The Beautiful Writers Workshop #30: The Dirty Thirty

Okay. That title doesn’t have anything to do with short stories and how we write them (unless you’re on the right route to submit for Letters to Penthouse…does that still exist anymore?)

What do you mean you haven’t seen this movie!?I’m kind of surprised my mom let me watch it. I’m still mildly obsessed with angels…

I just wanted to mark the occasion of your thirtieth lesson in writing. And drum up interest for our last foray into the short story.

First–How did last week go? Were you able to come up with some ideas for future short stories? Did you write any? Did you revisit some of your favorites from the past? No? Come on…I can’t do it all for you!

If you have managed to draft up a couple of ideas and maybe even pursue them, and you’d like to have a second set of eyes, I’d love to take a look. As you may have seen, I updated my submissions guidelines on Tuesday for anyone looking to start building their platform as well as finding a place for their work (without the work of having to start and maintain a blog…gosh, I’m doing EVERY THING for you!)

So, last bit of short story advice is this. Once you have your strong (loved or hated character) and you’ve thrown them into a bus crash on their way up to hike Machu Pichu, what do you do with it?

Well, as in Poetry and Flash Fiction, if you you believe in this work and you want to see if it’s worth the reading for the general public; you submit it for consideration.

After a very thorough round of editing (or six), conformance (sure that’s a word?) to industry standard word counts, and all of your I’s dotted, you embark on the great internet search to find the perfect journals/mags/online forums to submit to. You find out the editor’s name, and use it to craft a beautiful query letter, follow each publication’s guidelines to the letter, and submit your work (while recording who and where and when you sent it to because you’re not a disorganized slob like me). Then you sit back and wait for the magic to happen.

Except you should never just sit back and wait as a writer.

Once that beautiful piece of literature, sure to torture high-school student’s someday with its dissection, is out in the hands of hard-eyed editors, you go back to that booklet of ideas and begin again.

The secret to a good writer, is that they don’t throw all of their hope into one basket and hurl it into the universe. They churn out the baskets, in a timely manner and with enough care that they aren’t just filled with shit. And they keep plugging away at it. And the first stories might actually be baskets of shit. But it gets better, they get better, you get better, until soon, you know what works and what doesn’t by the frequency of rejection notices.

I think I just summed up my writing existence in one paragraph. You’re welcome.

Normally, I would leave you with a list of publications that are accepting short stories. But…I think it might be time for me to kick you out of the proverbial nest on this one.

Go online–resist the urge to search cute kitten videos or Henry Cavill shirtless…holding kittens–and search for places now accepting submissions for short stories. If you can be specific in your search to the content of your story. Narrowing your search engine will save you time and weed out the journals that aren’t interesting in what you’ve written.

My general rule of thumb is collecting a list of 15 to 20 potential publications (yes, there are that many) and submitting my story(s) to 3 or 4 of them a week.

*Disclaimer–some publications will NOT ACCEPT simultaneous submissions so either submit different pieces or wait to submit until your current work is rejected (I’m not saying it will be…I’m just–*sigh*–saying that the odds are such).

Boom.

Mic Drop

That’s it. Go write something. Go submit something. Go watch “Barbarella” then write something. Come see me next week and yell at me for breaking your brain with Jane Fonda breaking ‘The Machine’. Next week’s topic is a surprise. (I say that because I don’t even know what I’m writing about next week)

Happy Writing!

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #29: The Short Story

Hello! Welcome back to The Beautiful Stuff and todays’ introduction to the well-known and prolific format we all suffered through in high school English.

Ladies and Gents: The Short Story

Don’t get me wrong, I say ‘suffered’ now because everything when you’re a teenager that entails any sort of responsibility not of your choosing is, to some degree, “suffering”. I mean, I could write for hours, holed up in my room, gladly passing the day. But ask me to read a short tome by O. Henry and I’d give you an eye roll and heavy sigh that would have rivaled the most put-upon martyr. Looking back, I actually really liked those stories. I remember dissecting them, studying the elements, and learning what made them so powerful.

Thank you, Joyce for “The Most Dangerous Game” and mining deep into the dark hearts of men. Hats off to the master of short story, E.A. Poe and his “Tell-Tale Heart” among at least a dozen others that gave me a healthy love of the spine-shiver. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was my first taste of apocalyptic fiction. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences and I urge you to go back over those old favorites and see what you notice at a different age/stage of life.

