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Flash of Inspiration

—From Cathy

Keep it short. Cut to the chase. Spit it out. Just the facts, ma’am.

I’ve long been a long-winded writer, and have adhered to exactly none of these suggestions. Until I tried writing flash fiction.

FlashIt started with a workshop run by Kathy Fish (known widely, especially on Twitter, as The Great Kathy Fish), which was a game changer. Her workshops offer one inspiring prompt to write from, every day, for 10 days, and they introduce you to a whole group of writers who give support and encouragement. Pieces can be no more than 1,000 words. Sometimes less. You may have to choose from a list of words to include, or an object or image.

I went into this class utterly baffled by how to write such short pieces, but dove in and  felt my way through. And I’ve gotten a few decent stories from it. And hey, here’s one of them that was just pubbed on Pithead Chapel this month!PC

Have you tried flash? If not, and you’re as puzzled by it as I was, or even if you’re a seasoned pro, here’s one of the best articles I’ve found for how it works:

The Review Review – Flash Fiction: What’s It All About?

Once you’ve chopped and sharpened and shined up those stories, here are some great journals, several of which sponsor flash contests, to submit them to.

Give it a try! And remember, brevity is the sole of wit. And, uh, never use two words when one will do. And…okay, I’ll cut it short. Write well, everyone!

Journals:

Brevity

Every Day Fiction

Flash Fiction Magazine

Flash Fiction Online

Hobart

Jellfyfish Review

Pank

Pithead Chapel

Smokelong Quarterly

Wigleaf

 

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Takeaways from a Writer’s Conference

—From Cathy

I attended the one-day Conversations & Connections writer’s conference again this year, hosted by Barrelhouse Magazine, and wrote up all the best advice and lessons learned—just for you guys. Enjoy!

C&C

First Panel: “What you Show: How to Choose What and When”

Speaker: Fiction Writer Stephanie King

Characterization is what you show in a character, plus context, plus situation. Ask yourself, what is your character’s biggest fear? What is he/she struggling to do? What will she/he learn in the process? What your characters do now shows what they’ve done in the past.meme

Consider “The Gift of the Magi”—O. Henry doesn’t go into the characters’ past. But there are select scenes that show who they are instead. Or “Hills Like White Elephants,” which is almost all dialogue. Jig wants the man she’s with (we’re never given his name) to love her again. Her insecurities, her neediness is evident through their conversations. She relies on him for nearly everything. We don’t even know what she looks like, but her character is clearly seen in the way she watches him look at the hills. Use subtle clues like this to show who your characters really are.

Create a logline for your story–that one-line “hook” that makes readers take notice. Tape it in front of you and refer back to it as you create.

lecter2Think of some of the most memorable movie characters that really had an impact. Hannibal Lecter was only on screen 15 minutes. Alien only four minutes!

Checklist for revealing your characters:

  • Character sketch
  • The slice of life you choose to show
  • How they express themselves
  • Context—how all this fits into their life

Second Panel: Invite, Beg, Snare, Broadcast, Brag: How to Open Short Stories

Speaker: Author Tommy Dean

Ask yourself what will entice the reader. Character, setting, and conflict create a concrete understanding for the reader and keep the story from settling into a vignette (a story without resolution or a sense of meaning—it can have character and conflict, but nothing is at stake for the writer or reader).

snoopyA good opening starts off with a sense of what’s at stake: The character has something to gain or to lose.

Introduce mystery, tension right from the start.

Become subservient to your story. Immerse yourself in this world and give us all the sensory details of it.

I found this session, and the prompts we were given, to be extremely helpful and interesting. And I feel like I’ve moved a step forward with the piece I’m working on.

Prompt #1: Write a general, bland sentence.

Now make it better with specific details:

Then add something off-kilter, unexpected:

Prompt #2: Push into your sense of irony.

Create dread, tension, or hope with targeted word choices. Why are these characters in this place at this point in their lives?

Prompt #3: Think about what your character didn’t do.

Continue with concrete nouns/verbs and something off-kilter. Build through this until the character does something meaningful that moves the story forward.

Prompt #4: Set up the front and back story.

Or set up duel conflicts—two characters sharing an unexpected event. Think of a word or words that might pass between them. Maybe something heavy from the past, or something about a particular item. Words should connect them in surprising ways—make them come together and then bounce away.

Prompt #5: Subvert the setting.

Think of a place you love. Write about it from the point of view of someone who hates that place. Consider the paradigm of character, setting, and conflict.

