Tag Archives: flash fiction

How to Turn Emotions into an Existential Threat

16 May

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, was called “gobsmackingly original prophecy” by Claire Vaye Watkins.

Writing teachers have a lot of ways of saying basically one important thing about story beginnings: set the stakes and break the routine and put a gun on the wall and show your character’s desire. All of these instructions are trying to get you to give your story the sense, from the first lines, that something big is about to happen—the literary equivalent of basketball players setting up for an inbounds play with the game on the line, or sprinters lowering into their stances as the starting gun is raised. The audience knows something is about to happen, something intense and worth pausing everything else to watch. That’s the kind of opening a story needs. You can find plot ways to do this—putting a gun on the wall or starting in medias res during an airplane crash—but there are other methods as well.

A great example of one of them can be found in Joseph Scapellato’s story “One of the Days I Nearly Died.” It appears in his new collection Big Lonesome, and was first published in Green Mountains Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

As the title indicates, the story is using the same sort of plot hook as, say, the television show Lost. Something really is about to happen. But that’s not really what draws us in—or, it’s not the only thing. Here is how the story begin:

When it was happening I was alone. I didn’t think of my wife, of how her and I suspected she was pregnant (she wasn’t, but by the time the period came we’d both said a brace of big ugly honest things that had made the other think, These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are, when really the big ugly honest things were only who we’d clubbed each other into becoming for a one-month spell inside a six-year spell that up until then had us living on Logan Boulevard in Logan Square thinking we’d be local, organic, and happy right up until we died blissful simultaneous deaths in the final scene of the epic film of our active old age, or at least that’s how I remember it out loud when I apologize, and when I see my ring on my finger in a mirror, and when I slam dishwasher drawers and shout, Listen! You aren’t listening!), and I didn’t think of…

What the story really begins with is an argument, a bad one full of “big ugly honest things” and the word clubbed and slamming drawers. It’s an argument that gives its participants the sense that “These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are,” which suggests that this newly discovered reality isn’t desirable. Maybe they’d be better off somewhere else, with someone else. In short, it’s an existential argument. The way that it’s resolved will determine basic, essential details about the characters’ lives. These emotions matter. This isn’t to say that some emotions don’t matter; of course they do—in life. But in stories (in narratives, no matter the genre), everything, whether it’s setting or plot or character, must be geared toward wrenching the story forward. This is why we immediately suspect happy characters of being like chickens who don’t see the farmer walking up with is axe. It’s why Tolstoy wrote his famous line about happy and unhappy families. One makes for a better story.

If you read all of “One of the Days I Nearly Died,” you’ll find that the entire story isn’t about that opening argument, at least not directly. It’s about a series of potentially life-changing moments. The opening argument sets the stage for them, telling the reader, “This is the mental space this story will inhabit.” Once that space is created, the story moves forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create existential emotions using “One of the Days I Nearly Died” by Joseph Scapellato as a model:

  1.  Set up a particular moment. Scapellato’s a sophisticated writer, and so he actually does this in multiple ways. There’s the literal moment of the story (the day the character nearly died) and also the general frame of the thing he remembers (the potential pregnancy) and then the immediate moment of the argument. If that seems overwhelming to attempt, don’t. Instead, shoot for one moment. Start with a basic phrase like “It was the day that…” Or start general and move to the specific, like this: “It was those days when…and it all came to a head when…”
  2. Give the moment a particular conflict. Scapellato gives his character a potential pregnancy. It’s the reason they’re arguing. But the pregnancy isn’t actually the key issue; it’s simply the key that unlocks the door where they’ve been keeping all their troubles. So, give your characters a conflict, but the resolution of this conflict shouldn’t necessarily resolve the troubles they’re having.
  3. Move from the conflict into the bigger issue. This is what the characters are actually feeling emotional about. Notice that we don’t actually know what the characters say in this story. We only know that they say terrible things. You can keep it vague, as Scapellato does, or you can dig into the details. Either way, you’re aiming for a moment when a character is so wound up that he or she slams a drawer and says, “You know what?” and what follows is the sort of statement that is very difficult to take back, a statement that can change the course of a life. Of course, we all make these sorts of statements at some point or another and manage to recover, but there’s always a split second where you think, maybe this is it. Find the emotion—the stress, the trouble, the inner conflict—that would push your character into saying something that might be a deal breaker, whatever the deal is.

