The Beautiful Stuff Writers Workshop: Novelty #4- Character Part Deux

(image respectfully borrowed from Nick Cocozza’s amazing “selfies” series)

F*&k yeah, I just copied and pasted another great blog I wrote on Character (sorry for using F*&k in the first sentence, Mom). But if you haven’t followed me from the start you might have needed a reminder and I needed to work on some other projects. So… Ladies and Gents, enjoy Part Deux of Character.

From the dark, cavernous recesses of the author’s twisted mind springs forward all sorts of nasty and derelict creations.

Okay, that’s a touch overdramatic.

Frankly most writers will begin by creating a story from people they know or have read about (please see my last blog). Sometimes we do it without even realizing it. Characters and personality traits that we admire, or equally cringe at, stay with us in that sometimes-twisted-but-always-magical realm of our subconscious. Realism in characters is important because it adds to their believability and with that, their ability to connect with our readers.

Why is it so important to connect your character to your reader?

We are a society of channel flippers, of instant gratification lovin’, drive-thru eatin’, convenience hounds. We have the attention spans of goldfish. If you can’t connect your readers to your character through the common ground of sympathetic and universal traits they will put your book down. And often, when a book lands on the nightstand, it never gets picked up again.

I shudder to think how many amazing stories were lost to the underside of the coffee table.

If your reader can’t identify with your character in even some small way, they will cease to care about that character and will not follow them, no matter how interesting the story is. The human element is very important.

So along with grabbing them from the beginning with an interesting and challenging first scene, you must hold your reader to a character that they care about, either because they relate to them, or because they are fascinated by their darker side. Their traits and foibles make your readers want to know what’s going to happen to them next. And that keeps them reading.

In the ignorance of youth, I used to think that my character could be anything and do anything. They could be perfect because I was building their world and I could make them flawless. They could be smart, and athletic, and beautiful, always saying and doing the right thing, always in control of their situation and aware of their future. (In the business we call these characters “Mary-Sue”s).

Snooze-o-rama and eye-roll Central.

Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, wants to read about some pristine person who’s practically perfect in every way.

For one, we don’t need perfection rubbed in our face. We get enough from the glaring Hollywood machine. Secondly, a character that always says the right things, does the right things, and looks like a supermodel is not challenged and if they are, they do not fail. Characters that never fail are unrealistic, which means they cannot relate to the nerdy girl in her frumpy sweater and ripped jeans, curled up with your book (Yep, that’s me I just described). And what happens when that person doesn’t relate? The book is given a good chuck over the shoulder with a hearty ‘Good riddance’.

So make your characters dirty. Make them tarnished and worn. If they have to be beautiful, make them fundamentally broken somehow inside. If they are self-assured and intelligent, give them an outward physical challenge that hinders them. When a reader sees your character fail, they see the humanity within their own failures. More importantly, when they see them overcome the faults that stall their growth, they feel hopeful for their own path. They follow that character. They root for that character.

*In an amendment to this section, I would like to say, due to the overwhelming lack of Mary-Sue characters these days, they’re actually a bit of a phenomenon. So, if you must create a Mary-Sue, own the hell out of it. Make them so staggeringly perfect that its almost comical…or otherwise interesting. Think of the person with extraordinary good luck, that can’t do wrong, even when they try.*

As a beginner writer it’s tempting to live out the life you wish you had in your pages, and it’s okay to write those ideas down. But keep those rarities for yourself. When it’s time to write an amazing story for the world, give the reader a character they can root for.

This advice is straightforward for developing the protagonist’s character traits. But it’s equally important to give this attention to your antagonist.

Something tells me this guy has rope, a damsel, and a train to catch

No ‘good guy’ is all good, and no ‘bad guy’ is all bad. Even the worst ‘bad guy’ has to have reasoning in his actions. They must have something that drives them, and it has to be something we can understand on our basic human level, even if we don’t agree with it.

Having even a slight sympathetic response to an antagonist builds tension between the characters and gives your reader the nail-bite reaction. The opposing forces both come from places that can seem justified and ‘right’ in their position, which makes the battle all the more important on both sides and the outcome so much more brutal or celebratory.

