Flash Fiction Discussion Thread

Apologies for the cross-post, but I know there are a lot of writers who follow me here!

Over at my other site, I’m starting a discussion thread on flash fiction, that seemingly ubiquitous beast of  the modern age.

Flash fiction has been a weird thing for me to wrap my head around lately, and I really want to hear from more writers about their thoughts. So please, hop over there to share your thoughts!

 

the shapes of stories

I noticed this post was sitting in my drafts folder with nothing more than a heading. It’s been sitting there nearly a year. Who knows what the hell I was thinking when I came up with that title.

If the past is a foreign country, one’s past self is a stranger. Or least someone you went to school with a long time ago and now no longer have anything in common with except for a lingering adolescent love of first gen punk rock.

I digress.

What was that post supposed to be about? The shapes of stories? What can that mean?

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It was Vonnegut. Of course. How could I forget.

Borrowing from this general idea, if mapped in two dimensions, there are five story shapes:

  • Up to Down – Tragedy
  • Up to Down to Up Again – Comedy
  • Down to Up – Boring Biopic
  • Down to Up to Down Again – Oscar-Award Winning Biopic
  • Flatline – Vonnegut says Hamlet, but I think a lot of us can generally agree that shit is pretty fucking tragic.

Why did I think this was worth blogging about a year ago? I can’t remember.

Why do I think it’s worth blogging about now?

So I can make a stupid joke at the expense of biopics. That’s about it.

my three dads

There is a line in a movie that I am not ashamed to admit I have seen way too many times* which goes:

“Typical isn’t it? You wait twenty years for a dad and then three come along at once.”
I feel a little like this right now. I’ve had several months of plugging away at a project with all the diligence of an AP English student (which is to say, very little diligence, but we fake it well), and now everything has kind of exploded in my face.

There is a line in a movie that I am not ashamed to admit I have seen way too many times* which goes:

“Typical isn’t it? You wait twenty years for a dad and then three come along at once.”

I feel a little like this right now. I’ve had several months of plugging away at a project with all the diligence of an AP English student (which is to say, very little diligence, but we fake it well), and now everything has kind of exploded in my face.

I titled this post ‘my three dads’ because there were three things that immediately jumped to mind, but then I’ve remembered a few more. It’s more like my three dads, plus a couple step-dads, and then that one creepy uncle.

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So, of the original three, I’ve got the three huge projects I’ve been working on /  brainstorming. I’ve basically been in genre fiction mode for quite a while now, which seems to put to bed (without supper!) my whole would-I-rather-write-genre-or-literary-fiction?

There are three novel-length things I’ve been picking through currently, and these are the aforementioned three dads. But let’s just be clear, there is nothing paternalistic about this other a fervent desire to make them proud of me.

By this weird token, I have another first draft of a complete novel waiting for a second draft. Which is to say, a re-write. Call it a step-dad. It lives in my house, but we have a stilted, awkward relationship. Perhaps we can make it work.

(I am also ignored the one complete literary novel, which I have basically chosen to abandon.)

I guess this brings me to the other step-dad and the creepy uncle. Perhaps creepy uncle is too harsh, but what else do you really call a podcast?

Yes. Podcast. And not just one!

Tomorrow, I’ll be recording with several friends, the topic of which shall remain a mystery, while sometime in March, I will join a Riverdale podcast for one episode to espouse my expertise on Archie Out of Context. By expertise, I mean, I have the blog. That’s it. All the expertise.

But nevertheless, I am excited. After months of slow drudgery and toil, everything happens all at once.

It’s given me a nice push so let’s wait and see about the follow-through….


*Mamma Mia! I was raised on ABBA and I have no shame. But, come on, what other films have such a plot that could in any way engender a line such as the one quoted above? Maybe that long-forgotten Michael Keaton classic Multiplicity if you somehow combined it with that other long-forgotten Michael Keaton classic Mr. Mom? Oh that we lived in such a world.

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This always happens. I get 2/3 of the way done my final draft and I decide to start outlining a whole frigging series.

kurt vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction

kurt_vonnegut__jr__by_siglarkEight rules for writing fiction:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Source: Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

a post from someone who just finished a first draft then needed a cry…

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pixar’s rules of storytelling

Each writer has a different approach to rules. For some, they’re made to be broken, others they are mere guidelines, and even others, they are cliches to be avoided like the plague (guess which one I’m not). 

Anyway, advice in general is like excerpts from the bible: people cherrypick what works for them and ignore the rest.

But when you get stuck, you never know what it is that might help get you unstuck. So it’s good to have something to go to. Who knows? Therein may lie your answer.

These Pixar rules, which have been floating around the interwebs for a while, are an excellent go-to. Thus, I thought I’d share it because it made they’ve made their way to my bulletin board of oh-my-god-help-me-now (pictured).

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Here we go:

  • #1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  • #2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  • #3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  • #4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  • #5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  • #6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  • #7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  • #8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  • #9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  • #10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  • #11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  • #12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  • #13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  • #14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  • #15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  • #16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  • #17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  • #18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  • #19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  • #20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  • #21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  • #22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Source: Emma Coates, via The Pixar Touch.

triangulating the text

So a while ago I started posting chapters of a novel online before I panicked and took them down after realizing that they (a) weren’t at the calibre I could achieve, and (b) were not going to be produced as expediently as I hoped.

I’ve since been working on it again.

The pitch for In What World is thus:

Willa and Liz are Brokers: thieves and smugglers for hire who hop realms, solving mysteries and having adventures along the way. Each realm is a genre – Urban Fantasy, Space Opera, Dystopia – and each realm has Rules. It’s time to see if those Rules can be broken.