The goal is to hook your readers by showing them something that might be broken by the characters holding it.

Good luck.

Advertisements

An Interview with Maria Pinto

4 May

Maria Pinto’s story, “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship” was published in Flapperhouse.

Maria Pinto‘s work has appeared in Word Riot, Pinball, The Butter, Cleaver, Menacing Hedge, and Flapperhouse, among others. She was an Ivan Gold Fellow at The Writers’ Room of Boston, in the city where she walks dogs, grows a veggie garden, and does Karaoke. Her debut novel is in search of a home. She’s working on the next.

To read Maria’s story “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship” and an exercise on creating character desire, click here.

In this interview, Pinto discusses the light brush strokes of flash fiction, framing narratives, and how language connects novels and much shorter forms.

Michael Noll

The opening paragraph introduces the character’s desire—to sleep with her professor—but the description of the professor depicts him as, shall we say, having less than the classic male beauty. You admit this up front: “She did not interrogate why. She was a freshman; there was only the urgent press of do, do, do.” I can imagine this piece in workshop, someone saying, “Yes, but why would she be attracted to him?” Or “What does she look like?” Were you ever tempted to answer those questions?

Maria Pinto

I’m rarely tempted to answer questions like that in shorter form pieces. One reason I love flash fiction is that its brevity allows for light brush-strokes. If this story works it’s because it reflects what life is really like–people are mysterious and their motivations are mysterious, so often even to themselves. I don’t think the protagonist’s feelings are wrapped up in any deep affection, and I’m not sure it truly matters whether she’s attractive, but I do think her willingness to see “past” her professor’s looks speaks to something we do all the time without necessarily being conscious of it, and that’s surrender to invisible forces. In this student’s case, that invisible force is chemistry. Or is it physics? Sometimes the big cartoon magnet in each of us just starts working towards another person’s magnet; attraction doesn’t only happen between supermodels, right? I’m fascinated by the idiosyncratic ways lust works, and by how some people feel freer to engage with their lust even when it rears up in inconvenient or even ugly places. The fact that we have no idea whether this “chemistry” is one-sided is part of the fun.

Michael Noll

This story is almost entirely composed of the character’s thoughts. Her only interaction with the professor is incidental, entering a unisex bathroom as he steps out. Other interactions might be entirely in her head—imagining that he notices her. Did you ever try to write an actual interaction? Was this story always focused on her imagining thinking about him and what that interaction might look like?

Maria Pinto

I never did try to write an actual interaction, no. Things would have gotten a little too steamy! I think this student has been enjoying that space in between “what if” and “I’m actually doing this,” unlike Prufrock, who will go through a hundred indecisions and revisions before breakfast. For her, all that imagining amounts to a kind of foreplay, and for the reader, I hope, it reminds them of the last time they watched and wanted and it was good. At the end of this piece I hope people wonder whether the professor will be able to maintain his institutional standard of ethics in the face of his student’s brazenness, but I also hope they see her fantasy as a world in itself, complete and silly and hot and mildly funny.

Michael Noll

One of my professors in grad school talked often about a narrative clock, and this story has one. She sees her professor on the bus, and we know that eventually both of them will have to get off the bus. I find that rough drafts often suffer from one of two problems: they don’t have that natural timer ticking in the background, or they have the timer but nothing else going on. Which came first in this story? The bus or the lust?

Maria Pinto

They came at the same time! Public transportation is such an odd environment–if you haven’t pressed your nose against a device or a book for your ride’s duration, chances are good you’ll make eye contact with someone. And then your relationship with that person is cemented until one of you gets off. Either you’ll look at each other again or you won’t. When you look again (and lord help you, if you smile), no matter whether you’re attracted to that person, a frisson is born. I wanted to write something that took place in that interval of a bus ride with that frisson, and the not-quite-stranger dynamic of teacher and student was the frame that immediately presented itself to me.

Michael Noll

You’re working on a novel, which is about as far away from flash fiction as one can get. Is there anything that you’ve done in a piece like this that transfers to the novel form?

Maria Pinto

This is a really interesting question. I guess it depends on what you mean by “anything.” If you mean “is there a premise in one of your pieces that could have been a novel,” I’d say that I once wrote about a grieving widow living in the sort of future where she’s able to make a suit from her dead husband’s skin and experience the world through his literal eye sockets. That could maybe get the novel treatment. And if you’re asking another type of question, I’d say that even though novels and flash fiction are worlds apart, they’re both so much better when an author is surgical and economical and cares about the poetry of her word choice–if her love of all that can be done within a single sentence shines through on the page.