This week’s exercise is to take a hard look at your characters. Do they have some baseline, deep-rooted faults? Are these faults causing interesting and plot-driving stumbling blocks? Are they loveable, and a little bit annoying? Are they dangerous, but still broken?

If you find that they’re not engaging enough, throw in a life-changing event into their past and rewrite them based on their new fault. Divorce, fire, murder, car accident, illness, or the loss of loved one can be good ideas to play with. Take away one of their defining traits and replace it with its opposite. Nothing you play with is set in stone, it’s just a way to grow your character’s depth and help you to know them better.

If you’re looking for a good reference, one of my favorite books on the subject is Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, PH.D Writer’s Guide to Character Traits.

Good luck out there, kiddos. I’d love to hear if this helped you out and how!

Happy Writing.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop: Novelty #3: Character

Good morning, writers! And a happy morning to you (or afternoon, or evening, whenever you tumbled out of bed–or back into it and are catching up on your bloggers). This week, in exploration of the novel, we’ll be talking characters.

I’m telling you now, because contrary to some reports out there, I’m not a complete idiot. A while back I did a decently in-depth study of character and I’m using a lot of that for this post. After all–the quicker I get the blogging part done, the quicker I can get back to my own novel and the characters I’m currently developing.

So without further ado– recycled Character Development:

Since character development is one of my favorite aspects of writing and I thought I’d pay homage to it’s process in a two part post.

So first, let’s address where characters come from.

I’ve had characters come to me in dreams (day or night), sometimes they’re inspired by true stories from news that I trip across. Sometimes they spring from hazy memories of a childhood friend, or the curious behavior of the neighbor across the street who steals decorative rock from the common area and smuggles it away in her purse. Any one adept at studying human nature and observing their fellow human beings can get inspiration simply from watching what our nutty human brethren do (and don’t do) in the course of their day.

Often, though never in their entirety, I write from people I know. By this I mean people I know both casually and intimately are good places to start for characters.

Although real people can help jumpstart the process, they rarely become the character in the final draft, and here’s why.

For one, it would be creepy (and, depending on the story and topic, possibly slanderous) to write about an actual person from your life, unless it is a memoir of said person and they are asking you for your help. Ethically, a writer looking to publish or share their work with the world must adhere to certain rules of respect and common decency concerning using the likeness of other people. That being said, you can (and should) borrow personality traits, history, and physical attributes that enhance your character’s believability, without putting someone’s life down, verbatim, on your page.

Secondly, even when based on someone you may know, something magical will inevitably happen when you put a ‘real’ person on a page and shove them into a conflict (the driving force of your story). Under the demands of a proper story arc, the character you began with will be forced to shift and evolve into someone else. You don’t know how your character will behave in an apocalyptic dystopia and the situations and decisions that they are faced and make will be a magical combination of what the author dreams up spontaneously, the character’s history and what the author needs them to do to move the story forward.

For example, Joe Smith may start off looking like your high school biology teacher but if you write him exactly as he was, including is normal day to day, your audience will be too bored to stick with his story.

Now, if you put the body of an alien in the school science lab’s freezer next to the dissected frogs, Joe Smith, your old biology teacher will automatically become way more interesting. And as he does, he will move away from the real person you started with and morph into a different character. A man of his own, alien-hiding, design.

They double-dog dared him.

A writer can tweak, correct, enhance and play with personality types, turning one, real-world person into a completely different but still realistic character. But it’s important to keep the relatable aspects of the initial ‘muse’, including the physical attributes that you can describe in realistic detail, or the personality types that can be explored in depth from a place of personal interaction.


What can be left behind are names, exact and undeniable physical description (don’t be a creeper) and any ‘boring’ or typical parts that may be cliché or expected. The character will change to be their own person with the natural progression of their role and development within your story.

The other method of character development is to begin with a story and let your mind follow the natural path of who lives it. This is one part plot-driven creation and one part spontaneous combustion.

An atomic bomb goes off, a virulent disease hits the population, a train switches tracks, a car runs through an intersection, an alien shows up in a freezer.

Start with an event and ask yourself; who would it affect most? Who stands to lose or gain the most? Who is equipped to deal with the situation? More interestingly, who is least able to cope with it and how do they survive?

Characters will find their way into your mind. They may look and act like someone you know or they may have a mind of their own. As a writer you will find that as your plotline advances the character will become less and less your creation and more a product of their history combined with their destiny.

We all have these personalities in our heads that sit dormant on the shelves until something shakes them loose. Most writers, (yes, I’m saying it) are a little bit schizophrenic. We are geniuses of introspection and observation. Humans are interesting and a good writer will watch and learn from their interactions how to build characters that could be a best friend or a worst enemy in their reader’s own world. They talk to us as we write their paths, they argue when we move too far away from their true reactions. They trip us up by throwing random but necessary bits of history our way that we hadn’t considered for the bigger picture. It’s maddening and magical all at once.

Next time we’ll talk about developing intricate characters and some tips I’ve picked up along my journey to make them somebody your reader’s will root for, love, and hate. Until then, take a few minutes today to think about some characteristics that you love and loathe in human beings and think about why they draw your attention.

Make a list of character traits that are interesting in both beneficial and detrimental ways.

Also, feel free to write or comment about your favorite characters, and if you’ve ever found yourself ‘accidently’ writing about someone from real life. Next time we’ll have an exercise on character development and I look forward to your responses!

Happy Writing!

The Beautiful Writers Workshop: Novelty #2: The Story Arc

Good Thursday to you, Writers. I hope you have a brand-spankin’ new plot started in your head from Tuesday. Moving from that amazing raw material I’m going to tickle your inner plotting nerd and give you a ‘graph’ of sorts to help you with organize a killer storyline.

-I love tickling nerds

Last time we discussed ways to help create a basic plot for your novel idea, today we’re going to outline the beats, or arcs, of that story. If you remember from my handy-dandy, bulleted list on Novels, I list Arcs as being an important element. While this blog does cover some of the theory, I will do a more in depth look at crafting an arc that creates the perfect amount of tension.

Back to plot. Some of the best stories follow a pattern, or what I like to think of as a rollercoaster of ever-rising stakes.

Most plots can be split into three acts. The Set Up (beginning), The Conflict (middle), and The Resolution (ending). Each of these acts should have some defined crisis or event which is like a doorway your character passes through and must either change, fight, or overcome more trials until they find resolution. I found this nifty diagram from David Harris Kline’s “Structure Lesson #2: The Three Act Structure” ( http://www.writers-for-writers.com/2017/11/08/structure-lesson-2-three-act-structure/)

As you can see the beginning has to hook the reader into a specific event, starting point, or character problem. Here’s where you introduce your character and show us who they are, what they want, what they are facing. Throw in some foreshadowing and Bam! You just met a small-town farmer from Tatooine.

Act II comes with something that disrupts their normal day to day. (Holy shit, this droid has an important message from the Rebellion!) The character is forced to make a choice (wipe the droid’s memory or try to get the message to old Ben).

Real, live image of me during quarantine.

The middle, as most of us know, can be a bitch to write. This is where the dreaded doldrums hit. The quagmire. The swamp of eternal despair. I’m not going to get too deep into that swamp today except to say that this is where plotting can really help build a bridge across the muck and help your character get to that final, defining climax. This bridge is paved with different obstacles and trials that keep the action and the tension going through out. (Scruffy looking nerfherders and tough-ass princesses, oh my!)

Then, finally, as our hero/ine comes through that final climax (for better or worse) we witness their transformation or acceptance of who they are or what they need to do . The final act is where you tie up your loose ends and give the audience the resolution they’re seeking. Like giving a Wookie a medal.

Wait a goddamn minute…where’s Chewie’s medal?

Well, that’s pretty much all I wanted to cover on plot for this time around. Next week we’ll be talking about one of my absolute favorite aspects of writing: Characters.

Until next week, diagram your plot, think about what events, scenes or characters you can inject to get those bursts of conflict. Think about what your character wants and what obstacles stand in the way of that. How does overcoming them move them/change them for the next bump in the road?

Good luck out there, and may the Force be with you.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop: Novelty #1: Plot

Can you believe I couldn’t think of a more creative title? Me neither. Some days are like that.

Today, is not my normal blogging day, but we’re getting into the meat and potatoes of writing a novel, and this kind of thing needs space. So, without further ado..

What is Plot and Why is it Important?

All right, I get it, it’s a dumb question, we’re all writers and we all KNOW that plot is the basic story of your novel. It is the idea. The “what happened”, and why, and “what’s going to happen next” of any decent story. I’m not trying to dumb it down for you. But the true test of a good plot lies in the simplicity of answering those questions.

Now, you can have books that are character driven (an event happening TO a person, or BECAUSE OF a person). And you can have books that are historical non-fiction, based on one specific moment in time or occurrence. The PLOT of your book expands more than just beyond an event (otherwise The Hunger Games would have been maybe 50 pages long). The plot is the premise or sequence of events. Some novels will follow a very specific order of events that are common to their genre, or as we like to call them tropes. Tropes comes from the Greek Tropos define as “turn, direction, way” and refers to common, recognizable elements or sequences of events.

Many genre specific tropes (I almost prefer ‘formulas’) are embraced by the audience and even expected. Examples include: “the hero’s journey”, “enemies to lovers”, “small towns”, “cold cases”, “missing persons”, “AI gone wrong”, “fairy tale retelling”. But if almost every novel follows a plot formula how is it #1, that readers don’t get bored and #2 that you tell an original story that hasn’t been done before.

It’s an interesting dilemma on the part of a writer. We know which formulas work in fiction and straying from them often makes a plot fall apart or leaves a reader angry or unsatisfied at the end.

(She’s gonna want to talk to your manager)

But how do we follow commonalities in plot structure and still make it a fun, captivating, and surprising journey for our readers? The answer my friends, lies your ability as a writer to do five things: (Fuck Yeah! A bullet list!)

  • Begin with a unique event or crisis. This comes back to the “scan the headlines” exercise I’ve had you do before. A lot of weird shit goes down in the world. A lot of undercover, shady AF stuff too. Use it as a springboard, to your “what happens then/if” story building.
  • Tie the reader to your character (through love or hate) and make their reactions to events unique or contrary to the norm. (ie a cheerleader who fights vampires. A small town farm boy who becomes a powerful Jedi. A teenager who comes into supernatural powers without the maturity to handle them and doesn’t use them to download free porn–come on.) Character building will come later in this series but if you create unique ones, their actions will create new takes on formulas.
  • Use honed writing technique to build tension for climaxes. Yikes, that sounds dirty. Tension is one key to making a story more than just series of events. So much of this depends on your voice and writing style. But the big take away here is about risk. Making the risks personally huge for your character, and even the world at large, will keep the plot fresh and drive it forward.
  • Play with the number and intensity of climaxes (story arcs). I think I’ll start using story arcs (some prefer ‘beats’) because every time I type climaxes I can’t stop giggling. Ok. Story arcs are BIG deals in your plot. Think of these as door ways, crisis-points at the top of your arc, that your character has to move through in order to get closer to what it is they want/need. Once they hit that doorway, or crisis point, they can’t go back. A serious change has occurred either in the setting or with-in the character and they must move forward. Next blog will be all about these arcs so I won’t go into much more detail here.
  • Consider using unexpected but intelligent twists. The best movies and books I can think of that do this are: “The Sixth Sense”, “Fight Club”, “Gone Girl”, “Mind Hunters”. What better way to shake up an audience than by having them accept one reality for the entirety of the story, only to show them the true reality at the end.

All right, so there are some tips for building an effective plot that carries readers throughout the book. My advice to you this week, is to explore various tropes and patterns, especially those in your genre. Turn a piece of paper (landscape-style) and write out the typical pattern of your story, then overlay events and characters of your proposed idea. See how they match up, see if you have enough tension building scenes, just play around with it. I’m not much of a plotter myself, but even I will do a general outline to keep myself on track and make sure I’m building a solid plot.

Next time, more on story arc, how to climax well (*snork*), and end satisfied (*hahahahaha). Until Thursday, happy writing.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #31: Novelty

Happy Thursday, Writers.

I hope that you had a productive week and are staying safe wherever you’re stationed right now. It seems in all parts of the world, different calamities are occurring. In my own state we went from 80 degrees to 30 in a matter of hours. And while I weep for my garden, my hope is that the snow and rain will put an end to the massive fire that is raging north of our town.

Remember, remember…when the world wasn’t collapsing into chaos and death?
Photo by Ashutosh Sonwani on Pexels.com

So whether you are being lashed by hurricanes, trampled by heat, or decimated by fire, I am sending all my hope for your safety and well-being. Believe it or not (and most of the world’s leading climatologists agree) this is probably tip of the melting iceberg in terms of where our world is headed.

What better time to start writing that dystopian/apocalyptic novel that you’ve been putting off?

While we still have power to do so, let’s write.

THE NOVEL

Now, some of you are short story aficionados and some are poetry pros but there’s something beautiful and obstinate about writing a novel. It’s the kind of thing that gets bandied about at coffee shops and by people in thick rimmed glasses over cups of burnt coffee, smugly proclaiming that they’re drafting their first, second, or third revision. It’s daunting just trying to write a first version for some of us. While we could probably spend a month-long class on the craft of writing a novel, I’ll try to pare it down to the essentials for those of you who are looking to get started.

Most novels come in between 60,000 and 120,000 words. Some exceptions can be made and I’ve seen as few as 40,000 and over 150,000. The large spread is due to the specifics of genre. A light romance novel only needs to distract us for an afternoon, so 50,000 is plenty. A science fiction tome, where entire worlds are built and new languages are developed will require three times that.

For the most part, I like to keep my novels between 80,000 and 100,000 (but even the Southtown Harbor Series pushed into the 120,000s–ghost sex takes some time to maneuver through). This is simply the cold hard number in the equation. The real magic of a novel is so much more than that.

You can scour the internet all day and dredge up at least fifty sites, each with a pretty little bullet-point list of the “essential” elements of a good novel. One might have 5. Another 3. One had 24. Still another 12.

Just like a novel, it’s all cute and fun until it poops itself.
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Just like parenting your first child, when it comes to writing your first novel, you will get a deluge of advice both good and bad. I encourage you to read as much of it as you can and reject what doesn’t fit your style. Because at the end of the day, if you are forcing your voice and writing style into the confines of a bulleted list that doesn’t gel, you’re not going to get that book written.

Here are the consistent elements that all novels really should have and that we’ll be covering for the next three to five weeks, in no particular order of importance. (Yes…I get the hypocrisy of giving you a list…just…go with it.)

  • Plot (can’t write a novel without a purpose/story)
  • Characters (can’t engage a reader unless they have someone to follow)
  • Viewpoint (or even Point of View if you will–affects how the reader travels with you and how you are able to convey information)
  • Style (your particular voice as well as the overall tone of the book)
  • Arcs (some say beginning, middle, end…I say doorways. Potaytoe, Potahtoe)
  • Setting (not only does setting affect character and style but can also be a character itself)
  • Dialogue (I’m throwing this one in because, if done well, it will move the plot along and connect us to characters. If done poorly, it will stunt the flow and disengage the reader)

Well, it looks like I have seven there. I think that’s a happy medium point and a good basis to start. Beginning next week I will be posting both on Tuesdays and Thursdays, mini lessons in the art of writing a Novel. I may even include some excerpts of my own work as examples.

If you have some thing you’d like to ask, or a problem you’ve encountered in the process and want to shoot me an e-mail, I’d love to hear from you and try to help get you out of the pit, so to speak. It may also help another writer who is struggling to hear similar questions and concerns. So don’t be shy.

Until then, gird your loins for next Tuesdays riveting episode on Plot.

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 #23: “Snap To! Let’s Get Organized!”

Disappointed I can’t find an image of the scene when John Gavin shouts this line while fumbling with a live chicken and coming out of a tranquilized haze. Apparently, the internet DOES NOT have everything.

I’m not immune to the fact that this blog has tripped around in the dark a bit lately. Let’s be honest, all of us are probably tripping in the dark. We’re in unprecedented times, facing stresses and noise that we’ve never dealt with before. It’s easy, in the dissonance, to lose our path.

So for the next three to four weeks I’ll be getting organized and coming back to the basics. No, I’m not going to make you deconstruct your sentences into diagrams, circling your subject, double scoring your gerunds, slashing through your adverbs (or will I? Could be a fun practice in the lost art of sentence diagramming AND tortuous. I’m a girl who likes it a little rough).

For the love of all that is good and holy…if this doesn’t make you hot…you’re not my kind of nerd.

First, we’ll be taking a few weeks to explore the basics of each type of the most prevalent submissions for authors: poetry, flash fiction, short story, and novel.

Following that, and into the fall, I’ll start breaking it down further into genre work, dialogue, plot building, scene construct, story structure and the basics of good editing.

That’s not to say I won’t occasionally throw in a “stop being assholes to each other” rant. I like to keep it exciting after all.

It’s been a while since we dabbled in the lighter word count and heavier hand of poetry so I thought…why not start there?

(Hold on to your asses, she’s about to ADULT over here!)

Poetry used to be the sole conveyer of great stories, epic tales, and the meat and potatoes of religious creed. The first believed poem, author unknown, was called The Epic of Gilgamesh. Besides this epic, there was Rig Vedas of Hinduism, and The Song of The Harper from Egypt. Centuries before we first heard a Greek throw down an ode to an urn, people were writing poems.

Poetry was borne in the heart of burgeoning cultures and empires. As we move west across the world, we have The Iliad, Beowulf, 154 shout outs to Will Shakespeare’s best girl(s), and eventually, on to the new world with works like The Song of Hiawatha.

From these epic and structured beginnings, poetry has evolved and moved, like a river around obstacles, constant but ever-changing. One of the reasons I love poetry is its ability to capture the heartbeat of time-periods through the use of its language and form, as well as the ideas that it holds.

Poetry records history. From the simplest nursery rhymes (“Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” was actually based on Queen Mary I, aka Bloody Mary, who tortured and killed hundreds of protestants. Silver Bells and Cockle Shells aren’t perennials, they’re torture devices.) to Walt Whitman’s descriptions of the horror and decimation from America’s Civil War (“O Captain, My Captain” was written about the assassination of Lincoln just before the close of the ‘storm’ of war) poetry is a powerful conveyer of humankind’s journey through time.

Poetry connects. It’s visceral and often uncomfortable. It paints pictures with the deepest hues of language. Poetry is vital to song writing, memory retention, and a host of other deep-seated neural mechanisms humans use to survive. (the ABC song, “Thirty days hath September…”, “I before E except after C–and about a dozen other exceptions because the English language is a bastardized torture device for anyone learning it”)

So how do you write a poem?

Well, that’s the beautiful thing. We are no longer shackled to the 15 line iambic pentameter, nor are we beholden to ends that rhyme. Poetry can be written in just about any form you can conceive. You can write it, you can rap it, you can sing it, you can paint it across a street in bold letters. There are no rules but one.

Poetry should be true to your soul.

It should never be half-way. It should fling open the shutters of your close-held heart and expose it to the light. Poetry should reflect the thoughts and the feelings, the commiseration and worry, the anger and peace, the joy or the sadness that fills your head and your community.

When I think of poetry, I think of catharsis and a means to work through big and hard emotions (a girl’s favorite kind?) I think of finding meaning and perspective, shrinking down the large imposing impossibilities to moments I can do something with. To feelings I can direct towards change.

To write a poem is to be truthful about what hurts most in that moment.

I’m sure you can guess this week’s exercise. Write some poetry. In any form you want. Send it to me, let me know if you want it to have a little spot here on The Beautiful Stuff, or if you rather just share it with another soul. I don’t have a preference for form or length. Just get to the darkness, poke around in there, tickle the tender underbelly of what drives your biggest emotions and tug it out into the light.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

Happy Writing.

The Beautiful Stuff Writers Workshop #22: The Ugly of Starting Over

Hey Kids. Listen, last week I got on a soap box. I’m not even slightly sorry nor is this an apology, but I understand that the purpose of this blog is mostly about writing with a little bit of “living with beautiful intention” sprinkled in. Last week was more about living with beautiful intention and we can all use more of that in this day and age.  

Now, back to writing. Full disclosure: Inappropriate language will follow, so hold on to your knickers.

I’ve been working on a novel (to be honest, I’ve been working on about six of them because I have a problem seeing things through to the end six times out of ten). But this one in particular, I wrote, edited, re-edited, edited again, rewrote, edited, and re-edited all 97,000 words multiple times, always adjusting it with every rejection letter and well-deserved bit of advice. A month ago I wanted to throw it into a dumpster and burn the mother fucker to the ground. I wanted to delete it from my hard drive, the cloud, completely wipe the piece of shit off of the face of the earth. After all those years. After all that work.

It made me so mad that I couldn’t get it right and that it always felt lukewarm that I wanted to quit novel writing all together.

So I killed it. I put it in a file that, I shit you not, I called “The Piece of Shit Series That Will Never Get Published Because It’s Fucking Awful” and left it for a few months while I figured out how to rent a dumpster and get my hands on some gasoline.

Then, like any good writer, I stewed. I festered over it. I fumed.

I hate wasting time. I hate wasting words and effort.

So instead of sending it out yet again to die in some slush pile…or deleting it completely, I started a new document called “What I hate about this book” and I sat on the proverbial therapists couch and let loose all the things that I knew weren’t working and all of which were my fault as a novice writer (I started this thing even before my Fixing Destiny books). I ripped it apart, above and beyond what I heard from outside sources.

Then…at the bottom of the page I wrote, “Is it even worth saving? Is there anything about this story that you love? If you could rewrite these characters, if you could change this plot now, knowing what you know, living what you have lived, what would you make different?”

The next two pages I laid it out. If I had free-reign (ha ha ha, silly writer, that’s your piece of shit you DO have free-reign!) I would change that girl so she wasn’t such a sniveling idiot. I would make her stand up and leave. I’d give her a bigger threat to face on her own. I’d make her tougher. I’d make that boy of hers not be such a fucking mess. She’s already had to clean up enough messes.

Etc.

Now, I’m starting to like these characters. They’ve gone from wet mops to warm bread dough, bubbling with potential and depth…but still not as formed as I would like.

And here’s what I discovered after getting real and hard with myself (whoo…that sounds naughty). I can write and edit a piece of…er…work… a million times, but if I don’t really love the characters, the story won’t follow. I have to believe in them. I have to love and hate them. Not just have them on a page to hold space while the weak plot tries to build a book around them.

This week, I encourage you to take a scene that’s not working, a novel, a short story, a poem…whatever it is that’s sticking in your craw lately, and get brutal. Be fucking horrible to the work and to your part in it. Own your shit-fest and stop tip-toeing around it. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one. The next step is tearing it down to the foundation of what you’re trying to do, and building it up better, stronger, more beautiful.

Don’t be afraid. You have free-reign writer, to change, to destroy, to rebuild. And if you find, after tearing it apart that there is nothing that can save it, that you don’t have any love for the idea or characters, get yourself some gasoline and a dumpster. Because those horrible little projects that we don’t love enough to stick with will only serve as anchors that tie us to mistakes we need to move past.

Re-write or destroy, but don’t stay stagnant with your writing, or it may just cripple your creativity until you never pick up a pen again.