we admire.

He teaches us not to deconstruct in the literary analysis kind of way, but in the “how did he/she do that” kind of way.

Let me repeat Adler’s three reasons to question a text.

  1. Staying alert
  2. Thinking
  3. Remembering

Staying Alert

Normally when we read—especially the first time through—we read for the story, taking in language and meaning as we do so.  This is most often done passively for pleasure, but as  students of writing, we need to go back with all our faculties engaged with a pencil or pen in hand,  circling this image, that phrase, underlining words that suggest a theme. asking ourselves, how did the author paint that picture, how do I know this character is angry, why do I feel like crying?  Questioning “why and how” helps writers to understand what choices the author has used to put us into the story.  We need to be alert to do this.


When we are alert to everything in the text, we are thinking, asking questions, wondering.  We notice specific words and realize how an old man “shambling” is different from an old man “strolling.”  How we can picture exactly a pine or a palm when those specific words are used instead of “tree.”  Also more complex issues are untangled.  Why do we know one character is conflicted and another one is unaware?  We are forced to look at dialogue, adjectives, subtle hints that build to an awareness of state of mind.  When we read for pleasure, we may notice these things, but when we underline them, put an asterisk next to a paragraph, and go back through, puzzling and studying, we are engaged in learning.


Memory is reinforced when we are questioning a text.  Because we are alert and writing things down, outlining the structure, exploring the dialog, we are aware that these are things we want to remember and the act of engagement boosts memory.  Next time we are trying to convey a character in just a few words because the word count is 100 or 500 or 1000, we will remember that word choice is essential, that every word used MUST convey some meaning and consequently, we are less likely to settle on first thoughts.  We will remember our pleasure at discovering how another writer stirred us and we will want to create that emotion in our own readers.

In her book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose calls this “close reading.” She says this changed for her when one of her high school teachers asked the class to compare the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear.  “We were supposed to go through the two tragedies and circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness, and vision.” (p. 4)  Of the experience she says, “I felt as if I were engaged in some intimate communication with the writer, as if the ghosts of Sophocles and Shakespeare had been waiting patiently all those centuries for a bookish sixteen-year-old to come along and find them.” (p. 5)

Mortimer Adler and Francine Prose have helped me become a better writer by suggesting I turn to the stories I love and examine them more closely, that I become an active participant in reading rather than a passive one, assuming with this mindset, I will better absorb the skills needed to write.  Some of that, of course, eventually does happen, but why wait?  That carton of rocky road will still be in the freezer tomorrow and the television isn’t going anywhere.


Gay Degani has published fiction on-line and in print including her short collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, a staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at Words in Place. She’s had three stories nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. Her novel, What Came Before, is live in serialized format at Every Day Novels. It’s also available from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.



by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

“You need to suspend disbelief–“

No.  You need to make me.

Critiquing another writer’s work shouldn’t be a bloodbath but it oughtn’t feel like a tea social, either.

I seem to get in trouble a lot on comments threads for pointing out that something in a story seems completely inconsistent with the world the writer has invited me, the reader, to enter. Reactions seem to be along the line that “it’s fiction, for heck’s sake, can’t you just admire the pretty words?”

Well, no, not if those pretty words strike me as somehow untruthful in the context of the story.

So how come, as I enter the crotchety years, my favorite reading remains that writing unfairly pigeonholed as “children’s literature”?  Isn’t that full of stuff that could never really happen?

Sure.  But a great writer makes you believe in every impossible word anyway.

As long as a writer is true to the created world, it doesn’t matter how strange that world might be.  And sometimes a writer’s failures are not what you’d think.

Take the Harry Potter series.  I did–making sad deprived faces until my son resignedly let me read each new volume first.

JK Rowling was superb at making Harry’s fantastical world perfectly plausible. But what made me nuts was her protagonists’s unswallowable treatment of each other. Rowling convinced me that animagists and boggarts might be found anywhere but not that Harry, Hermione and Ron could perpetually misunderstand and misjudge one another. They were more than best friends–they’d shown loyalty and courage beyond the capacity of most–and yet they kept snapping at each other for no good reason. I just didn’t believe that for a minute.

The mood captured in a story can be as fragile as a bubble, and once you’ve burst it, you’ll have a damned hard time retrieving the reader’s faith in your creation.


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 Sarah Crysl Akhtar

…because flash stories don’t prey on your mind the way a novel would, writing them is refreshing rather than exhausting.

A few years ago I had an idea for a story, wrote it, and felt pretty good about it.  But it was well over 3,000 words and I was just beginning to discover the joys of flash.