I decided to shift the tone of book (first in a series maybe?) when I stepped back and started examining what sort of genre satires and parodies I enjoyed myself. And I realized that I preferred riffs on genre that don’t make fun of the genre in as much as they exemplify it.

Think The Naked Gun versus Hot Fuzz. I mean, we all love Leslie Neilsen, but Hot Fuzz is a masterpiece. And you don’t have to get all the jokes in order to enjoy it. You can take it as an action film. You can take it as a satire. Because of this intersection, you can take is as a deeper meditation on genre and storytelling.

I’m at the point where, to get to the heart of each genre/realm, I’ve had to establish a reference point. A generic (literally generic) fog in my head was just not cutting it anymore.

IMG_2193So what I ended up doing was trying to figure out three texts for each realm/genre as I want to showcase it that I would use as three points of a triangle of the genre, with the intersection between then being what I was aiming for.

I’m not necessarily going for the most perfect representation of the genre, but rather what elements I want to pull from it. For instance, my three texts for a pirate realm are Treasure Island, On Stranger Tides and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.

Treasure Island skews classic ur-text; On Stranger Tides brings in the possible supernatural/myth-involved portion (it was the base text for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie); and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle pulls towards a female protagonist, an outsider to this world, as well as wider historical context.

Is this a ridiculously formal and quantitative way to approach something as subjective as art? Oh hells yes. But, it really helped me find my focus so I could do more than just spout genre references, like, say, National Lampoon.

And I don’t want readers to have to have read Le Morte D’ArthurGrimm’s Fairy Tales, and The Lais of Marie de France into order to “get” the non-specific fantasy realm I’ve dropped my characters in. Rather, these texts contains the elements that have seeped into our implicit and subconscious understanding of this genre.

Anyway, all these texts (expect for the ones I’m still hunting bookstores for) are on my desk for easy reference. It’s a glorious thing.

 

the granny square approach

Momentum, like Mr. Darcy’s good opinion, once lost is lost forever.

Or so it seems.

Something like a particularly nasty cold that lasts a week (especially when it is followed by Husband spending the whole next week sick with said cold) can wreak havoc on my momentum.

Like coming back from vacation, or from an illness, or from a mental rabbit hole of writing on one project, returning to the status quo is difficult. You feel like the Campbellian hero, returning to find the world the same but himself drastically different.

Only  your arc was a helluva lot more pathetic than the hero’s. You find yourself wondering just how the hell you did this day-in, day-out, once upon a time. What was I? Superhuman?

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Losing your momentum is like losing a little bit of yourself. What is all this yarn and how the hell will I ever make it anything?

I kept telling myself there has to be some technique for dealing with this… something I could fall back on when I find yourself in this situation… some easy trick to convince myself it’s all not as difficult as I thought.

I realized when crocheting once, that the idea of holding in my hands the tiny fragment of what will be a finished product is too overwhelming. How can I have this brief string of stitches and imagine it an entire blanket?

It’s so much easier to just… not  do it. I accepted the lack of momentum and gave up.

But obviously, if I kept doing this, I’d never accomplish anything.

So I tried this. I wasn’t going to make an entire blanket, I was going to make one granny square. That was easy. It just took an hour.

And then, when that was done, I made another.

Before I knew it, I had a bag of granny squares. I had a whole fucking blanket!

And, funnily enough, I didn’t even want a blanket anymore. I made pillows instead.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.26.35 AM

 

My point is that everything can be broken down into manageable chunks. Don’t worry about writing that novel; write that chapter. Hell, write that one scene. Or even just two hundred words. Just focus on that.

Just that. And don’t worry about anything else until it’s time.

Before you know it, you’ll have a pillow that’s as sexy as hell.

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Or two. 

Aw, yeah.

state of the union

Since about 2010, I’ve been keeping writing notes in Blueline notebooks. I go through two or three a year. I’ve just started my fifteenth.

It’s remarkably arbitrary when I finish a notebook; I simply run out of pages. From there, I have to plan a trip to Staples, select a notebook. Sometimes they’re all out of my usual model, so I adapt.

blueline notebooks

About half-way through, say, 2013 or so, I realized I was carting around not just the current notebook, but also the previous one or two, just because they had notes I still needed to refer to.

So I force myself to take the time to sit down and go through the previous notebook and transcribe notes. Sometimes photocopies must do, stapled into place.

I add post-it flags, highlighting, all that Type A jazz.

And I also started doing a “state of the union” on the front page of every notebook. I list all the various projects and ideas that have been circling my mind like vultures, waiting to pick off some spare moment of creativity and actually be written.

I did all of this yesterday.

The last few months have been crazy. I had to go through the previous two notebooks to do this and I still have more to do.

In that craziness, I’ve had to sit on a few projects just to make room for new ones.

In my state of the unions, projects seem to shake down into two or three tiers.

Tier One includes on-going sagas and projects that have dominated my mental space. Basically, this is Pirates in Space and then anything else that momentarily takes over. It’s like these projects are my immediate family and Pirates in Space is my husband.

Tier Two is other projects that I am actually making decent headway on. They take up decent space in my creative life, but they will always be dropped if Tier One needs me. These are like my extended family and friends.

Tier Three includes brief ideas and things that are only ever half-baked. Maybe one day we’ll become good friends. Maybe one day I’ll even marry them. But right now, they’re just someone on the bus you talked to once, or that guy three cubicles down you know is also into Star Wars.

Let’s just say that Pirates in Space and I are in couples counselling because I’ve been spending a lot of time with other projects lately. A little too much time.