Publishing: Editor’s Panel

Moderator: Marisa Siegal, Editor in Chief of Rumpus; Panelists: Venus Thrash, co-editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly; Jessica Fischoff, managing editor/owner of PANK Magazine; Chris Gonzalez, Fiction Editor of Barrelhouse; Monica Prince, Managing Editor, Santa Fe Writers Project

Siegal: How do you sustain writing while editing (or any other job)?

“Keep a journal and pen in every bag and desk and drawer. Write on cocktail napkins. Don’t ignore ideas when they show up.”

Prince: I’m required to write to keep my college professor job. I learned to write in the mornings, which changed everything. Never ignore an opportunity to write. Keep a journal and pen in every bag and desk and drawer. Write on cocktail napkins. Don’t ignore ideas when they show up. Write every day. It doesn’t have to be good. Write a grocery list! And drink lots of tea.

Fischoff: I’m still trying to find that balance. I’ve realized I can’t obsess over every piece. When it’s done, it’s done, and I move on.

Gonzales: I can often revise writing when it’s a low day at work. My job is sort of paying me to do this. If I had to go home and write, that would be too hard. I joined a writing group to keep me accountable. It’s been helpful. I’ve forgiven myself for not writing every day, so when I do, I’m less stressed. It happens when it happens.

Venus: I struggled with this and went into a writer’s slump. I teach, so my writing slows down during the semesters, gears up again in the summer when I’m off.

Siegal: Should writers follow market trends?

Gonzalez: Be aware of them, but write what you want and let it be what it will be. Is there a home for everything? No. But there is for most things.

Fischoff: Someone dying, opening grandma’s closet and finding something surprising—there’s far too much of that. Read a journal’s most recent issues to see what’s been done already. Surprise us.

Siegal: Do you have a way to separate editing and writing?

Fischoff: I tell myself, for the next hour, I will WRITE, not EDIT. I tell the editor in me to shut up.

Prince: Accept incoherence. Go on a rant. Write in the margins. You will need to revise, undoubtedly, but keep going.

Bonus Sessiongif

I also attended the “Speed Dating with Editors” event, where you can share and discuss a short piece of your work with an editor for 10 minutes. I met with two literary magazine editors, both of whom had some wonderful insights into the writing I showed them. They speed-read a four-page piece and disagreed on several things I should correct. But the one thing they both advised me to do was slow down and insert myself more fully into the scene—let us see, hear, smell what the character is experiencing. And you know, that’s the really fun part of writing, isn’t it? Why is it always so easily overlooked?

Oh, and the best line overheard of the day?

“You have to listen to writing advice, but you don’t have to take it.”

(Which means, of course, you can ignore all of the above.)

The care and feeding of secondary characters

Where would Gatsby without Daisy? Or Scarlett without Melanie? How could Harry have managed without Ron and Hermione? What if Hamlet had taken Polonius’ good advice?

Secondary characters.  There’s no story without them, but I think too many of us don’t give them the limelight they deserve.

I’m thinking a lot about my supporting cast these days as I work on my novel rewrite. Lucky for me, Amy Sue Nathan devoted a post to the topic during her Thirty Days of Writing Advice series in April.

Amy’s got the month-long series archived, so check it out.

I’m calling out Amy’s terrific advice on how to treat secondary characters, and why it matters. That’s how much I like it.

From Amy:

TWO TIPS FOR SECONDARY CHARACTERS

Your secondary characters need love too, and they need to be as carefully created as your main character — just don’t tell her.

My two biggest tips for creating engaging secondary characters are:

Each secondary character must have her own arc.

To me, this means, a little story of their own going on — a subplot if you will, a storyline. Each must have her own beginning, middle, end. That character doesn’t know she’s in someone else’s story!! But…

Each secondary character must to serve the main character’s story. 

EVERYTHING in your novel helps to drive the main story forward, even a secondary character’s personal storyline. Ask yourself HOW it does this to make sure, but more importantly ask yourself WHY.

This is something hard to do but easy to check. Go back through your manuscript or outline and focus on your main secondary characters (not the townspeople, as I call them). Note what she’s doing in a scene — why is she there? How is her own story being furthered? How is it impacting the protagonist and the main storyline?

 

 

 

 

 

 

–Karen

30 days of writing advice

We love author Amy Sue Nathan at womensfictionwriters.com

Amy is funny and real and full of good advice.