May 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Set Up a Story’s Hook

28 Feb
"The Key Bearer's Parents" by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

“The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

A story must hook its readers. Everyone knows this. The problem is that a hook can sometimes feel as if it’s trying too hard. I remember once, when I was a reader for a literary journal, coming across a first line that was something like “He was walking down the freeway with a turd in a bucket.” It caught my eye, sure, but it also felt like something that wanted to be noticed—and that is fine as long as the writer is able to place the hook within a world and story. In this case, it was just a turd in a bucket. Nothing that followed was as interesting or compelling, which means the opening line was a failure.

A great example of a story that places its hook firmly in a story and world is “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths. It was published online at American Short Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here is how Griffiths’ story opens:

We were good parents. We know people assume otherwise when they see our wide ties and honking red noses, but we were. We took that job seriously. We told our son that he could be anything he wanted to be, just like you’re supposed to. Yes, we could see his embarrassment when we showed up for Career Day, how he threw the basketball into the field as our tiny car pulled in so that his friends would look away. And though we were happy clowns, smiles broader and wider than any lips, the disappointment underneath our makeup was easy to read. “It’s fine,” we said, fitting on our over-sized shoes and adjusting the flowers in our hats. We told ourselves that he would get over it.

The hook is obvious: the shock of encountering “honking red noses” in a story that starts off seeming like a realistic story about two parents. It’s sometimes useful to imagine how else a story could have been written, and so here is another version of these opening lines:

When people saw our honking red noses, they thought we weren’t good parents, but we were.

The basic elements haven’t changed: parenting, red noses, and the expectations people have based on those noses. But the effect isn’t the same. This new version is trying too hard, in my view, like a teacher who tries to be cool and uses five-year-old slang. It’s focused entirely on how people will see it and, as a result, doesn’t come off as natural. Griffiths’ actual opening, on the other hand, starts inside the narrators’ heads, focusing on what they believe about themselves: We were good parents. This grounds us. No matter how many unexpected details the story throws at us, we know who these characters are because we know what they worry about.

As the paragraph continues, we get more clown stuff: makeup, over-sized shoes, flowers. These details are humorous and interesting, but we see through them to what matters: the parents’ conflicted feelings as they watch their kid be embarrassed of them.

As with all “rules” for writing, this one won’t hold true all of the time. Sometimes a story will need to start, from the first word, with how a character is viewed. That said, it’s probably a good idea to start a draft inside a character’s head, feelings, and desires. Establish the kernel of humanity—the conflict or desire that readers will intuitively recognize—and then add a honking red nose or turd in a bucket.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up a story’s hook using “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths as a model:

  1.  Start with the hook. Know what it is. If you’re not sure, tell the first part of the story to someone—anyone, someone you trust or a complete stranger. What detail makes their eyes open wider? If you can’t bring yourself to do this, do it in your head. Which detail surprises? To quote the wisdom of Sesame Street, which of your details is not like the other?
  2. Figure out your character’s self-affirmation. If you’re old enough to remember Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, you know what I’m talking about. Smalley would repeat to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” It didn’t matter if this was true or not. What mattered was that Smalley needed it to be true, the same as Griffiths’ narrators need to feel that they’re good parents. So, what does your character need to be true? How does your character need to be viewed?
  3. Place the self-affirmation before the hook. It doesn’t need to be as over the top as Stuart Smaller’s. Griffith’s first line seems like a basic statement of fact—but, of course, it’s not. It’s a matter of opinion, but it’s stated to plainly that it doesn’t jump out at us—until we read “honking red noses.” Ordering the sentence in this way can make the hook stand out more and also make the essential human need of the character stand out.
  4. Add action. When I was in college, I’d go to the rec center’s weight room, and there’d be enormous guys who’d grunt when they lifted and then drop the weights to the rack or the floor with a bang. They wanted to make sure that everyone saw them because they needed to be seen as strong. Desire always leads to action. Either the character acts, like the guys in the weight room, or the character becomes intensely aware of other people’s actions, like the narrators in “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” who notice every small thing their kid does when they show up. What action (acted or noticed) follows naturally from your character’s desire and self-affirmation?
  5. Don’t forget the hook. Keep it present in the reader’s mind. If you don’t, then it’s a gimmick. But if you commit to it, referencing it whenever possible, in the context of the action and desire, then you’ll create something readers haven’t seen before and they’ll keep reading.

