Tag Archives: flash fiction

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.

How to Create Speed in Flash Fiction

8 Apr
Juliana Goodman's story, "Hot N' Spicy" appeared as an online feature in Blackberry Magazine, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” appeared as an online feature in BLACKBERRY, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Anyone who’s tried to write flash fiction knows how fast it must move. There’s no time for context or explanation. You’re illuminating a few minutes or seconds of a character’s story, and, if it works, the readers feel as though they’ve peered into Borges’ aleph and seen a much larger world.

But how do you create that dizzying sense of speed? Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” does exactly that. It clocks in at just over 250 words yet reveals an intimate portrait of a relationship. “Hot N’ Spicy” was published at BLACKBERRY, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story captures an intimate portrait of a relationship by showing, not telling. If that sounds suspiciously like the workshop cliché, you’re not crazy. But it’s the key to Goodman’s storytelling. She introduces objects without explanation, allowing the reader to figure out why they’re important. Here is a good example:

He pulls on his dark gray jeans, then a black V-neck. Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.

Notice the difference in the articles: his jeans, a V-neck, the hoodie. In other words, the hoodie is important. There’s obviously an entire history behind that piece of clothing, but it’s never given to us. Instead, Goodman skips directly to the emotional importance of the object:

I watch him grab it off the sofa and drape it over his shoulder. That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.

What matters is not so much the object but what it means: he’s not coming back. Part of the reason this story can be complete with so few words is that it continually skips over context and right to meaning. Here’s another example:

“You’re leaving over tacos?” I ask, and then feel stupid because I sound aggressive and he hates that.

Again, the narrator alludes to past arguments and conflicts but does not tell us anything about them. All that matters is the weight of that history and what it means right now, in this moment: if she acts a certain way, he’ll react in a particular way. Sentences like this provide the flash for this piece of fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write sentences that move fast, using Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” as a model. This exercise will work as a brainstorming exercise, but it may be most helpful as a tool for revision:

  1.  Refer to, but do not explain, the history of an object. Goodman does this when she writes, “Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.” One way to do something similar is by finding an object that either contains meaning. The most obvious example is a wedding ring, but it’d be better to find something more personal to the characters. Put yourself in the room with the characters; what objects are with you? Do the characters have sentimental or personal attachments to them? Another way to approach this is with routine. Does a character always sit in a particular chair? Watch a particular show or read a particular magazine? What you’re looking for is an object that indicates some change in emotion or intention. In a few sentences, explain the importance or role of the object. Then, write a sentence in which the change in emotion or intention or action is happening. How much of the previous explanation can you cut? Can you simply use the sentence with the change?
  2. Make a claim about the future. If characters have spent a lot of together, then they’ve been through certain arguments or interactions enough to anticipate each other’s actions or words. An easy way to show this (and, thus, to skip showing all of those previous interactions) is to make a quick prediction. Goodman writes, “That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.” You could also write something like this: “Now, he was going to get defensive.” And, then, he gets defensive. Or, “She was going to fill up her water bottle,” and then she does it.
  3. State a change/modification of behavior with little explanation. Your goal is to portray a shift in thinking or action without being forced to spend time explaining why that shift has occurred. Goodman does this by having her narrator state, after some strongly worded dialogue, “I sound aggressive and he hates that.” The key is often to state what a character likes or dislikes (or, to frame in terms of personality, what a character does or does not do), and move on. What matters is not so much why a preference exists as the effect that the preference (like/dislike, do/don’t do) has on another character.

These exercises are designed for flash fiction, but, in truth, all writers are often trying to condense explanation.

Good luck!

How to Write Away from Consensus in Dialogue

15 Oct
Mary Miller's story "I Won't Get Lost" appeared at New World Writing, an online journal founded by former Mississippi Review editor Frederick Barthelme.

Mary Miller’s story “I Won’t Get Lost” appeared at New World Writing. Her novel, The Last Days of California, is out now from Liveright.