This month, you can take daily advantage of Amy’s insights, as she embarks on:

Screen Shot 2019-04-01 at 8.52.48 AM

Cathy and I will both be checking in daily with Amy. Join us? At the end, we can share what we found most helpful.

Cheers,

–Karen

 

The ‘Wild Ride’ of Writer Hannah Grieco

me—From Cathy

Hannah Grieco is an education and disability advocate and writer in Arlington, Virginia. Her essays and short stories have been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Motherwell, First for Women, Hobart, Lunch Ticket, Barren Magazine, Arlington Magazine, and others. She is the founder and director for ‘Readings on the Pike,’ a series that highlights a diverse array of local writers in the Washington, DC area. She can be found at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter @writesloud.

Please welcome Hannah to Write Despite!

  • Can you tell us about your background? Where you went to school, your major, your early work experience?

My background is a bit of a wild ride. I was raised in the Washington, DC area. I went to the Oberlin Conservatory for clarinet, but switched to the college my second year. I tried out a series of majors, and ended up with a BA in Geology. It took slightly longer than four years to complete that journey. (Seven. It took seven years, with two year-long breaks in the middle.) But by the end, I realized I would not be able to rock climb for a living, which was depressing and triggered yet another life tangent. So I went to New York City to study acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse. (See? My poor mother!) I was overwhelmed by the reality of attempting to become a professional actress, and ran back to the DC area a year later, where I taught drama and dance to preschoolers. That sparked something new inside me, a focus (finally) outside of myself. I decided to get an M.Ed from Marymount University and became an elementary school teacher. But wait! We’re not done! After eight years, I got married and had kids. I decided to stay at home temporarily, which extended to “for the foreseeable future” when one of my children started to struggle with some pretty significant disabilities. As I dove into the very challenging world of advocacy, out of necessity, I began to share what I was learning with other parents. This led to more formal work in the area, and then writing as well.

  • Did you ever formally study writing? If not, how did you begin to write?

I wrote a ton of academic papers in undergrad and grad school, but I didn’t consider myself a writer. Then in early 2018, I really wanted to encourage my autistic son to read fiction. He was an advanced reader, but only wanted to read nonfiction. So I wrote a short story for him, hoping it would hook his interest, and it did! He wanted to know what happened next, and so I kept writing, then writing even more. It developed into a (very poorly-written) chunk of a middle-grade novel. An editor encouraged me to write an essay about *why* I was writing this novel, and so I did. That experience was profound, a totally different style of writing than I had ever done – and the piece sold! I got paid to write! So…I began writing more essays, which also sold, and decided to focus on the craft of writing. Both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve taken a couple of classes, but most of my learning has happened from working with amazing editors and sharing with peers in critique groups.

  • Your website says you’ve gone from teacher, to mother, to parenting advocate. How does writing fit into all these things?

I use my essays, and even some short stories, as a form of advocacy. Most of my published nonfiction is specifically focused on disability, education, and mental health in kids. Many of my stories are about families and relationships, and the role of disability and/or mental health issues within that context.

  • You’ve published fiction and non-fiction pieces in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and a number of magazines and journals. What are you most proud of?

My Washington Post piece was scary to share and seemed to have a big impact, based on the emails I received. But I am most proud of the piece about my son and his love for Eminem (in HuffPo), because autistic people are often so poorly and stereotypically represented in the media. My son is a human being, not the subject of inspiration porn, and he is one of my favorite people! I hope to elevate and inform in my work, to bring autism to the reader as something to learn about and respect, rather than perpetuate the more common narratives that usually accompany the subject.

  • Who are your favorite authors?

Oh this is so hard! It depends on the genre and my mood that day. For short stories, probably Meg Pillow Davis and Tyrese Coleman right now. David Sedaris and Flannery O’Connor, in terms of influence over time. I could give you a long list of brilliant authors I read and love, both in short-form and long-form, but I’m also crazy about Stephen King. I like to read about people and he is the master of that! For essays: I just read whatever is being published and try to soak it all up!

I wanted to read my work, to have an audience and learn from that experience. But I live in Arlington, and all the readings were always in DC. It can be hard to get to events regularly with three kids clinging to you! So I asked a few friends if they’d be willing to read with me if I planned a one-time event. They graciously agreed, and we ended up with a big crowd that night! Then more writers contacted me, wanting to read as well, and it took off from there, quickly becoming a monthly series. Writers want to share their words! And I love it, everything about it. I meet the most amazing, talented people and get to watch and listen as they offer us their beating hearts.