The goal is to hook readers with something surprising and with an essential element of every story: character desire.

Good luck.

An Interview with Callie Collins

16 Jun
Callie Collins is the co-editor of A Strange Object and, starting in the fall, a MFA student at the University of Michigan.

Callie Collins is the codirector of A Strange Object and, starting in the fall, a MFA student at the University of Michigan.

Callie Collins is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in places like the Rumpus, the Toast, Midnight Breakfast, the Collagist, PANK, and NANOFiction, among other venues. She is the codirector of A Strange Object, a small press; the fiction editor of Covered with Fur, an online magazine; and the cohost of the Five Things reading series.

To read an exercise on sparking the imagination based on Collins’ story “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015,” click here.

In this interview, Collins discusses two pieces of flash fiction and linearity, titles, and listening to the sound of your sentences.

Michael Noll

When I read these stories, the thing that immediately caught my eye is the nonlinear jumps in the narration. Sometimes they’re on the content level, like when the gar arrive in the story or when we see the girl at the bar practicing her vowels. But they also happen on the sentence level, as with the line “They approximate well” in this passage: 

Hold the grip like you’re shaking a man’s hand, Billy instructs the boys, but who among them has really shaken a man’s hand, he thinks. They approximate well. He doesn’t have children. 

That line seems to arrive out of nowhere. It’s not a logical extension of “They approximate well.” Is this just the logic of your imagination, or do you have a kind of internal rule or approach that you follow for these sort of jumps?

Callie Collins

It’s strange; when I first read this question, I was surprised you pulled that line, cause it strikes me as a super linear extension of that thought, which now I realize it is not at all and I must be crazy. So yes, the logic of my imagination is maybe a bit more leapy than usual. I pay a lot of attention to rhythm and geometry when I write. In this particular case my logic worked a little like this.

“He doesn’t have children” seemed necessary for a couple reasons. The six syllables of “They approximate well” didn’t feel like enough rhythmically to stop the forward momentum of the multi-clausal sentence before it—I wanted a stronger wall. “He doesn’t have children” is really satisfying to me because of the internal symmetry of consonants and emphasis: (he) DOES-N’T (have) CHIL-DREN. Those two lines together sounded closed and tight because they’re syllabically equal. Also, “They approximate well” shifts the paragraph’s focus to the boys, so I wanted to extend a line back to Billy to balance the scale. I tried to jump back and forth from the boys to Billy almost sentence-by-sentence in order to both alienate them from each other and tie them together in this room while the storm rages outside. I also wanted to go one step further down into Billy, to reveal some new, personal knowledge of his character, before the last sentence of the paragraph zooms back out to an overhead view of the scene.

Yeah… it seems kind of nuts. Thankfully there’s another, parallel answer to this question, and that’s because this story comes out of a bigger project. Billy is the youngest of five siblings in a generation of a family, and he’s the only one who doesn’t have kids. It was a piece of information I wanted to fit in there somehow, and to my ear that was the right place to put it.

Michael Noll

Your titles are wonderful. They remind me of the chapter headings that you see in certain novels from the 1700s and 1800s. What’s your approach to titling stories? It’s something that most writers I know find so difficult.

Callie Collins

Once you've got your butt in the chair, how do you get your head in the right place? An exercise on sparking the imagination from Callie Collins' story, "Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015."

Callie Collins’ story, “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015” was published along with one other at Conflict of Interest.

Oh, thank you! I feel lucky when I land on serviceable, or at the very least somewhere near I-can-see-she’s-trying-to-move-me-and-am-not-entirely-repulsed.

I cheat a little. I’ll find a particular structure I like and adapt it in subtle ways to fit many pieces. I like the “something unsettling happens to a body, date” scheme for its simplicity. There’s room to make the first part as strange or noisy as I want, but the year provides stability, normalizes, maybe brings it down to earth. My hope is that each title alone will function pretty straightforwardly, but that using the structure repeatedly will help the stories accrete and flow differently—as variations on a theme. I can, of course, take this way too far. Currently I’m using the same exact title for at least five different stories and for the manuscript they all come out of—man, stop me—which has become inconvenient and messy.