The Short Story is actually lumped in with Flash Fiction and Micro fiction and is defined by a word count of 5,000 to 10,000. Some even dip down to the 1,000 range, occasionally they’ll touch 15,000. But in general, anything above that (30,000-60,000) is considered a novella. I’m giving it its own blog because the short story is a beautiful place to start if you are just beginning your path in writing. It’s not overwhelming but it will allow you to practice a lot of the bigger elements of story-telling. It requires a certain amount of frugality with words and demands a tight story arc which are good practices to hone before embarking on a novel-length piece.

What’s the difference from flash fiction? Well, in flash fiction you are looking at a snap shot of a moment; a defining moment, a quirky flash in the pan. In a short story you have more wiggle room for character development and the ability to tell a complete story.

Why’s that important you ask? Wow, you always come up with so many good questions!

Character development is important in short stories, because often it is the character that drives these stories. That doesn’t mean you get to expunge for 3,000 words on the finer details of Joe Doe’s eleventh grade algebra class. It means you have the opportunity to create a connection to the reader by showing who Joe is using his reactions to the situations presented.

How do you do this most effectively?

Photo by moein moradi on Pexels.com

Well, as in novels, you have to know your character. I once wrote a short story about a woman who’s husband left her on her 50th birthday for a younger woman. I got to know Jane Pearce so well, that I often think there’s a little bit of herself still residing in me. The part that snaps out of her doting-housewife haze and burns the mother-fu$^ing house to the ground, collects the insurance money, and retires to Italy under a new name. The point is, if you don’t know what drives your character then you risk wasting time and words on a vignette that should be tight.

What else do we need to know?

Death follows a Terrier on a Mission.
Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

Well, you need an extraordinary event. A divorce out of the blue. A airship landing in the parking lot of the 7-11. A dog running down the street with a human leg in its mouth. A car crash, a panic attack, an island event where humans are hunted, a lottery to see who’ll be stoned to death. A body buried beneath the floorboards…something. Something that forces our beloved (or be-hated? is that a word? why isn’t it?) character into some tough decisions that make them CHANGE AND GROW. Yes. This can be done in the short span of 7,000 words.

You may, if you’re so plottingly inclined (in my head that sounded very judgmental, I apologize to all of my plotters out there), outline your short story to arrange it with the proper story beats, valleys and arcs necessary. Or, if you’re a slob like me, you can just start with the event and your character and see what madness ensues. Just be conscious this is a finite clip, not the 6-hour extended director’s cut.

I could, literally, go on for thousands of more words about the art of the short story, but I know you have some kitten videos to watch and probably a pants-less Zoom call to get on, so… I’m going to end this first blog (there will be others) with a good starting point for my beautiful writers out there.

The hardest part of the short story, for myself and other writer’s I’ve talked to, is finding a smashing good idea to write about. For this week, I’d like you to try one or both of these exercises and come up with, at minimum, 10 potential short story ideas. If you have the time, pick one or two and try your hand at a short story.

For the first exercise, I would like you to pick up a copy of your local newspaper (or scroll through it online) and seek out interesting or strange headlines that deserve a bigger story. The body pulled out of the river with no fingers. The discovery of pesticide residue in kindergarten playgrounds. Whatever catches your eye. Find a notebook, write down one or two lines on each and keep going. Don’t stop to write the story just yet. Let your beautiful brain simmer.

Secondly, I would like you to take a prolific historical/fictional or not character and ask “what if”. What if Henry Melville had been a modern day fisherman. What if Lizzy Borden had been a nursing home attendant? What if Buddy Holly had survived the plane crash? What if Donald Trump was really an alien? (ok, that one’s not so far of a reach)

Get freaky with it, twist history a little and see what interesting plot ensues. Thanks for playing today. Share your results and ideas, if you like and we’ll be back next week with more on the Short Story!

Happy Writing.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #27: A Need-To-Know Basis

Today’s blog will be short in rolling with the theme of Flash Fiction and its most basic principles.

Last week we talked about Flash Fiction (1 to 300 word stories) as a ‘snap shot’, not photo album. You could also say it’s a clip of a film instead of the whole three hour director’s cut. Because of this brevity, the story must be a significant part.

How do we, as writers, utilize the details of a moment to make an impact in a short amount of time? Well, my friends, it has to do with that famous and hair-pulling piece of advice:

Show don’t tell.

