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Testing Writing Rules: A Fab Flash

27 Jan

It’s Fiction Friday and I’m celebrating with a story that reminds me of one of my least favorite writing rules.

I’m all for breaking the rules of writingcraft. I love to engage in a furious bout of TELLING rather than showing, thank you very much, and I wonder sometimes if I’m capable of writing any other kind of story than the “zero-to-zero” Jerome Stern outlawed in Making Shapely Fiction. But the rule I most like to break? The one that makes me snarl? “Write what you know.”

I get it. The rule actually means “Use what you know.” And that’s good advice. But when you’re first starting out, and everywhere you turn someone’s advising you solemnly to write what you know, and then shoving Carver and Hemingway at you, not to mention Updike, not to mention Philip fucking Roth (notice a pattern?) you find yourself thinking, well, I don’t spend my evenings staring at a shot glass or swapping angry silence with a spouse or toting a gun or rushing off to dark corners to either masturbate or get it on with somebody else’s spouse, so I write about… what… Scrabble? Cats?? Wait, I know! My parents’ divorce or that time my brother almost lost a finger because there was suffering, people suffered.

Rule BookI’m just saying: If you limit your fiction to the things you know—things, then, you already understand—why on earth are you writing in the first place? Build a brick oven or make a suit of armour. Do something creepy with papier mâché. Writing is about discovery. The whole point is to write what you don’t know—what you can’t know, in fact, until you write it.

So that’s me, being right, and sharing my rightness with you. Except when I’m wrong! And today I’m wrong. A little. Because the fab flash I’m celebrating is built, I’m certain, on intimate knowledge. Of insomnia. And how do I know that? Because I used to suffer from insomnia. I know how it feels, what it looks and smells like, the particular ways in which it rubs away at your smarts and senses. And I recognize it in a beautiful flash fiction published at Hermeneutic Chaos Journal.

I’d bet money Tessa Yang wrote “Peripheral” from the experience of having suffered from insomnia, or she knows well an insomniac who told her all about it. And so, I would say, she used what she knows, which is why I’m only a little wrong. OR I’m even more right than ever (win-win!) because maybe she just did a little research and then imagined herself, like a champ, into it. Either way (1) Please break writing rules whenever you can, and (2) Read this terrific, quiet, shifty little story ostensibly about one thing but really about something else and then something else again….

Which is really all to say that the one true-blue writing rule you can forever depend on? Reading well leads to writing well. Enjoy.

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Blog Tour: My Writing Process

9 Mar

Lately words are making me feel old. Soon enough “answering machine” will make no sense to people, “carbon copy” is probably all but lost, and “pencil it in” is likely cruising into oblivion very soon as well. With little effort anyone over the age of 30 can produce a dozen more recently retired expressions, then rattle off a series of new words that fall neatly into the gaps. My latest acquisitions: listicle, selfie, and blog tour. Yes, I know, I’m slow on the uptake. That makes me feel old, too, but I can moan about that with the husband. For now I should get on with the tour.

I’m honored to have been invited by my dear (and dearly gifted) friend Suzanne Farrell Smith to talk about my writing process as part of a tour of writers’ blogs (a trip to Google will fetch a slew of the tour’s wonderful posts). Suzanne’s post is so rich that I wasn’t sure why I should add my own thoughts to the tour, but then I remembered the reason I started this blog: To share. To share my enthusiasm for short stories, my energy for writing, and whatever advice or inspiration could be lifted from the documentation of my Daily Shorty year and ongoing writerly thoughts and obsessions. I’m just here to share. So off I go with a smallish splat of Q & A.

1)        What am I working on?

In recent weeks I’ve devoted most of my writerly energy to putting together my first short story collection. I’ve been amazed at how hard it is to select from my files the stories that truly go together, and then to discover the best arrangement of the selections.