But I like this sort of repetition. It’s how my brain works most naturally. There are pieces of language and slices of syntax that lodge in my mind, and I return to them compulsively but hopefully from new angles and alignments. And it’s one of the really big pros to writing page-long stories. It wouldn’t work if I had fewer pieces to title.

Michael Noll

Both of these stories have a kind of thematic structure. You could, if you wanted, distill them to their major images (for example, cocoons/butterflies, gar, the O shape the girl makes), and then it seems as if the purpose of the story is to connect these images in a way that makes sense. This makes me wonder: Do you start with the images and try to connect them or start with one image and write your way into the story, discovering new images as you go?

Callie Collins

Mostly I start with one image and write my way into the story. I think a lot about thematic structure and particularly the idea of thematic return, movement back toward the home of an original moment or sound. I used to study some music theory and composition a long time ago and was really pretty awful at it, but I found some comfort in the fact that our brains are kind of wired to find closure and satisfaction in music that returns to the tonic—the piece’s tonal center. There are certainly many ways to come home to the tonic, or to approach coming home and not make it all the way, or to refuse that closure entirely, and I think the same is true in fiction. I love endings for that reason; I’m attracted to the urgency of the choice whether or not to return.

I’ve written stories that come all the way goddamn home, middle C, climb back in the bed they were born in—there’s a horse story I read at readings sometimes that does this—but the gar story doesn’t. I tried to end it with a stand on the dominant: an anticipatory feeling, a settling in the front yard of the tonic and pointing at the door.

The tonic is usually an image. Here, the gar. I set the tonic and then work my way into other images that orbit it. I wanted the last note, the couple at the bar, to recall the gar in certain ways—to approach the ideas of foreignness, animal transformation, and alienation from a new perspective. What I really hope, though, is that none of my crazy scaffolding is visible—that the story reads cleanly and easily. Thinking about structure in these minute ways is, it turns out, the only way I know how to get anything done at all.

Michael Noll

These stories are quite polished. You’re also co-editor of the independent press A Strange Object. A lot of people would look at both of those statements and think, “She’s doing pretty well.” Yet this fall you’ll enter the MFA program at the University of Michigan. What do you hope to learn there? Obviously you want to work on your writing and craft, but you’re entering from a different position than a lot of writers, with more experience and success in the publishing world–more than many people who graduate from writing programs. Is it simply the desire to grow and improve that’s at work, or is there something in particular that you wish to gain?

Callie Collins

I hope to learn many things. Where to buy a good coat, for one—anyone know? I’m hoping someone’ll teach me how to do that weird Michigan vowel shift, too.

But really, what a kind question to ask! I didn’t take creative writing courses in college and have very little experience with the formal workshop setting, so even though I’ve spent some time on the publishing side, I’m much more of a newbie in certain ways than most folks entering programs. Mostly I’m just excited and feeling very lucky to have the time and funding to work on the novel-thing, and to get to do that with amazing faculty whose work I deeply admire.

My work’s pretty invested in central Texas, and I think leaving will help me write about the place with more nuance. It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in the mythology of Texas while I’m in it, and I hope being away will give me new perspective and energy. I’m very sad, but it seems like time to go. Just keep everything exactly the same while I’m gone, thanks! Or at least cool it with the condos.

June 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Spark the Imagination

14 Jun
Once you've got your butt in the chair, how do you get your head in the right place? An exercise on sparking the imagination from Callie Collins' story, "Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015."

Once you’ve got your butt in the chair, how do you get your head in the right place? An exercise on sparking the imagination from Callie Collins’ story, “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015.

Part of the terror and joy of writing anything creative, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or poetry, is that you often have no idea what will happen. You sit there, and maybe magic will happen—or maybe you’ll just sit there, at least that’s the fear, and being a writer probably means accepting that sometimes you’ll write uninspired dreck that you’ll toss out.

And, yet, I recently heard a writer say that when you look back on your drafts, it’s impossible to tell when the words were flowing and when they weren’t. I suspect that what many writers learn is how to create the opportunity for magic. If you create the conditions for a spark, sooner or later something will happen. A good example of creating the conditions for the imaginative spark can be found in Callie Collins’ story, “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015.” It was published in Conflict of Interest, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

At some point, every writer (and every kid in a writing camp or class) will play the game, “Exquisite Corpse.” It was invented by the Surrealists, who wanted to bypass the learned logic that their minds had picked up through living in the rules and strictures of civilization. They wanted to access the wild root of the imagination. To do this, (as you know if you’ve played the game) they’d write down random phrases and words, toss them in a hat and then pull them out. You couldn’t control what you’d pick, and so you might pull out two slips that add up to “Exquisite Corpse.” The logical brain might never invent that phrase, and yet there it is, meaningless and full of potential. As soon as you read it, you begin to make sense of it. Turns out, the phrase is beautiful and magical. You could, if you wanted, write an entire poem or passage based on it.