F4_AF745_400x400
Hannah Grieco at Readings on the Pike
  • Do you have advice for new or struggling writers?

I think we’re all struggling, right? And I am certainly new myself! The key for me has been to connect with other writers, to find my community. I read their work, ask them questions, and save money to work with local editors. I regularly swap work with other writers and we critique each other, which is hard! It’s brutal to hear when your words don’t work! But that’s the only way to learn, to just dissolve the pride that prevents you from polishing your work into something really moving and impactful.

  • What are you writing or working on now?

I am constantly working on essays and short stories. I write every day in those two genres. But I am also working on a book related to special needs parenting and advocacy!

 

 

 

 

New Market for New Writers!

I hope everyone is writing well as we head into the home stretch of winter. The green grass of Spring is on the horizon. If you’ve got short work you’re looking to send out, here’s an opportunity.

We’re going to start giving a shout-out to magazines and online publishing venues that truly welcome emerging–as well as established–writers, when we stumble across them.

So, say hello to Sonder Midwest. What a super cool logo this is.

sonder

The mag’s online presence is pretty nice, and the publishers really want to see your stories. Here’s how they put it:

Sonder is an online literary and art publication that strives for unity through defining the unknown territory that is creativity. Sonder provides a place for young and new writers to share their prose, poetry, photography, drawings, and other types of original work. Sonder desires work that connects everyone involved.

They’ve got some upcoming contests and other opportunities. Check them out, and send your work out: https://sondermw.wordpress.com

Remember, when one of us scores, we all score. Good luck!

–Karen

 

Getting Close to Your Characters

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a fantastic workshop at the Writers in Progress studio in beautiful Florence, Massachusetts. Led by author Jacqueline Sheehan, the workshop was called “Getting Close to Your Characters.”

Anyone who’s struggled with bringing characters and their motivations (real and hidden) to life knows what we’re talking about. It ain’t easy.

Character-Motivations-Header-605x300

The studio described the challenge this way:

One of the main reasons why readers read is to slip inside the skin of another person. The most memorable characters are those we feel closest to: the ones whose feelings we feel and whose lives we experience…. But how do writers accomplish this intimacy while thinking about so many other things, like plot and pacing and character development?

Jacqueline keeps her workshops grounded in exercises and techniques that writers can immediately put to use. In fact, I went home and did exactly that in my novel draft.

We delved into point-of-view, motivation, physical setting, and verb tense as conduits to create intimacy between character and reader. I can’t put down all the good stuff I soaked up, but here are a few gems that REALLY struck me.

  • Characters need STRONG and CLEAR motivations in order to engage readers. Ratchet up the intensity of their desire. One common complaint among literary agents, Jacqueline says, is characters that are too PASSIVE.

So, the question becomes how we skillfully develop characters to SHOW the intensity of their motivation, and by extension, who they really are. Some techniques to get you there:

  • Engage the senses, make reading experiential. Sight, sound, and touch are of course important, but don’t forget the other sense. Smelling what a character smells, or tasting, gets the reader up personal and inside what the character is experiencing. Scent especially is a very primal sense, evoking memories and states of mind in an instant.
  • Let characters be vulnerable to pain. “Being stoic is not going to work,” as Jacqueline puts it. Show the reader how they react to fear, betrayal, abandonment, loss. “It’s very revealing how we respond to those hard things,” says Jacqueline, who, by the way, is also a psychologist. “Your core is revealed.” Help readers feel what your characters feel and they’ll go along for the ride.
  • Use powerful verbs! Brain imaging has shown that when you watch someone doing active things, the same part of your brain lights up as the person doing the action. So, if they leap, you take a mental leap. The same holds true for readers. So, don’t breathe heavily, pant or gasp or instead.
  • Use actions, not thoughts, to bring readers into a character’s mind. Watching someone throw a punch or flip the finger in traffic is a more telling display of their emotional state than saying their angry, even if they’re “quaking with angry.”

Character-motivation-quote-Kazuo-Ishiguro

  • A good tip—use verbs that are associated with sex; they’re already sensual and evocative!

–Karen

 

Tales of Triumph

—From Cathy

Triumph CoverA little gift came early for us here at Write Despite, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to announce it.

Karen is the first-place winner of an anthology released today, Triumph: Stories of Victories Great and Small. The ten short stories and essays in this collection deliver finely crafted, authentic accounts of courage, inspiration, and achievements, and I’m proud to have been one of the judges who helped select them (although I had no hand in choosing the actual winners).

I’m so grateful to all who contributed, as well as to publisher Meredith Maslich Eaton and Possibilities Publishing Company for bringing it to life.

If you’re still looking for a gift for that reader on your list (maybe it’s you!), or just know someone in need of encouragement, a good laugh, or even a well-earned cry, check it out. There’s truly something in here for everyone.

Big congrats, Karen! Happy Holidays, everyone!

 

Grateful for Guidance

Thanksgiving approaches. Like most of you, we’re looking back on what we’re grateful for this year. Too many things to list, of course, but here are some of the best writerly tips we’ve collected in 2018.

—From Cathy:

  1. puzzleAt a discussion at George Mason University’s Fall for the Book event this year, I was able to hear Elizabeth Strout speak about her incredible body of work, Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton, in particular, with mentions of her latest, Anything Is Possible as well. She admitted she doesn’t write any of her books sequentially. Imagine! She writes out scenes, prints them, then lays them out on this big table in her house and literally pieces them together like large, literary a puzzle. How freeing, to break out of the whole outline mode, or even just out of the guideline in your head, and simply write freeform that way. When I’m feeling stuck, I think this would be a great way to keep things moving forward, although I know it would likely have its drawbacks for me too:
    * I would no doubt wind up with an unstructured mess.
    * Someone would come along and turn a fan on, or spill a drink on all my papers.
    * My husband would stop by, pick something up and read it, then feel the need to critique. On the spot. While I’m watching Riverdale!
  2. These little gems from author Richard Bausch, my former writing professor and advisor:
When you feel dry, mime someone. Write in someone else’s voice; write Faulkner for a while, or Cheever, or Katherine Ann Porter, or anyone, to get the thing on paper. Then go through and take out the SOUND of those other voices, and be true to the event, or the occasion, and clear about it whatever it is, and what’s left is you. You learned by imitating; there’s no reason you can’t warm to it that way, too.
GatsbyCharacter is Fate. Character is action. Character is nature. Character is nurture. Character is the sound of a voice, a gesture, the color of the eyes, the hair, the texture of the skin. It is a matter of imagining, even when you are using a model, and it involves the marvelous reasonableness of the world’s fictional people—that is, we understand Jay Gatsby’s behavior, we are privy to his “romantic readiness” and we have full knowledge of what he felt standing at the end of his dock, his fantastic mansion behind him in the night, while he gazed, arms outstretched, across the sound, at Daisy’s green light. We know these people, therefore, better than we ever really know anyone in life.

3) This, from the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, on key book publishing paths. I love, love visual charts like this. They make everything so much clearer:

https://www.janefriedman.com/key-book-publishing-path/

—From Karen:

Here is some great writing advice I’ve received, simple but so important:

  1. Watch those verbs! If you’re using adverb to modify your verb, you might not be using the right verb. Is there a better, more accurate action word for what you’re trying to convey?Adverbs
  2. Choose your readers carefully. When you’ve got a work in progress, be careful whose criticism you solicit. Not all editors are equal for all works. You need someone who “gets” your work, and who, even more importantly, wants to enhance what YOU’VE done, not do it over according to their own visions or tastes. Good editing makes your work better. Bad editing just confuses you.
  3. KingWrite for yourself. It can’t be stated enough. Choose subjects and characters that compel and captivate you. It’s the only way you’ll be able to bring them to life and make readers care about them.
  4. Not everyone is going to like your work. Do you like everything you read? No, of course not. Get over it.
  5. When it comes to words, simple is almost always better.
  6. When it comes to length, shorter is almost always better. (There are of course exceptions.)

What advice are YOU grateful for? Whatever it is, embrace it, and pass it along.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

 

What are you reading this fall?

Hi All,

As we head into glorious autumn–my favorite season–there’s no shortage of great fiction to read. Cathy and I have been focusing on a couple of contemporary authors lately.

Cathy just finished these two by Elizabeth Strout, both of which she loved…

possible

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…while I just finished Lydia Millet’s “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” (blew me away) and I’m now enjoying the stories in “Fight No More.” She’s just amazing.

lamb

fight

 

Share the titles that you’re enjoying this fall? We always love to hear what our friends are reading.

And if you’re in the Fairfax, Virginia, area Oct. 10 to 13, check out the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University. There’s a great lineup of speakers, including Elizabeth Strout, and lots workshops and discussion panels. Keep an eye out for Cathy!

–Karen

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