In a novel you have time to back-story a bit. You have chapters to build a character’s story, and flesh them out. You have pages to describe the fall leaves flanking their drive one day, even when the climax doesn’t happen until late December.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But in flash fiction you are limited in words, so every one of them must count. You don’t have the luxury of three paragraphs to tell a reader how the character made a cake just like her Grandmother and how it showed that she was tied to the past, and loyal to her family. You have one sentence to show us.

The audience is on a Need-To-Know basis. If a detail is pretty but insignificant for the purpose of story, it must be cut. The apron she uses may bring back random and various memories, but unless that memory is of her grandmother using it to dry her hands after slaughtering chickens for a voodoo ritual which cursed her love-life forever, I don’t want to hear it.

The loudest is always the first to go
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

In your Flash Fiction be sure to distill it down to the quintessential details, in curious and provoking ways which bring out the color of this photo and burn it into the retinas of your reader. That doesn’t mean it has to be shocking (burned out cars of ex-husbands, Iowan farm wives practicing voodoo rituals).

It just needs to be curious, gripping and brief. I don’t need to know the color of her hat, unless it’s significant to the story.

Now, personally when I think of what the audience ‘needs to know’, I prefer a little twist amidst those few lines. I prefer a flash piece to make me sit back with a; “Wait—what?”

It doesn’t have to happen. Sometimes the best flash work is simply a small slice of life that we all feel deeply, whether that be sitting at a funeral or sitting in dead-locked traffic (which is like sitting at your own funeral sometimes).

Again, practice your flash fiction this week and send me them if you wish. Try experimenting with something a little strange or unexpected thrown in. Let your brain just flow with a the strange and wonderful, try something that seems a touch jarring.

Next week, I’ll feature a couple of examples on Tuesday along with some journals currently accepting submissions for flash fiction. Then, we’ll move on to a new topic of discussion next Thursday.

Until then, beautiful writers, keep happily writing.  

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #26: Flashing for Fun and Profit

Yep. I said that. But in my defense…I don’t have a defense. I’m childish and immature. Please don’t go around “flashing people”. It’s not fun for anyone involved and you don’t make a good profit (unless you’re possessed of certain physical attributes—and even then, nothing in life is guaranteed.)

*for the record…that’s the first time I’ve spelled ‘guaranteed’ correctly on the first try. I just needed  to let every one know, so you’ll understand the kind of writer I am.*

When I say “Flashing” I’m talking about our next topic of discussion which is, of course, Flash Fiction.

If you like the brevity of poetry and quick, hard words that nail emotion to the theoretical wall with brute force, you’ll probably enjoy practicing flash fiction.

Let’s get started with a little introduction.

Ahem, Flash Fiction, these are my beautiful writers *gestures wildly out into the far reaches of the internet* They’re kind, amazing, and talented.

Writers this is Flash Fiction.

Flash fiction sprung up in the 1990s and has become a formidable form of storytelling that appeals to newer generations with ever-shortening attention spans and busy lives. Flash Fiction condenses a tapestry of story into a few short sentences/words/paragraphs. It also serves as a method to condense big ideas into concise writing, especially in terms of reporting (flash non-fiction?) and conveying information.

Ugh, that was dry. Talk about an awkward introduction.

Here are the basics. Flash Fiction is a form of short story that relies on brevity. Specifically, a word count between 1 and 300. If you’re wondering how you can tell a story in under 300 words, or even in under ten, allow me to give you one of the most famous examples:

“For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”

This very simple sentence/story has two commas, one period and a myriad of images that can affect the reader.

Flash Fiction is further divided into micro-fiction, sudden fiction (Wham! Suddenly there was Fiction! Out of nowhere and sudden!), postcard fiction, short story, and the short short story. Believe it or not, there are even sub-categories called drabble which refers to stories that come in at 100 words and dribble that come in at 50 words.

Why Flash Fiction, Sarah?

Well, I’m glad you asked. And…if you didn’t know, that’s what the S in S.E. stands for. The E stands for Enigmatic. Or maybe Exciting. Earnest. Edward. Eggo-(not to be confused with Ego). Who knows? Only my mom and she’d never tell because she’s as loyal as the day is long.

Back on point:

The advantages of Flash Fiction are as follows:

Several websites, literary journals, anthology collections, and magazines are interested in these bite sizes of life.

They are relatively quick to write from an artist’s perspective, which makes them more versatile and easier to explore different genres with.

I personally find flash fiction refreshing to write. For one, when you’re embroiled in a 120,000-word novel, bogged down in outlines and character sheets, plagued with plot holes and flat characters, it feels pretty damn good to step out with a 250-word taster of a completely unrelated character’s flash-in-the-pan dilemma.

Don’t misread. Flash Fiction may have fewer words, but it doesn’t mean that it’s ‘easy’. (She’s fast but she ain’t cheap). Writing more with less is difficult, especially if you’re accustomed to novel length work.

So, to start this little experiment, I’m going to make your first time (or maybe I’m not your first…it’s completely okay, I’m not judging what relationships you had before me) nice and gentle.

Take a current work in progress, a novel you’ve published, a poem you’ve written, and write a flash piece based on the characters or subject in a strange and new situation. Or, maybe six months after the novel ended. Or six months before. Show them in the parking lot with a new baby, or thrown into jail at sixteen, or sunk unexpectedly into a worldwide pandemic (too soon?)

Then…and this is the trick; don’t go on and on.

Think snap shot, not photo album.

One picture will tell us a lot about a person, without needing to see the whole photo album. (have you ever had to sit through someone else’s photo album? No, Sarah, because we’re not three-hundred years old, we have Instagram like normal people…what century are you from?)

Flash fiction is a novel if a novel were poetry. Condensed, potent, memorable.

For sale, baby shoes, never used.

Here’s a little flash piece (a drabble to boot) I submitted that won honorable mention, if you’re looking for an example.

She hadn’t meant to set it on fire, exactly. But now that the heat burgeoned from its windows, charring the leather seats and crackling up through the retrofitted steering wheel, she was glad for the warmth.

It was a shame he’d never get to see the way the flames jumped and swayed in the clear night turning cloudy. It was a shame he’d left it unlocked, parked outside the strip club. A shame he’d said he was at a meeting. What. A. Beautiful. Shame.

She pirouetted against the star-filled sky, and danced along the edges of erupting metal and smoke.

Try it out, have fun, and let me know how it goes. Share or don’t. If you do share and you’d like it featured just make sure you follow my rules against excessive violence/hate speech/rampant eroticism (a little is awesome—too much is…too much) before submitting. I look forward to hearing how it goes!

Happy Writing!

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #7

Hello!

 

With all of the excitement of last week’s book release (oh my god, here’s a link! Go buy it, it’s fantastic! Impress all your friends with the cultured look of carrying around a poetry book–classy my friend, very classy: No Small Things: The Beautiful Stuff Poetry Anthology 2019-2020) and a very personally busy week, I missed last Thursday’s lesson.

That’s probably going to happen from time to time in the next few months. I am in a strange season in my life and coping with some heavy changes. Add to that work, kids, parents, and school and I’m lucky I even remember to put on pants in the morning.

So–there may be some weeks that come and go without my lovely presence streaming across the ‘universe’ at you, but rest assured, I’ll always come back. And here I am. So let us commence.

This weeks creative exercise is really short and easy so I’m asking that you do it twice.

1.) Pull out the dictionary

*Don’t have one? What? Shut the front door! Every household should have a dictionary. Fine. Ugh. Go online if you must toWho Doesn’t Own a Dictionary?

2.) If you’re an actual writer with a dictionary (yeah, I said that…I don’t cut often but when I do, I cut deep) blow the dust off. If you’re using the internet, order a dictionary then continue on (free snark given to those not owning a dictionary)

3.) Flip to a random page and chose a random word. Read all about it, and then…

4.) Take that word, and the one before it and after it and compose a 500-1000-word short story using those three words.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

If you want a little something more, do it again (or use the same three) and write a poem using those words.

Okay, there you go. I’d better go put my old nose back to the grindstone. Happy Writing.

Homework

Oh, you’re in for it now.

Listen, sometimes I get down to the dirt of it all and give you the best writing advice I’ve got and all you have to do is sit back and absorb my witty information dumps.

But I’ve got a case of summer boredom and am itching for something different. Something a little more…interactive. So, today, instead of me expunging on the benefits of plot arcs and character development, or raking you through the coals of The Chicago Manual of Style, we’re gonna play.

I say “play”. You might say homework.

Pota-toe. Potaah-toe.

Here’s the rules. I’m going to give you a writing prompt. You send me your 200-1000 word result. It can be fiction, nonfiction, prose or in poetry form, written in chocolate pudding, or Latin (or in Latin, in chocolate pudding)…the possibilities are all before you.

I’ll choose a winner, send you a set of my signed novels, and feature your story on the blog with all the bragging rights that come along with it. Cool?

And because, I’d never ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do myself, I’ll be featuring my ‘homework’ on next week’s regular Tuesday blog.

So…you see, writers that suffer together…give each other awkward, virtual high fives afterwards? Drink heavily and question the purpose of their existence? I vote the first one.

Because I’m feeling generous, I’ll even give you two options to choose from.

 

Here’s your homework:

 

Write about something/one that got left behind by accident.

or

Write about something/one that got left behind on purpose.

 

On your marks….get set…

 

Can I Get a Prompt?

Pssst….

Hey there kid, want to do something different?

Well, if you read this blog I’m willing to bet that part of your time is spent on creative endeavors of some kind. And I thought it might be a good time to remind you about improvisation exercises as a healthy and fun part of your writing routine.

Whether you are a novelist, a poet, a technical writer, historical non-fiction guru or children’s phenom, everyone’s creativity waxes and wanes with the progression of our career and lives. It is, therefore, important that we spend some time practicing in different ways to jog the old idea factory into an efficient, work-producing machine.

This particular exercise is about improvising (on the fly you might say) with one sentence prompts. You may have had to do this at conferences or class and present your material after the allotted time. As an introvert it might have be akin to a claustrophobic getting stuck in the kiddie tube slide at the park (Breath, Sarah…breath…just keep squirming.)

So, in defense of all of those out there not wanting to share their words yet but in need of something that boosts their creativity, I’m going to give you some pointers on prompts and let you go to proverbial town on them.

The important things to remember with these kinds of exercises are:

  1. DO NOT (repeated it after me) DO NOT, censor yourself or edit. Let yourself run with the idea, no matter how stupid or silly.
  2. Stay true to the character you’re given to work with or the situation, this is not about what you’d do, it’s about what they do. And they’re crazy bastards. So let their freak flag fly.
  3. The funnier the better. The sadder the better. The more horrific, the better. Improvisation should be a lot of things but none of those is BORING. Make it snappy, or if it must be reserved, do it to build tension for a whiz bang ending.
  4. Emotion is important. The only time to pause in writing for a prompt is to ask yourself, what’s the most intense thing this person feels in this moment and how does that look on the outside. How do I make my reader jump into the character’s skin and feel that intensity?
  5. Challenge yourself with prompts that may not seem interesting or your ‘type’ of writing. You will surprise yourself at what comes out from behind those locked doors.

 

I’m going to give you three prompts. I could give you a length requirement, but we’re not middle schoolers here (though my humor sometimes digresses to such a level). Get dark, get dirty, get freaky, get sweet. Make it something that shocks you. Share it in the comments if you want to or in a private message to me.

At the end of this article I’ll link some really amazing references for doing more of these kinds of exercises on your own. If you are gripping your computer screen, shouting at me with spittle flying, that you “DON’T HAVE THAT KIND OF TIME!!” calm your tits…this will take five minutes tops. You can do it while you wait at the doctor’s office for your appointment for excessive salivation. You can do it in the car while you wait for your kids to get out of school. You can do it over your first cup of coffee…

Think of it as the second-most-fun form of “quickie” you get in life.

(Come on…I warned you about the seventh-grade humor, don’t look shocked.)

Ok…. Here’s your prompts. Pick one, or two, or make it a trifecta. In a perfect world, quickies are not limited. (And, yes, I mean that in all the ways)

  1. A rancher comes across a mutilated cow in her field, and all of the organs have been replaced by…
  2. A man is dared by his friends to ask the next woman who walks through the bar’s door to marry him. The next woman who walks through the door is…
  3. A child finds an ordinary rock on the playground that begins to make his wishes, big and small, come true. He brings it home and his mom finds it in the wash and puts it in her pocket without thinking…

 

Go play.

Here’s some books you should read or apps (for you tech savvy geniuses) you can download to help bring a little fun and playfulness to your art.

 

“A Writer’s Book of Days” by Judy Reeves

“Pocket Muse” (1 and 2) by Monica Wood

“The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice” Kelli Russell Agodon

Apps:

Prompts for Writing

The Brainstormer

WordPallette