The trick, then, is to create the conditions for a kind of surrealist game on the page as you write. If you can somehow get a phrase like “exquisite corpse” on the page, your imagination will do the rest. But how? Collins’ story offers a guide if you pay attention to the imagery.

It begins with the phrase “we’ve lost all our bearings,” which is sort of the point: to get yourself lost and then reorient yourself within strange horizons. Collins immediately does this, giving us fishing—but inside a building. Then she pairs boys and caterpillars. In the next paragraph, she adds gar—and, as with the fishing at the story’s beginning, the usual setting has been scrambled, a fence instead of the water. These are unexpected images, and yet you can see Collins’ brain beginning to make (to invent) sense out of them. The character imagines the fish saying “Here we are…where are you?” which echoes the line from the beginning: “we’ve lost all our bearings.” In the last paragraph, we’re suddenly in a bar, next to a woman practicing vowel sounds—and, again, there’s that sense-making happening. Her mouth resembles a fish’s: O, O, O.

In literature classes, the focus is on reading and interpreting such connections as these. But, for writers, the emphasis is on making those connections in the first place. Collins creates those opportunities—the conditions for the imaginative spark—by pairing unlike images and throwing familiar images into unfamiliar terrain. Her creative juices may not have been flowing when she first sat down, but when you’ve got gar in fences next to caterpillars and women practicing English in bars, an imagination can’t help but get intrigued.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create the conditions for an imaginative spark, using “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015” by Callie Collins as a model:

  1. Start with an image. Just pick one out of your head, something you’ve been thinking about, that you keep returning to. It doesn’t need to be “beautiful,” whatever that means. Collins starts with kids practicing casting. It’s simple and straightforward.
  2. Put it in unfamiliar territory. This is like the improv game where actors play out a scene in front of a green screen. They’re having tea or celebrating a birthday while dinosaurs or whatever rampage behind them. Again, don’t think too hard. Take your image and place it somewhere unexpected—but somewhere that your character would go. It doesn’t need to be the Jurassic period. Think about the usual places: work, school, kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, street, church, post office, store, bar, restaurant. You probably have a natural inclination about where to place your image. Don’t follow it. Instead, try a place that seems not to fit.
  3. Create a scene or passage around it. You’ve got the image and place; now write. What gets said, thought, felt? Again, be practical. Collins puts casting in a building and then sticks to the logistics: how to cast, a manager on an intercom.
  4. Jump to another, different image. Collins jumps to the caterpillar—and then to the gar, and then to the bar. Each one is unexpected, but each also fits within the frame of the story. There’s been a flood, and so gar could get washed out of their natural habitat. A cocoon is a great image for transformation. Try this: Use Collins phrase “we’ve lost all our bearings.” Figure out why that’s the case for this character in this moment. While disoriented, what does the character notice? Run with that image.
  5. Continue the scene or passage. Keep the scene going. The character sees the gar after work and walks over to look at them. The narrator sees the woman practicing her vowel sounds and watches. Again, what gets said, thought, felt?
  6. Make sense. You’ve juxtaposed two or more images. Rather than trying to make sense of them as the writer, let your characters make the sense, as Collins does. Uncle Billy sees the gar and imagines what they’re saying. The narrator sees the woman practicing her vowels and connects woman’s mouth to the fish mouths. Letting the characters do the work takes the pressure off of you. You can always say, “I didn’t come up with that stupid idea; it was my character.” Of course, what you come up with could very well be the key to the entire piece of writing.

The goal is to create the conditions for your imagination to fire up by juxtaposing compelling images.

Good luck.

How to Write a One-Sentence Paragraph

22 Apr
Adrian Van Young's story, "The Skin Thing," was featured on Electric Literature's Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the forthcoming anthology Gigantic Worlds.

Adrian Van Young’s story, “The Skin Thing,” was featured on Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the science flash fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds.

In composition writing classes, we’re usually taught (or we teach students) not to write one-sentence paragraphs. But, in fiction and nonfiction alike, these short paragraphs can pack a tremendous punch if done well.