Occasionally I’d take a look at what I suspected was a somewhat overgrown effort, make a few minor edits, and close it up again.

A few months ago, an entirely new opening for it just popped into my mind–that, if used, would change the story’s structure, mood and resolution entirely.

And finally make it come alive.

Now I’ll never know if some publication, somewhere, would have liked the original.  I demolished it.

One of the gifts of flash, for a writer, is that you can have a lot of little pots simmering on the fire at once.  If something isn’t gelling, something else might be.  As with any craft, you begin to develop the sense and feel for when a work is ready, or not, and because flash stories don’t prey on your mind the way a novel would, writing them is refreshing rather than exhausting.

I’ve said in other places that I prefer writing to be solitary work, and I feel that workshopping is, necessarily, the killer of spontaneity.  I believe that an essential ingredient to creative growth is developing and refining your intuition; letting the voice of the story mute your own; learning to recognize for yourself when something is ripe, and when it isn’t.


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 Carly Berg

Invitation into your inner world is an honor. Reserve it for those who deserve it.

 Who would have thought writing required more forethought about handling people than anything else you decided to do?  It can certainly cause friction, for such a solitary, quiet, and low-cost activity. Those of us who have gone before, with our big faces hanging out unawares, can attest to that. Here are some tips to bring your writing habit out in the open smoothly.

 The Nearest and Dearest

The practical considerations count with those who share your space and obligations. Since you have responsibilities together, such as a house or children, you may want to come up with a writing schedule and get your spouse’s blessing.

If you’re like me, people talking, walking into the room, television noise, all yank me out of my writing trance. It’s as jarring as if they had jerked me from my sleep. I hate it. Non-writers do not understand this unless they’re told.  More than once. Tell them. Make a deal. Craft a “please do not disturb” sign to hang on the door when you’re writing.

 Friends and Relatives

Family and friends are easier because your lives don’t overlap as with those in your household. Emotionally, they can still provide a boost or pack a wallop, though. How much should you reveal?

Most of us have a “sharing” regret tale. Our stories are our creations. We’re sensitive about them. Having them rebuffed or ignored hurts.

Some people love us to death and understand writing means a lot to us. Yet, it’s not their thing. That’s okay, right? That’s why we’ll join a forum or group and get to know other writers.

 And certain people aren’t to be trusted with your writing or your feelings, even if their title is “relative” or “friend.”

Remember, you can always take the cat out of the bag, but you can’t put it back in.

Consider letting people in step by step. Drop a hint, or ask the other person if they want to read something you’ve written. Phrase it in a light way that leaves them an easy out. If they’re interested, show them one short story, chapter, or poem. A sample, not everything.

Do not reveal your pen name if you use one. After all, how will you feel if you expose all, and they: (1) never mention it again, (2) say something like “I didn’t really see the point,” or “Are you all right?,” (3) make a few copies and hand them out without your permission?

 In offering only a small portion, you have taken only a small risk.

Closely related to how much you share is what you share. Some non-writers do not realize that you and your main character are not the same person. Or, they may inaccurately read themselves into your story as well. It doesn’t hurt to keep this in mind when you consider which piece to let them read.

You may get that rare find, an interested, supportive, non-writer friend. Woohoo for you!

If you’re like most of us and have already done this wrong, at least you know who not to trust again. We go on.

 Everybody Else…

When I worked with children in foster care, one of the things we did was help them formulate a “cover story.” This isn’t a “lie,” as the term often means elsewhere. It’s a blanket of surface-only answers, to preserve the child’s dignity. Who do you live with? Mrs. Jones. Oh really? Is she your aunt? No. She’s just Mrs. Jones. Where are your parents? They can’t take care of me right now. Oh, dear. Are they sick? They just can’t take care of me right now, so I’m with Mrs. Jones. Note the polite repetition of nonspecific answers to those with no need to know. This shields the child against having personal details trotted out before the general public.

Many writers could also use cover stories. In our society (or maybe every society, what do I know?) we understand paid employment. We understand hobbies.

We don’t have as solid a grasp of that other thing. The writer may be insulted to hear their writing labeled a (mere) “hobby.” And, the writing may or may not bring in money.

So, we can name it a “calling.” But then, many non-writers still believe such a “calling” fits somewhere between a “hobby” and a “career.” The writer, in sharp contrast, may value writing above both hobby and career. It causes trouble.

If you tell people you write, they often promptly say the wrong thing. It goes like this:

 NWA (Non-Writing Acquaintance): So, I hear you write.

You: Uh-huh.

NWA: What do you write?

You: Oh, different things. Stories. And I’m working on a novel.

NWA: So then, you want to be a writer.

You: Um, no, but I—

NWA: Do you get paid for your stories?

You: Um, mostly not. But I—

NWA: Well, you just keep at it and someday maybe you’ll be a writer.

You: —–

NWA: Now I’ll tell ya what ya oughta write. How I met my husband. Now, there’s a best seller. I’d write it myself, but I’m too busy with my important business.

NWA wants to know where the product (published work) is, where the pay is. You might have studied the craft for years. Yet, she believes not having the time is all that prevents her from being published. Talent and skill aren’t mentioned.

To you, publication and pay may well be the by-products rather than the goal. NWA has missed it entirely.

Thus, conversations with non-writers can bruise the writer. My suggestion: Don’t engage. They don’t get it, and you don’t have to account for yourself on demand.

How about this instead:

 NWA: So, I hear you write.

You: Mmm, a little. That’s a pretty bracelet.

NWA: What do you write?

You: Oh, I don’t talk about it much. Is that bracelet onyx?

NWA: So then, are you published?

You: I don’t really talk about my writing.

NWA: Why not?

You: Meh, I just don’t. Didn’t you just get a new job?

You’ve remained polite, but in spite of her persistence, all she’s gotten is cover story. The trick, I think, is to think it through ahead of time so you‘re not caught off guard.

I’ve learned to involve people in my writing according to their position with me. I owe the most to those in my immediate household. Friends and relatives are considered individually, based on their interest and my trust. Acquaintances are generally kept at a distance. Invitation into your inner world is an honor. Reserve it for those who deserve it.


Carly Berg‘s work has been accepted by publications beginning with every letter of the alphabet except for “K,” the absence of which keeps her up at night. “The Care and Feeding of Non-Writers” is from her book in progress, The 100 Credits Club. She can be found here.


by Karen NelsonKaren in Blue

Humans are made to learn… sometimes in spite of ourselves.  But the truth about education is that it can be found in some pretty surprising places, and it usually comes tuition-free.  As students of life, we have many options: taking a traditional class on a topic that intrigues us, working with a mentor in our field, attending a special event, such as a reading or conference, or just observing how someone we admire works through their process.

Flash Fiction Chronicles is the perfect resource to explore all of your writing options in one place.  Just in the month of October, we met a diverse group of professionals eager to share their knowledge.

In Christopher Ramsey‘s creative writing class, he offers “simple, yet vague, advice: write a scene, avoid too much description, utilize dialogue to reveal backstory, start the story in media res, don’t use exclamation marks, and avoid the word THAT.”  Sounds simple – until you try it.

In Beth Lee-Browning’s article, “Inspiration“, “a ‘teacher’ can take on many forms and isn’t limited to a classroom or mentoring relationship. It can be a chance meeting at an author’s luncheon, a conversation in an airport, or even the gift of a book.”

Of course, finding the right place to write can take a lot of time, too.  Rohini Gupta admonishes writers to avoid spending too much time on achieving the perfect environment, though.

It is never a place, it is a mindset. Places are not quiet, you are.

As a fan of prose poetry, I was especially intrigued by Bill West’s “Crossing the (Invisible) Line“, which examines the similarities between prose poems and flash fiction, and helps us know how to differentiate one from the other.  Learning from other genres is an instant boost to our own.

If you’d like a deeper analysis of an acclaimed flash fiction piece, be sure to review Susan Tepper‘s reasonings about “Young Love”.  Then apply her techniques to your latest piece!

Sometimes, we just need a nudge of encouragement to keep us going.  Take note of Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s advice in “What I Am Is Me“, and then post it on your fridge…your desktop…your forehead…

Of course, some of the best opportunities for expanding your skills is just in seeing how others achieve success.  Take a look at these excellent interviews of authors and editors in the writing community:

This month’s offerings were so numerous, it was like a college course in thirty days!  Be sure to take advantage of the great tips from our contributing authors, and keep writing!


Karen Nelson is a writer and teacher in Southwest Missouri, specializing in educational and nonfiction works. She is a staff writer for Flash Fiction Chronicles, Curriculum Coordinator for Goldminds Publishing, author of four books and numerous stories and articles, and serves on the boards of various writing and literacy organizations.  When staring at a computer screen gets to be too much, Karen wanders outside to her chickens, rabbits, and miniature horse, who are always good for gaining perspective.