In real-life conversations, we almost always seek common ground and compromise. Like the advice for married couples, we try not to go to bed angry. We want to leave a conversation having agreed upon something or with some shared understanding. But fiction is not like real life. In stories and novels, dialogue between characters who are seeking mutual understanding is boring. It kills, rather than heightens, tension. This means that good dialogue in fiction is actually the opposite of a good real-life conversation. It must veer away from consensus and not toward it.

Mary Miller demonstrates how to write dialogue that moves away from understanding in her story, “I Won’t Get Lost.” You can read it now at New World Writing.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman riding a bus. A man asks her about the neighborhoods in the city, whether one of them is dangerous, and she says no, the area has been gentrified. Here is the conversation that follows, beginning with the man’s response:

What’s that?

Gentrified?

I’ve never heard of it, he says.

It’s when rich people move into a poor neighborhood and buy up all the houses and make them nicer. And then the property values go up and the poor people can’t pay their taxes and have to move out. He’s looking at me like I might be brilliant. It’s controversial, I add.

I’ve never heard of it, he says. Is that a real thing?

Yep, I say, gentrification.

I’m going to look it up, he says, and takes out his phone.

The dialogue begins with a simple question, which receives a simple answer. Normally, the natural, logical next step would be consensus. The man would say, “Ah, now I understand.” But that’s not what happens. First, he expresses disbelief. Then he steps out of the conversation in order to verify the answer on his phone. He is resisting the basic human impulse to agree. As a result, tension is created. In the next paragraph, the woman worries about her appearance. She’s disconcerted, and though the story doesn’t draw a direct line between the unresolved distance between the two speakers in the conversation, the discomfort is clear—and discomfort is one way to push a story forward, to create tension.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue that veers away from understanding using “I Won’t Get Lost” as an example. The dialogue in Mary Miller’s story is between a person of authority and one with questions. The woman has the authority of knowledge (she knows the local landscape and the definition of gentrification). The man doesn’t have this knowledge but wants it. Let’s do something similar in the exercise:

  1. Choose two characters, one with authority and one who is requesting something of that authority. You could choose someone with an authority of knowledge, like the woman on the bus in Miller’s story, or you could choose a literal authority (teacher, police officer, administrator, parent, preacher, politician, or someone with the authority that comes with a particular expertise such as a scientific researcher, engineer, or car mechanic).
  2. Choose a place for the dialogue to occur. Keep in mind the way that place can enhance or diminish authority. So, if the dialogue takes place in the person of authority’s office or workplace, that person’s authority is enhanced. But if the dialogue happens in public or in some version of the private sphere, the authority might be diminished. In other words, on whose turf is the dialogue taking place?
  3. Begin with a question or request. Miller’s story begins with a request for information: Where should the man go that isn’t dangerous? It’s a simple question that assumes the other person’s authority—the man asks the woman because she’s from the city in question and, therefore, knows where to go. So, in your story, consider what question might be posed to the person of authority. The question might be posed out of necessity or out of curiosity. You might try posing a couple of different questions until you find one that you like.
  4. Supply an answer. Let the person of authority respond to the question.
  5. Ask for clarification. Let the questioner ask about part of the answer. In Miller’s story, the man asks about gentrification, which was part of the answer to where he should go. In your story, you might let the questioner ask about a term used by the authority or the rationale behind part of the answer.
  6. Supply clarification. This one’s easy. Let the authority answer again.
  7. Ignore or deny the answer. This is where the dialogue swerves off track. The normal expectation is that if a question is posed and an answer is given, then some level of understanding has been achieved. But we’re actually aiming to avoid understanding. So, let the questioner refuse to accept the answer by denying it’s accuracy or rationale or by acting as if no answer has been given at all. (If you have kids, then you’re familiar with ignored questions and requests and the tension that creates.) In Miller’s story, the man essentially ignores the woman’s answer and seeks out the same answer on his phone.

Your goal in this dialogue is to break the societal expectations for a certain kind of exchange. We expect to be listened to, to have our expertise respected, and when that doesn’t happen, it’s as if civilization itself has, in some small way, failed. The best dialogue is not an argument but rather a conversation in which one of the sides denies the other side’s authority or right to speak.

Good luck and have fun.

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