Adrian Van Young demonstrates this punch in his story, “The Skin Thing,” which will appear in the forthcoming science fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds. You can read it now at Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog.

How the Story Works

Most writers will, at some point, use a one-sentence paragraph to emphasize some point or moment. Van Young’s story is interesting, then, because he uses so many of these constructions, sometimes to conclude a longer paragraph and sometimes as a series of short paragraphs. The sentences can be long, short, and even fragments.

They tend to be used in one of three ways:

Accentuate a change in tone:

This short paragraph concludes a description of the monster’s actions. In terms of subject and style, it’s really part of the paragraph that precedes it, but it’s given its own line because its tone is different (funnier, sort of):

Just one of us, McSorls, held ground. He was seeking, we think, to protect his allotments. It plucked him up inside its mouth, like the mouth of a puppet, and gobbled him down. Or gummed him down. It had no teeth. The leg of his pants dangled out, disappearing.

The Skin Thing ate his onions, too.

Summarize time and events:

These fragments deliver an accounting of the colonists’ battle with the monster:

McSorls came first. McGaff. McShea. McVanderslice. McGuin. McGreaves…

Colonists total: two-hundred and forty.

Colonists fed to the thing: thirty-six.

Colonists saved on account of this practice (not to mention the onions): one hundred, at least.

Illuminate important images

This paragraph is actually a series of short, connected sentences that focus on a different part of the monster’s body:

It was the height of foursome men, and its body behind was a languishing tube, and its head, although eyeless, was snouted, with nostrils that sucked and blew as it grew near.

Here, the sentences adopt a style of repetition common to speeches. The fragments illuminate a character in a moment of time:

There was:

McGondric in the mess, picking over his onions in no special hurry, a relaxed, dewy look to his under-eye skin.

McGondric going through the camp with his harvest of onions arrayed under cheesecloth, and heavens, his basket, the way that he bore it: offertory, slimly poised.

McGondric alongside his daughter, McGale, as they raked up the sands that comprised their allotment, the pink and the clean-muscled arms of them pushing, and pulling back toward them, and pushing once more.

Instead of moments from a long period of time, though, these two paragraphs break a very short amount of time into even shorter flashes of perception:

And there, behind the sandy glass, we saw a crown of human head.

And under it: a hand. A knee.

All of these one-sentence paragraphs are designed to manipulate the reader’s perception of the events and characters in the story. They speed up or slow down time and direct the reader’s eye.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write some one-sentence paragraphs, using the passages from Adrian Van Young’s “The Skin Thing” as a model:

  1. Write a sentence that accentuates a change in tone. One way to do this is to create a series: actions, personality traits, qualities, requirements, events, or whatever appears in your story multiple times or has its differences parsed out. The problem with lists is that they can be boring—just a bunch of stuff. In workshops, the writer Tim O’Brien discourages lists for this reason, but of course his famous story, “The Things They Carried,” contains lists in almost every paragraph. So, after a list of ____, he writes, ______. Van Young uses a shift in tone in his story as well, but rather than interpreting the list, the tonal shift adds to the list: literally, one more thing the monster did, but this thing tells us something about the monster’s intentions that the other things did not. So, in your series, search for entries that sound different. Ask yourself, “What does that difference indicate?” Does it make you uncomfortable? Does it seem to cast the other items in a different light? Try putting it at the end and in a separate paragraph.
  2. Write a sentence that summarizes time and events. People who write press releases do this all the time. They use fragments to highlight the impact or actions of a group over time: X number of units sold, X number of services rendered. Fiction writers can do this as well, as Van Young illustrates. In truth, many of us do this naturally, especially when pressed into an argument. We tally up our actions over time: X meals cooked, X hours worked, X kindness delivered or sacrifices made. To do this in a story, figure out what actions your character takes pride in; then, challenge it. How would the character defend him/herself? Try listing the tally in separate lines.
  3. Write a sentence that illuminates important images. There are a few ways to do this. 1) In a static description of a person, thing, or place, instead of using commas to set off attributes (tall, dark, and handsome), develop each adjective into a sentence or phrase of its own (so handsome that I had to look away). Then, connect the sentences with commas or semicolons. 2) In a description of a person, thing, or place in motion, break the motion down into snapshots (as opposed to a running strip of film). What is happening in each snapshot? 3) In a description of an act of perception (I saw…), do not show the entire thing being perceived. Instead, reveal one part at a time. In each of these three methods, you’re focusing on images that writers and readers alike often zoom past. Devoting an entire sentence or phrase to the image can slow readers down, and then you can slow them down further by placing each sentence into a paragraph of its own.