I developed my current (tentative) manuscript using index cards, each bearing a story title and notes on voice, length, form, themes, and arresting images and phrases. As I arranged and rearranged and arranged again my stack of cards, I kept drifting, mentally, into the fetal position, marveling that the gift of wordskill can morph into manacled ankles before you can say, “A speculative flash piece in narrative form exploring mortality, confused identity, and ruptured familial ties, with metaphors and analogies using water and blood.”

I’ve conjured countless rationales and justifications in this life—I am the much youngest of three kids, so to make up for my relative lack of strength and stature, I mastered early the arts of argument and persuasion. Which is to say that I can stack the index cards any which way and then explain why the order is absolutely right, and by the third attempt (of many, many) I was overwhelmed by my own spin. The goal is to get behind the justifications to the truth, and that’s something I’ve always struggled with, regardless of context. In other words: I’m not done. And wish me luck.

2)        How does my work differ from others of its genre?

In one of my MFA semester evaluations, my mentor began his characterization of my work like this: “Claire does not write realist fiction.” I was taken aback, and at our end-of-semester meeting I asked—with some pique—why he’d said that. He gave me that “Oh dear, she’s slipped into her native Russian” look, and said, “Well, Claire, because… you don’t in fact write realist fiction??” Somehow I’d read his comment as saying that my stories don’t reflect the cares and worries of real people. Of course they do, dammit. Yes, he agreed, of course they do. But they do that using satire or a sprinkling of fairy tale or the form of a product label.

We’ve seen more experimentation and weirdness in short stories over the last decade+, thanks to writers like Aimee Bender, Etgar Keret, and George Saunders, but it’s still true that the vast majority of the stories I read in litmags are written in the realist tradition. My graduation manuscript didn’t include a single story that could be called realist, though many were written in narrative form. After writing a story every day for a year, I do now have some realist shorties under my belt. And when I get the word-alchemy right, I like these stories just as much as anything else I’ve written.

Realist or not, narrative form or not, I like dark, I like funny. I like weird. Every story I write hits one or more of those notes.

3)        Why do I write what I do?

When I won a literary fellowship from the State of Maine, one of the judges commented that I give life to characters who “live in the margins.” I hadn’t realized that before, but it’s true. I write about these people because no one will notice them if I don’t. I put them in short stories because I’m completely in love with the form, so much so that I have to remind myself to read novels.

I hate to sound over-serious nor too full of myself, but I am both of those things, so here it is: I write odd, dark, often darkly funny short stories because I want so badly to tell the truth, and pushing art beyond the boundaries of what feels “normal” gets me to that truth well and fast. I could write a hundred essays (and hopefully someday I will) but the whole lot of them couldn’t possibly tell as much truth as I can reveal in one small piece of fiction. Isn’t that just the sort of preposterous thing sniffy, pashmina-wearing writers say? But I truly believe it. At the very same time that I know it’s preposterous, I believe it. And now someone needs to give me a pashmina, because I’ll never buy one for myself.

4)        How does your writing process work?

I noticed long ago that I both love and despise routine. I crave order and feel comforted by rules and frames, but once I know the rules and frames, once I’ve had to bow to order, I begin to chafe. And I will rebel, it’s just a matter of time and style. So with regard to my writing practice, I establish order and then plan for the rebellion.

When I find myself unable to write immediately upon waking, I’ll shift my writing time to after lunch. When I begin to hate my post-lunch commitment, I’ll save writing time for after dinner. Deep into my Daily Shorty year, every month or so for about a week, I addressed my mental exhaustion by giving myself whole days to do everything but writing, which meant I didn’t start writing until 10:00 PM or even much later. I would sneak up on myself and then have to take a headlong rush at the story before I became too incoherent to write. So whatever the context, I just keep adapting to the new me, with ever-changing targets and ever-evolving strategies.

As for the writing itself, I am a vertical writer who has learned how to incorporate some horizontal habits. And I’ll mention one other element of my process because I’ve discovered that it surprises people when they hear it, yet I can’t understand why: I never consider a story finished (well, as finished as possible, anyway, which is more how I see a story that I think is ready for submission) until I have gone through that final draft for the purpose of examining every single individual word. Is this word necessary? Yes, I think it is. Can you justify that belief? Yes, I think I can. Okay, how about this word? You know, now that you ask me, I have to say that this word is unnecessary. There, it’s gone. Okay, how about this word? And so on.

~

And so ends my part of this tour! Next week, my friend and fellow alum Stephanie Friedman will talk about her process. Stephanie writes short stories that start off quiet but then sneak up on you before you’re quite prepared, which makes the surprise revelation or action or image particularly satisfying. As I’ve told her a couple of times, her work reminds me of Grace Paley, and I don’t see how a writer can ever go wrong doing that. She’s also an astute reader, a generous teacher, a loving wife and mom, and just an all-around thoroughly fantastic person. Here’s a page devoted to the Daily Shorty week Stephanie did with me. Her bio:

Stephanie Friedman is the program director of the Writer’s Studio, a continuing education program in creative writing at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. Her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, and online for Hunger MountainBlood Orange Review, and Literary Mama. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.

Stephanie intends to post Saturday, March 15, here.

My friend Cheryl Wilder will do a post for this tour, as well, here. And I particularly enjoyed Diane Lefer’s and Laurie Cannady’s stops on the tour. Happy reading!

In Defense of Scribble

23 Jul
A scribbled page in one of the notebooks I carried around during my Daily Shorty year.

A scribbled page in one of the notebooks I used during my Daily Shorty year.

I’ve been brainstorming names for a writing project, and one of the words I played with is “scribble.” Not a good idea, said my husband, “Scribbling is bad.” The word “scribble,” said my friends, should never be applied to a professional enterprise. Nor, for that matter, to an adult one. I expected my smart sounding board to object to the word because of course I know just as well how it’s used. Yet scribbling is such an important part of the writing process.

If, unlike most writers, you are an excellent manager of your time, and you maintain a daily writing practice, say every morning from 6:00 to 8:00, you will, of course, reap benefits. But if you reserve your writing energy for that timeframe alone, you will miss opportunities to spice up your stories. Sure, Scribble doesn’t always dot her i’s and cross her t’s. Scribble badly needs a haircut, and a manicure wouldn’t hurt. But these are surface concerns. Harried, slovenly, too impulsive Scribble earns her right place in the writer’s work life by capturing inspiration in the fast-food line, on the stretch mat at the gym, in the produce section of the grocery store. Just caught yourself staring at a really bad polyester dress from Mrs. Brady’s closet? Did I hear you laugh because the guy in the car ahead of you ordered his burger in the cadence and volume of a Barnum & Bailey ringmaster? That’s Scribble-worthy.

Scribble rescues your story when you’re at a friend’s house for dinner, and between the salad and the salmon, you realize exactly what drives your hero to throw that jar of raspberry jam at the kitchen wall… but your keyboard didn’t come to dinner. Your purse containing that tiny pad of paper and pen, whispers Scribble, is in the foyer. Or you could use your phone to take notes, right, that fancy phone you use for GPS, for restaurant reviews, to check your e-mail? Maybe. But I’m convinced that pushing buttons that in turn print perfect letters neatly across your screen does not access the same bubbling mess—sweet mess, spicy mess—that comes from your scribbling pen, hand to page.

Professionals scribble. Adults scribble. The more scribbling the better. But I get it. Scribble doesn’t have a driver’s license nor a checking account. Scribble wears the same shirt three days in a row. Because she has no idea how to show a little decorum, Scribble will come only to those of us who don’t mind her bare feet and scraped knees. Okay. Until we play Pygmalion, dear Scribble—will you consider bangs?—you will have to tiptoe in the margins. But then again, I think that’s just how Scribble likes it.

Navigating Outer Limits

2 Jul

Outer LimitsFirst, apologies for the month-long standstill. I have the patience to write only these two words — technical difficulties — and then on to the subject of this glad-to-be-back post: Controlling the horizontal and the vertical.

You’ve seen that old clip, right, from the opening of the 1960s television series The Outer Limits? “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. … We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.” Today I thought of those lines when considering one of the greatest benefits of the Daily Shorty challenge, even if you take the challenge only for a week. Throughout that week you will reap the rewards of both horizontal and vertical writing.

Andre Dubus introduced this horizontal vs. vertical idea in his essay “The Habit of Writing.” He had always been a horizontal writer—one who rushes headlong across the page, sweeping from left to right and back again, recording the thoughts as they fall, go go go. This is the kind of writing Anne Lamott recommends in Bird by Bird when she talks about “shitty first drafts,” and the concept being applied in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones series. Just write. Write it all. Don’t stop until you’re out of words. Then you look at all your lovely words, enjoy the satisfaction of having produced, and tackle revision.

When wrestling with a particularly difficult story, Dubus one day told himself that he was not allowed to move on to the next word until he was certain the one he had recorded was right. Can you hear the screech of brakes? Never run when you can jog. Never jog when you can walk. Why are you walking? Be still already. If you’re writing vertically, you are drilling down into the meaning of the story with each additional word, then doubling back to review phrases and sentences, editing with meticulous care as you proceed. It takes much longer to write a draft but when you do, it will need only a fraction of the revision and polish that your horizontal drafts need.

There is some overlap, of course, but in my experience writers tend to quickly claim to be mostly horizontal or vertical. I am emphatically a vertical writer, myself. Which is why I love the horizontal writing the Daily Shorty approach forced out of me.

If you’re a vertical writer, having to complete a piece in a day forces some horizontal writing, which harvests ideas as they bubble up and allows you to let the energy of those ideas propel you forward. Often vertical writers miss richness and freshness and weirdness that can spice the work because we’re trying so hard to refine, polish, perfect—we are pressing all the time and so we don’t leave any gaps wide enough for the really deep, oddly shaped stuff to bubble up.

Pushing for completion by lights out forces vertical writing, too, though, because we have to be thinking from the start—Does this beginning work, Is it leading naturally to this next bit, How’s the shape coming, Am I heading to an ending that makes sense? Asking those questions as urgently as we must to ensure completing the piece that day, causes us to double-back and strengthen that part of the foundation, then this part here, then over there. We push hard for a big picture that works because we have to finish this thing, which means often we will write more coherently and with a more sound structure than our rough drafts typically have.

You control the horizontal. You control the vertical. Celebrate both as you write yourself to the outer limits of what you can imagine.


Photo of oscilli attribution: Rippey574 at en.wikipedia.

Prompt Power and Objectivity Fail

24 May

I just realized that all five of the shorties I have published so far have two things in common. (1) I wrote each one with the use of a writing prompt. The prompts I used included a photo, a paragraph I had written and stored in my idea file, and three paintings. The shorties are “Her Postcards” from September 18, “Reflections” from October 17, “High Water” from December 5, “Vanilla” from January 17, and “Imaginary i” from January 19.

Honeymoon Bay SunsetInterested in writing prompts? I often used a “Picture of the Day” at Wikimedia Commons for inspiration. Here’s one for you, if you’d like to stop right now and let it inspire a story. Go!

(2) Despite my understanding throughout my Daily Shorty year that the challenge was about process, and my insistence that the Inner Critic must be banned during the drafting phase, I habitually (and reflexively) commented in story posts when I considered a story a “keeper.” So under the “What the hell do I know” file: I made no such comment about any of these five shorties. Apparently I was underwhelmed when I first wrote them and only discovered their worth later, when I selected them for submissions. Good to be reminded that initial judgments should always be questioned.


Photo of Honeymoon Bay, Freycinet Peninsula, Tasmania, Australia, by JJ Harrison 7/2009.

Aside

And now a word from Natalia!

10 Apr

reddoorOn April 7 (see my story post further down the page) I used my friend Natalia Sarkissian’s story prompt, a photo of a red door, for inspiration. When I e-mailed Natalia to ask if I could use the image for the blog, she said yes and mentioned that she had used this same prompt before as well. I want to highlight her piece here both because I enjoyed it and because you can see from what I posted of my story that she and I took radically different approaches. That’s one of the joys of a prompt, that it can inspire such different stories. So rather than using her photo in my story post, I’m showing it here, and here is Natalia’s piece. Again, thanks so much my friend!

Aside

Mastering Every Sentence

3 Feb

Craft NoteMy friend Cynthia Newberry Martin has a great craft essay at Brevity about making sure every sentence of your fiction is at least good. I agree with her that not every sentence can be great, but all sentences should meet a minimum standard or they shouldn’t be on the page. Here at Daily Shorty I force myself to celebrate something in every story by posting a favorite sentence. When I was just getting started with writing I promised myself that if I ever stopped making myself laugh with my own jokes or if I ever found myself writing a story that didn’t contain at least one sentence that knocks me out, I’ll stop writing. We really do have to write for ourselves FIRST or why would we ever put so much time and energy into it? Making each sentence good or great is the least effort we owe our own work.

Aside

Avoiding Complication

31 Aug

I finally picked up the craft book Rules of Thumb, edited by Michael Martone and Susan Neville, and I wanted to mention an early piece on “Complexity” by Paul Maliszewski. He talks about reading work by students who avoid complication in their stories—one student puts and keeps a husband in a coma while the wife rails at his recent sins, but, of course, rails alone—and how much playing it so safe drains the story of any energy. I’m not doing him justice, so you’ll have to get the book, but I wanted to remind myself and any writer friends following this project: Don’t skip the hard stuff! A character gets fired but you skipped the firing? Why? A woman leaves her husband but you don’t give us the scene when he catches her packing? What gives? The story is supposed to be about the hard stuff. Take a deep breath, and, yeah, go there.

Aside

What’s at stake?

7 Aug

I love fiction that breaks rules and refuses to deliver the expected goods and shape. But no matter what kind of story I’m writing, I’m always asking myself why I, as a reader, should care. I was flipping through my notes on a talk by the wonderful Richard McCann when I saw this great piece of advice on the subject of writing something that matters: “A frequent mistake writers make is chronicling events. When the chronicle of events takes over, ask yourself: Is there enough at stake?”

Goodbye to Week 9!

2 Jul

A frosty virtual piña colada for me in celebration of completing Week 9! Today’s shorty was inspired by Michael Martone’s visit to my friend and colleague’s blog, Cynthia Newberry Martin’s Catching Days. I’m a huge fan of Michael (see the “How To Be a Writer” project he inspired at Hunger Mountain) and I pay close attention to everything he says. More on what he says in that post another time but today what I took from it was a reminder to play with structure. He’s just written Four for a Quarter, a book of pieces based on the number 4. This morning I got hooked on the number 7. So… why is thinking “yellow” a Big Idea that ruins a story and thinking “7” isn’t? I’m not sure, but my guess is that I’m using “7” to suggest form, and form is just a constraint we can choose to work within or not. Whereas with “yellow” I wasn’t thinking form at all but about the abstract concept of the color yellow and about even more abstract associations with it (cowardice, age) and how I might do these ideas justice. For me, trying to go from the abstract to the concrete means ruination.


Working Title: 7 Ways To Tempt Your Man
1st Sentence: What man?
Favorite Sentence: For God’s sake don’t wear that flimsy pink number with the silky sash, it makes you look like an expensive bedroom slipper.
Word Length: 574


Photo by Portorricensis, June 2008.

How To Kill a Story: The Big Idea

19 May

When I first started writing short stories, I’d start with a Big Idea. I’d want to write a story about redemption, or painful self-discovery. Then I’d work away at creating the characters and scenes that might get me there. I learned to avoid The Big Idea approach because if I try to work from the abstract to the concrete, I fail every time. Yesterday someone told me that the Fairy Tale Review is taking submissions for their Yellow issue and ever since then all I can think is yellow yellow yellow. No surprise, no good ideas took hold in my writing session today and I wound up having to just push through on a bad one. So another clunker. But even clunkers earn sweat equity, right?


Working Title: Yellow
1st Sentence: Yellow was her color.
Favorite Sentence: Ella felt as though she had lived her entire life trying to meet that expectation of sublime adorable, performing as one-half of a girl-boy twin team from the minute she was born.
Word Length: 465


What clichés do you lean on?

11 May

I noticed a couple of years ago that I have a thing about men’s watches (but only as a writer). If I want to show that a man is full of himself, I give him a Rolex. If I want to show that he doesn’t care about someone he’s talking to, I make him glance at his watch. It pays to notice what clichés you tend to lean on, not just so you can better your habits—I go back and strip out most of my references to watches—but so that you can look for gold in what obsesses you. This morning I thought about my watch habit and decided to build the day’s shorty around a man who can’t stop looking at his watch.


Working Title: My Very Own Fairy Tale
1st Sentence: On actual bended knee.
Favorite Sentence: I couldn’t think how to get it back, how to shape my tongue to the vanishing glide of  the letter Y, much less the E, much less the S.
Word Length: 608


The Idea File

9 May

I’ve been working harder at keeping up my idea file and that work paid off today. If you consider taking on the Daily Shorty challenge—say a story a day for a week or a story a day for a month—I highly recommend sprucing up your current idea file, first, and then adding to it regularly. I’m finding that because I have to come up with something new every day, I’m tuning in more to what’s happening around me, to overheard snippets of conversation, interesting people-watching, and so on. I’m remembering to carry a small notebook and pen with me everywhere, these days.


Working Title: Future Perfect
1st Sentence: Lately everybody looks like somebody I’ve seen before.
Favorite Sentence: Don’t you just wish, I heard on her breath as she walked away, waving at the counter boy to come take my order, me going crimson to the toenail.
Word Length: 417


With the Hypnotist “El Spirito”

5 May

When I was a kid I’d hear about hypnotists who traveled from city to city, putting on shows in front of huge audiences. Invariably someone would claim that the hypnotist called a member of the audience to the stage, put him under, and made him walk like a chicken for everyone’s amusement, clucking and flapping his arms like wings. Supposedly the chicken-walker never remembers the experience. Finally built a story on that very powerful (and very silly) image.


Working Title: Like the Chicken She Is
1st Sentence: You, there, the lady in the pale green….
Favorite Sentence: Disappearing into the cradling dark, the easy easy nothing.
Word Length: 877


Update: My friend Amy Souza came calling not long after I wrote this story, wondering if I could contribute a short fiction to her latest round of SPARK. “Like the Chicken She Is” served as the inspiration for the piece pictured above, “Vanishing Act” by Sandy Coleman, and for a piece by Amanda Brainerd (page down past the art and you’ll see the story in its entirety). Beautiful work, Ladies!

Jumping off the cliff!

1 May

Incredibly busy week publishing a huge project at Hunger Mountain. Actually pulled an all-nighter last night. But I had to start my Daily Shorty project today, so I stayed up a bit later….

The discussion of rhythm in Dave Jauss’s book on craft, Alone With All That Could Happen, had me shouting, “I thought I was the only person who did that!” (See 2. Syntax as Soundtrack in the essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow.”)

I write in rhythm when I can hear the way the story should progress but I can’t find the words. “Like a blah and a blah blah,” she said, tossing her hair again—again!—and flounced away, her blah and blah blah blahing. My brain wouldn’t come up with some of the words for this first shorty, so “rhythm writing” had to serve. Day 1 in the bag!


Working Title: Like Shit on a Cracker
1st Sentence: Like a fine merlot.
Favorite Sentence: Like a hooker late on a slow night and behind on her rent.
Word Length: 481