Good luck!

An Interview with Juliana Goodman

10 Apr
Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. Her story, "Hot N' Spicy," appeared in BLACKBERRY.

Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. Her story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” appeared in BLACKBERRY.

Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. She is the recipient of the 2012 and 2013 Cordell Larner Award in fiction, as well as the 2013 Cordell Larner award in poetry and the 2013 Lois C. Bruner award in Nonfiction. Her story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” appeared in Blackberry.

In this interview, Goodman discusses where to start stories, why she writes about characters she knows, and why Mary Gaitskill’s stories are so great.

To read “Hot N’ Spicy” and an exercise on speed in flash fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

This story starts fast. With two words—”This time”—you sum up the entire relationship and jump into the most recent argument. Did you always know to start that way, or did you write about the characters’ history together before figuring out where to begin?

Juliana Goodman

I really just started off in the middle of a relationship that basically runs in a circle. I drew a lot of the background of this couple from some of my own relationships and relationships I’ve seen other people go through. They fight and makeup over the same things over and over again. I usually like to start all of my stories right in the middle of the action to draw readers in and I feel it is even more important to get the ball rolling when it’s flash fiction. Every single word counts and should add to the piece as a whole.

Michael Noll

The story is full of lines that speed up the narrative. Some skip over explanation, like this one: “Will he take the hoodie?” We didn’t know he had one yet, and the story could have explained that he had one, and that it was his favorite, and so on, but it just moves on. Other lines have well-chosen words that convey a lot of information, like this one: “And then he’s gone out into the hot summer night, my heart stuffed in his back pocket with his wallet and a gold condom.” There’s something unexpectedly specific about the word “gold.” But it’s also not too specific. You could have named the condom brand, but you don’t, but we still know, which makes the line funny. That one word tells us a lot about this guy. Does this sort of condensed language happen naturally on the page? What’s your revision process look like? 

Juliana Goodman

I wanted this piece to have a very intimate feel, like a woman writing in her diary.  She doesn’t explain everything because she’s  in the midst of it all. A lot of the language came naturally because I’ve been in similar situations and the feelings she expressed were my own at the time. That’s a big reason why I always write about characters and situations I know because it makes the emotions easier to convey on the page.  My revision process is a little bit different than the traditional one. Rather than writing a rough draft and going back to edit lines, I revise as I write. I may write a paragraph and then go back and reread it to make sure it sounds good before I continue on with the piece. I read the entire piece again when I’ve completed it, but the amount of changes I make at the end is very small since I’ve already looked it over multiple times.

Michael Noll

I sometimes teach undergraduate creative writing workshops, and I’ve found that my students haven’t read a lot of short fiction, neither stories or flash fiction. So, I’m curious who you’ve been reading. I ask in part because the tone of this story is so sure and confident, simultaneously funny and angry. Are you modeling your work after any writers? 

Juliana Goodman

Mary Gaitskill's collection Because They Wanted To

Mary Gaitskill’s collection Because They Wanted To

A couple of my favorite short story collections are by Junot Diaz and Mary Gaitskill. I enjoy Diaz’s work because it’s very honest and incorporates his culture in a way that’s easy to relate to. Gaitskill’s Because They Wanted To, my absolute favorite short story collection, really changed the way I write.  There’s no filter or sugar coating and the emotions are illustrated without cutting any of those embarrassing or shameful feelings that people are sometimes too afraid to write about.  Reading her stories really taught me to write without restraint. If I’m feeling or thinking about something a lot, whatever it is or how humiliating or crazy it may sound, I put it on the page and take it from there.

Michael Noll

Undergraduate students also often don’t know how to submit their work for publication—not the process or where to submit. How did you find Blackberry ? Did some of your writing teachers at Western Illinois point you in its direction, or did you find it on your own? 

Juliana Goodman

One of my creative writing professors at Western Illinois University, Erika Wurth, sent me the link to Blackberry and encouraged me to look into submitting. The process was fairly simple and now I’ve learned to look around for magazines that publish the type of stories I write by browsing the internet and reading past issues of lit magazines.

April 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

%d bloggers like this: