Summer Reading: My Favorite (Writing) Craft Books

Happy Summer, friends!

Summer is my absolute favorite time of year (I’m a summer baby), so even though the world is strange, I’m finding lots of joy in not wearing shoes, or sweaters, eating lots of Popsicles, drinking iced coffee, journaling on my balcony in the soft summer mornings and reading long into the evening. I hope you’re finding this season more gentle and inspiring than the last!

And this time each year I usually write about my own summer reading. In the past I’ve shared my favorite summer rereads as well as my thoughts behind having a reading syllabus, among others.

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This summer I’m thinking about craft books (in anticipation of my own, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction, coming out this fall). And thinking about craft books has me thinking about the ones that have had big influences on my writing and creative practices, particularly those favorites on my shelves that I have read many, many times over the years.

So while this list isn’t meant to be comprehensive (I’ve read many other craft books that aren’t on this list!), here are my favorites:

On Creativity in General

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
I LOVE this book. It’s not writing specific but instead addresses the “battle” of the creator (you) against the “enemy”: resistance. I also love his micro chapters and was very inspired by his format when writing my own book.

The Artists Way by Julia Cameron
If one book put me on the path to taking myself seriously as a writer, it was this one. I first read it in 1995 (I’ve revisited it many, many times) and never looked back. Structured like a 12-week DIY creative recovery program, Cameron addresses common blocks and fears, and her two main tools of recovery–morning pages and artist’s dates—I’ve now been doing for 25 years.

On Writing Specifically

Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
I was first assigned this book as an undergrad, then again as a grad student, and I’ve been recommending it to my own students for years. Again, this is not going to teach you how to write, but it invites you on a stylish, esoteric meditation into the glory of words and sentences themselves.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
A classic. I love her snarky humor and the way she doesn’t take herself too seriously or make her writing too precious. Her opening chapter, Shitty First Drafts, is required reading for all my college students. She addresses both technique and other writing life stumbling blocks like jealousy and fear, and she ultimately reminds us that the writing always happens one step at a time, bird by bird.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
This book is a collection of Bradbury’s essays about the writing (and overall creative) process as well as a glimpse into his world. Written at different times in his career, I especially like watching how certain themes show up over and over (and some interesting asides like the process of making a movie from one of his books).

Ernest Hemingway on Writing edited by Larry Phillips
This is another compilation of writing wisdoms, most of them culled from Hemingway’s personal letters and other correspondences. What I like about this book is the wisdoms are truly bite-sized and could serve almost as a daily inspiration book. And ya’ll know how much I love Papa.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
This book is over 40 years old and I believe it’s truly timeless. In very short, often funny, and easily digestible chapters, Goldberg addresses both the micro: writing advice and specific exercises—as well as the macro: the big picture of “being a writer” and the trials of a writing life.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
This book was initially published in 1934…and considering that 100 years ago women weren’t commonly regarded as authorities on writing, I find this book particularly unique. Brande doesn’t focus on technique but instead on creative mindset, self-commitment and personal “guts”–she demystifies the fantasy but makes you want to begin writing now.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
This slim book is a long love letter to creativity. Reading it, you feel let into Dillard’s personal process and conspiratorial details as well as feeling validated about the love, hate, and love of writing.

On Writing by Stephen King
Another classic, King’s book is half writing advice and half personal memoir of his life as a writer, but he somehow blends these two seamlessly. What I love is that in true King fashion, this book is still a page turner—his signature storytelling skills at play even in nonfiction.

On Writing Flash Fiction Specifically

A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction by Randall Brown
A veteran of flash and long time teacher, Brown’s little book is a back pocket gem and a DIY for flash writers and the flash-curious. A inspiration to me, this book is a great primer for those wanting to cross over to flash fiction as well as great writing advice for all writers.

Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook by David Galef
Another flash specific book, Galef’s book brings lots of examples and exercises to the discussion, so this is the perfect DIY and/or teaching text for those who want more guidance through the many exciting ways flash fiction stories can manifest.

What are your favorite craft books not on this list?

And I’m so glad my book will be joining the ranks of these and other great craft books this fall! Pre-orders will be available later this summer/early fall—make sure you’re on my mailing list (or forward to others) to get the first announcements!

xoxo

Nancy

P.S. Can’t wait that long? I ran a “preview” generative online workshop using chapters of the book in June, and it was a full house and so much fun! So I’m running it again at the end of July: come write with us!

Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction

July 27-31, 2020

FIND OUT MORE

Questions? Feel free to contact me at nancystohlman@gmail.com

**In solidarity with Corona-craziness, I will continue to offer (limited) discounts on all my classes this summer.

Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction July 27-31, 2020

Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction Workshop

July 27-31, 2020

Registration Open!

homunIn celebration of what would have been the release of my new book, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction (forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction, stay tuned!), I’m running the workshop that started it all (beginning in 2013!)

This 5-day generative class will use chapters from Going Short to examine the fundamentals of flash, try a variety of approaches to the compressed narrative, discuss what makes successful flash, and generate your own original flash pieces.

This course is open to writers with all levels of experience in the form, whether you are brand new to flash fiction, a writer coming from other genres, or a veteran flasher looking for a dose of inspiration and some writing camaraderie.

**In solidarity with Corona-craziness, I will continue to offer (limited) discounts on all my workshops this summer.  

More info or register here

Questions? Feel free to contact me at nancystohlman@gmail.com

“I had so much fun in Nancy Stohlman’s Going Short workshop. She shared new ideas and resources that helped me refocus a floundering story, and inspired a new story that went in a direction I never would have predicted — a great surprise! I appreciated her intuitive understanding of the quirky sort of stories I want to tell. More importantly, I valued her encouragement to keep going, even with the crazy ones. I think everyone in the group felt energized by the positive environment. I was struck by the number of fantastic pieces posted throughout the week. I’ll definitely sign up for another workshop with Nancy soon.” ~Myna Chang

“It is always an honor to take one of Nancy Stohlman’s classes. There is always incredible value and learning whether it is a generative or editing course. Nancy’s teaching is always fresh and the addition of content and videos to this class were especially pleasing. The comments from Nancy are always positive, constructive, and expert level. The way she writes gives me thrill every time. The caliber of writers in the classes is consistently top-notch so those comments are amazing as well. In Nancy’s classes a community built in a short time which is an additional special component to her courses. I will continue to take her classes as long as she offers them.” ~Tammy L. Breitweiser

I had a wonderful time in Nancy’s Going Short class and learned a lot. Walked away with five drafts and the feedback I needed for revision. Best of all was the generous, wise, and talented counself of Nancy Stohlman! Whether you are new to flash or an old hand, do yourself a favor and GET IN THERE.  As a Mother’s Day gift to myself, I turned to Nancy for editorial help with several drafts. She calls her response a “quick edit,” but instead I received a thoughtful, meaningful response that helped me to re-experience the stories and turbo charge the work. A wonderful and affordable way to invest in yourself. ~Patricia Bidar

“I feel very lucky to have taken three of Nancy’s workshops. They have all been fantastic and exceeded my expectations. Not only are they well-organized and in-depth, but Nancy has a knack for making course material accessible in a way that also reaches beyond writing at times, pulling examples from other mediums to bring a point across in a different way. No one else does that, and I love it! The classes have introduced me to some of my new favorite authors and ways of approaching stories that I’ve not encountered anywhere else. These courses have stretched my skills and my writing has only grown stronger as a result. My only wish is that there were more of them on offer.” ~ Sara Hill

“I am always blown away by Nancy’s insights, comments and concrete suggestions and the deep attention given to each piece by the other writers. Of all the real life and online workshops I have participated in, Stohlman Workshops have provided me with the best critique, guidance and greatest sense of connectedness, albeit brief, to other writers. The materials are organized, clear and interesting. Nancy’s expertise as an instructor, editor and writer are greatly appreciated. I am challenged but never intimidated. Nancy embodies what it means to be a great teacher: she remembers what it was like not to know how, breaks the objective down into manageable lessons, gently guides and raucously encourages every success.”~Katherine Beck

So You Wrote a Book? Hillary Leftwich

Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, the debut collection by Hillary Leftwich, is a sad, funny, broken, hopeful book: a strange coming of age. Leftwich has written a surreal Midwestern Gothic full of hand-me downs and family secrets; just as her characters open other people’s bathroom cupboards to “see the expensive tampons and boutique makeup”, opening the pages of this book allows the reader a compassionate, tragic, and sometimes difficult look into a darker side of innocence lost. We should not avert our eyes.

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Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in six words:

Hillary Leftwich: It hurts to live with ghosts.

NS: Love it! Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock is your first book, congratulations! Has it been everything you imagined?

HL: My expectations were pretty low, so when I began my solo marketing and Denver/Front Range “Book Tour,” I was taken aback by the amount of support I received. It takes a lot of courage to share your words with the world, so no, it was not everything I imagined it would be. It was better.

NS: Is there a favorite story or “germ story” in here—the one piece that really started this book becoming a book?

HL: Germ story! I love that! The one piece that really got me going with continuing writing this hybrid collection would be “I Lost My Orgasm.” And I want to thank my ex for giving me the inspiration to write that piece.

NS: One of the strongest themes in your work for me is the loss of innocence. You are able to be funny about it, as in this line about a first sexual encounter: “You see your stuffed bear, Mr. Noodles, shoved between the wall and the bed frame, gaping at you with a look of abandonment…” but I still feel a lot of sadness–indeed, abandonment–in this loss. Your thoughts?

HL: That piece is based on my first experience of getting sexual with an older boy I had an immense attraction to and who intimidated me with his mohawk and leather. I remember seeing my bedroom through his eyes and feeling both ashamed as well as terrified. A sadness in knowing I was about to cross a threshold with this person that I had never crossed before. I suppose the melancholy of making a decision to leave part of our childhood behind is what comes through.

NS: At other times the transformation feels more manipulated, more sinister, as in this line beginning with unicorns and mermaids and ending with: “Shhh she sang, her hands two sleepy birds cradling me—you don’t want to be a little girl forever.” Does she? Do any of us? Why do we get so lost in these old versions of ourselves?

HL: That’s the first piece I’ve written about my childhood sexual molestations by an older girl who lived across the street from me when I was five. Her manipulation of our friendship and pressuring me to allow her to do what she wanted to my body is my first memory of losing something huge as a part of myself. I often wonder what kind of a woman I would be today if I still had that part of me she stole. Then again, maybe it’s best not to think of it as something missing. We fill our emptiness with all kinds of demons.

NS: Wow. And yes, so true. I was thinking: many of the stories here are told in the second person (you) and are also just surreal enough to make me wonder if they originate in dreams? If not in dreams, where do they originate for you?

HL: I have a need to make everything in my life surreal to understand other people as well as myself.

NS: Yes, agreed. Now the characters in this book exist in what we might call blue-collar Americana—they are factory workers and cleaning ladies and single parents. And yet there is no idealization of another world, no striving to escape circumstances. I was struck by this line: “I don’t trust anyone who’s never had to clean up someone else’s shit.” Do you think these characters are more content than they let on to be?

HL: Many of these pieces are nonfiction, especially the ones involving my days as a maid, and of course, being a solo mother. Christina, the woman who cleans my old office building, actually said that. And I agree with that statement. Being in a situation of barely making it paycheck to paycheck, feeling more comfortable with folks in the same boat as you, broke, struggling, is something I never attempted to escape from. To me, it was both comforting and absolutely a state of content in many ways. I only felt judged and wanting to be in better circumstances by those who looked down on me and the folks I worked or socialized with. I still feel this way. I don’t think that will ever change.

NS: There are a lot of references to ghosts, obviously even in your title. But after reading your work, I felt that the real ghosts are our own departed versions of ourselves, adults haunted by our past versions of ourselves. You say, “There are lots of ways to remain half alive and half dead. Tons.” I feel the ghosts in this book are not outside of us but inside. Talk.

HL: The ghosts inside us are what I believe drives us to destroy ourselves. Hauntings of people and situations passed, and like you said, a “departed versions of ourselves.” It’s easy to be half alive and half dead. It’s harder to educate ourselves and learn to grow, to move beyond our old selves and our ignorance. But we need to, especially now. Especially now.

NS: Yes, especially now. Which brings me to another theme I see in your work: resilience–the many ways that, as we are yearning towards our own fruition, forces from within and without can make us pivot and pervert but not die. Do you think there is redemption for these characters? Should there be?

HL: One of the hardest things about being alive is experiencing suffering, and seeing others suffer and learning the world is never fair. That sometimes, you experience something so horrific it hurts to keep breathing. There should always be redemption, but life doesn’t work that way. Redemption means a happy ending, and there can never be a happy ending without tremendous loss.

NS: What advice do you have for writers who are working on/want to publish a book?

HL: When I was pregnant with my son, everyone came out of the woodwork to share their horror stories and advice about pregnancy and giving birth. Turns out, none of it applied to me. I had my own unique (and scary) experience. You will have your own too, but you don’t have to go it alone. Seek out advice, ask for help, have a friend you trust, or a writing group look at your work. And when you’re ready, find me. I’ll be teaching a class on how to self-promote and create your own book tour for those on a budget.

NS: Yes, I love that comparison. Thanks so much for playing, Hillary! Links to buy the book and other promo links?

Indiebound

Bookshop

Amazon

The Accomplices

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Hillary Leftwich is the author of Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press/The Accomplices 2019), which is featured in Entropy’s Best Fiction list of 2019 and is a finalist for the Big Other Book Award. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review and runs At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Currently, she freelances as a writer, editor, journalist, and teaches writing at Lighthouse Writers. She is a Kenyon Review scholarship recipient for 2021, and her writing can be found in both print and online in The Rumpus, Entropy, The Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, Hobart, and others. She lives in Colorado with her partner, her son, and their cat, Larry. Find more of her writing at hillaryleftwich.com

 

So You Wrote a Book? Nathan Leslie

Established in 2015, The Best Small Fictions series is an anticipated event, a yearly tribute to the small form and the many writers involved in its continuing transformation. Series editor Nathan Leslie and guest editor Rilla Askew carry the torch in this latest offering: The Best Small Fictions 2019, a weighty who’s who of the year’s flash fiction standouts and a gorgeous exhibition of the power of the miniature. 

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Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in 6 words.

Nathan Leslie: I take it you mean Hurry Up and Relax? Satirical-minded stories mostly about blowhards.

NS: Ha. The Best Small Fictions 2019 is the fifth in the series—started in 2015–and your first time as a series editor. How did you get involved?

NL: Founding editor Tara Masih asked me if I wanted to serve as series editor and I jumped at the chance. I have long admired BSF and, as it happens, I have just enough free time to make it work schedule-wise.

NS: You have such an amazing variety of stories and authors–how do you find the stories? What is the discovery process?  Do you all agree or do you have to fight it out for your favorites?

NL: Thank you for your kind comments. There are several streams–the nominated stories that come in via Submittable, stories that the crack BSF staff culls from their reading, and stories that I find from my own scouring. From there I just pick the best of the bunch with Michelle Elvy and the consulting editors providing much-needed assistance.

NS: Once you have chosen the stories, how do you and the other editors decide the order? Having edited several anthologies of flash fiction I know that the ordering process this process is not easy.

NL: In talking with Sonder Press and Michelle when I started my first BSF last year, we all agreed that alphabetical order would be the way to go–that way it’s completely non-judgmental. The only exception to this rule is that we also spotlight the top ten spotlighted works. These are chosen by the guest editor.

NS: I love that. The ordering is so important, but also so subjective. How important do you think the first story is in an anthology? Do you think readers start at the beginning and go to the end or do you think they skip around?

NL: It’s important and as mentioned, in our case it’s a spotlighted story so presumably it’s one of the strongest in the book. I  think readers most likely skip around quite a bit. I sure do when I read anthologies.

NS: You also have a spotlighted journals section—and as I am looking through the anthology not only is there an enormous range of stories and authors but also originating magazines. How do you choose which journals to spotlight?

NL: It wasn’t too difficult as there were several journals that had multiple pieces in the anthology. From those, I just chose the journals that stood out to me–with considerable help and guidance from Michelle.

NS: Reading your bio I realized you were also the series editor of the Best of the Web anthology in 2008 and 2009 (the same time I was editing the Fast Forward books!). From an editorial standpoint, how have small fictions changed in the last 10 years?

NL: Yes. It’s hard to say–small fictions are much more “mainstream” now than they were in 2008-9 and there are certainly more journals that highlight their importance. I also think that aesthetically there are more writers within the genre taking risks. But for Best of the Web we were not solely looking at small fictions, so I was not quite as attuned to the genre as I hope I am now.

NS: I agree that there are writers taking more risks–which is so exciting for the genre. And you just announced the picks for the next Best Small Fictions 2020—congrats to all the winners! It must feel wonderful to know how much your acceptance means to a writer.

NL: It was nice to be able to give a glimmer of good news to authors this year because we were in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. The authors were very appreciative this year–more so than usual. My favorite part of the BSF process is sending the notes of acceptance.

NS: Anything else you want to add?

NL: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me and for your interest in small fictions.

NS: Thank YOU for all you do, and thanks for including me for the first time in the 2019 anthology–it was such a high point of my year!

Links to buy the book:

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Nathan Leslie won the 2019 Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize for fiction for his collection of short stories, Hurry Up and Relax. Nathan’s nine previous books of fiction include Three Men, Root and Shoot, Sibs, and The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice. He is also the author of a collection of poems, Night Sweat. Nathan is currently the series editor for Best Small Fictions, the founder and organizer of the Reston Reading Series in Reston, Virginia, and the publisher and editor of the new online journal Maryland Literary Review. Previously he was series editor for Best of the Web and fiction editor for Pedestal Magazine. His fiction has been published in hundreds of literary magazines such as Shenandoah, North American Review, Boulevard, Hotel Amerika, and Cimarron Review. Nathan’s nonfiction has been published in The Washington Post, Kansas City Star, and Orlando Sentinel. Nathan lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Julie.

Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction Workshop June 22-26, 2020

Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction Workshop

June 22-26, 2020

This workshop is now SOLD OUT. Stay tuned for future workshops!

homunIn celebration of what would have been the release of my new book, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction (forthcoming 2021 from Ad Hoc Fiction, stay tuned!), I’m running the workshop that started it all (beginning in 2013!)

This 5-day generative class will use chapters from Going Short to examine the fundamentals of flash, try a variety of approaches to the compressed narrative, discuss what makes successful flash, and generate your own original flash pieces.

This course is open to writers with all levels of experience in the form, whether you are brand new to flash fiction, a writer coming from other genres, or a veteran flasher looking for a dose of inspiration and some writing camaraderie.

**In solidarity with Corona-craziness, I will continue to offer (limited) discounts on all my workshops this summer.  

More info or register here

Questions? Feel free to contact me at nancystohlman@gmail.com

“I feel very lucky to have taken three of Nancy’s workshops. They have all been fantastic and exceeded my expectations. Not only are they well-organized and in-depth, but Nancy has a knack for making course material accessible in a way that also reaches beyond writing at times, pulling examples from other mediums to bring a point across in a different way. No one else does that, and I love it! The classes have introduced me to some of my new favorite authors and ways of approaching stories that I’ve not encountered anywhere else. These courses have stretched my skills and my writing has only grown stronger as a result. My only wish is that there were more of them on offer.” ~ Sara Hill

“I am always blown away by Nancy’s insights, comments and concrete suggestions and the deep attention given to each piece by the other writers. Of all the real life and online workshops I have participated in, Stohlman Workshops have provided me with the best critique, guidance and greatest sense of connectedness, albeit brief, to other writers. The materials are organized, clear and interesting. Nancy’s expertise as an instructor, editor and writer are greatly appreciated. I am challenged but never intimidated. Nancy embodies what it means to be a great teacher: she remembers what it was like not to know how, breaks the objective down into manageable lessons, gently guides and raucously encourages every success.”~Katherine Beck

The Sliding-Scale Schedule: Making a Creative Routine in a Virtual World

As summer approaches, and some sort of quarantine continues, there’s been plenty of talk of productivity and the joy of creating “schedules” to maximize our (creative) time.

But most of our lives look pretty weird these days. The days aren’t regular, but they’re not vacation, either. Many of our imposed schedules from the outside are gone, and we are finding ourselves floating in an immense and frightening freedom.

So the question is: how can we have both accountability and kindness for ourselves?

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Now that my semester is ending, I’ve been asking myself this question a lot. I decided to do a little investigating into my stack of journals to see what my daily schedule looked like last summer when I was (both highly productive and) on sabbatical.

And that’s when I discovered something important: I didn’t have a schedule. I had a routine.

  1. I woke between 7-10 am and spent 1-2 hours in bed reading or catching up on social media (but nothing “important”).
  2. I got dressed and walked to the coffee shop and began to journal for the next 1-2 hours, depending on how quickly (or slowly) inspiration hit.
  3. I went home, ate lunch, and worked for 2-3 hours. This part of the routine worked especially well because the afternoon hours were the hottest.
  4. I finished working for the day and went exploring, walking, swimming, dinner, etc.

I realize this is an idealized routine, but the important takeaway is that because this was a routine and not a schedule, there were no set-in-stone times. I did NOT set the alarm to wake up at a specific time or say “I have to be at the coffee shop by noon” or whatever. Instead, the looseness of this routine vs a by-the-clock schedule meant that everything got done every day—but the daily particulars were flexible.

beethoven

We all have many routines already. Consider: many of us wake up and then drink coffee. One thing naturally follows the other—we wake up, we make coffee, we drink it. I have never set my alarm to make sure I don’t miss drinking coffee–coffee is part of the routine.

Or: I read every night in bed before I go to sleep. Sometimes I read for an hour. Sometimes I read for 15 minutes. Sometimes it begins at 10 pm. Sometimes it begins at 11 or 8. I never have to schedule reading time because it always happens last in my daily routine.

Not looking at the clock works for me. Letting one thing naturally follow the other in a predictable sequence works for me. Creative work needs creative breathing room. And yes, it also needs discipline. But when we make schedules we can become militaristic—we beat ourselves up, lording the clock and the whip to do those 30 mins of yoga/meditation/writing by a certain time instead of honoring that we are dynamic animals in an ever-changing daily flow.

That’s why I think a routine is truly the sweet spot in the middle. Think of it as the “sliding scale” schedule, a sequence of events. Rather than “I must be at my desk by 10 am”, it can be: “I must go to my desk after coffee.”

That said, some things must be scheduled. Work, classes, events have a starting time that we may have to work around. But for all the rest of the time, especially with summer birthing itself and many of us yearning for more productivity in this strange, in-between time, I encourage you to get investigative: throw out the clock, listen to your your natural rhythm, and discover your perfect routine. When in the day are you the most productive? When do you want to rest? Do you wake up ready to write? Or do you like to wake up slowly? Do you like to take a nap? Stay up late? Take a walk in the evening or after working? See if you can create a routine that really supports that flow this season, rather than imposing a schedule that may be counter to what you (and your creativity) really need.

Remember: Even the bunnies stay out later in the spring, regardless of what the clock says.
Here’s to your perfect routine!
(and check out some of the surprising routines of creative people below)
xo
Nancy

___________________________________________________________

Let’s Play a Game: Cancelled or Not?

1. Writing Wild in the Blue Zone Retreat to Costa Rica has been….
Cancelled/Rescheduled!
The new dates are May 8-14, 2021

The French Connection Retreat to France has been…..
Cancelled/Rescheduled!
The new dates are June 5-11, 2021

The High Altitude Inspiration Retreat to Colorado has been…..
Cancelled.
Shadowcliff has closed the venue to groups for now.

The June release of Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction from Ad Hoc Press has been….
Postponed!
This will likely come out in early 2021–stay tuned for a new release date. 

Workshops: Not Cancelled!
In honor of my delayed book release I will be running a fun, 5-day “Going Short” Writing Flash Fiction (with preview chapters from the book) workshop from June 22-26 for those of you who want to get your pens moving. Registration opens soon.

And I’ll be running another Flash Flood: Write a Flash Novel course again in July.  Read testimonials from past participants.

Stay sane out there, everyone!

So You Wrote a Book? Randall Brown

Extremely spare, the micro stories in Randall Brown’s latest collection, This is How He Learned to Love, function almost as tiny puzzles to decipher. Brown is a master of compression, and these stories are the most delicate of enigmas rupturing page after page with the rhythm of a heartbeat.

HandinHandAuthors
Randall Brown with collaborator Meg Boscov for their latest book, Hand in Hand.

Nancy Stohlman: So in the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in six words:

Randall Brown: Short bursts of emotion, maybe insight.

NS: I absolutely love your use of titles, and I remember you sharing how to use titles unconventionally at the AWP panel on microfiction in 2019. Your titles, especially the ones in this book, almost feel at times like a classic call and response (I’m thinking of your final story, “Yes, I Knew”). Discuss.

RB: Because almost all of these piece fit on a single page, I thought perhaps readers would read the title, then the story, then the title again. So the title might work as a first line, last line, or both. Other times, the title was an original word or phrase in the piece that, in the process of editing, got deleted. In titles such as “Skip a Life Completely” and “What To Do,” they came from other sources, the first from Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” and the latter from the rhyme “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” In a piece such as “Ghost Writer,” the title sets up the reader to think one way about the meaning of a “ghost writer” and then the ending might change that meaning. I do like to find words in titles that might have varied meanings, especially if those meanings might change as the reader progresses through each piece.

NS: I’m curious about your process, especially as you have been on the front lines of flash fiction for a long time. Do you start with longer ideas and then whittle them down to these little micro nuggets? Or do they come out short? Has your process changed over time?

RB: They come out this short—and most of my ideas work no longer than a single 9 x 6 page.  The idea comes first. For example, I recently thought about a guy who fires his inner voice and begins to interview for a replacement. Why would he fire his voice? What might the other voices he interview sound like? What might he learn from the process? I then write to find out myself, to figure it out, to see what happens.  Most of the times, I find that the execution of the idea fails and fails and fails again. That is one great thing about the (very) short from. You can try many, many times to make an idea or piece work. For me, there’s a lot of anxiety around writing, especially the uncertainty about whether each choice is the right one. So getting the piece to end quickly is key to my surviving the process. Also, it helps so so much that, in my non-writing life, I repress most feelings. They get buried deeply, and there they compress themselves, getting deeper, denser, until they just have to explode. I let that happen in the writing. Boom.

NS: I’m laughing. Well said, and how nice of your subconscious to compress for you! So one result of the micro form, then, is that there is often a lot of white space on the page. When one flips through the pages of This is How He Learned to Love, for instance, the simplicity can be deceiving. I wanted to (and did) read most of these stories twice, and I’m pretty sure they will continue to reveal themselves to me on every subsequent read. Is this something you do intentionally or does it happen unconsciously?

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RB: Maybe it’s the nature of compression, that each word is loaded so that each word continues to set-off varied meanings. Frost’s “The Oven Bird” ends with this sentence: “The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing.” Perhaps, one answer to that, for Frost, was that one makes a poem, another “diminished” thing in response to a fallen (diminished?) world in which “the highway dust is over all.” One thing I learned from Frost is the use of “indeterminate” words that seem simple but have various possible referents. In the above line, for example, Frost’s use of “thing” allows the reader to fill in that “indefinite-ness” with varied meanings. In my collection, you’ll find many examples of Frost’s technique. Just in the first story: “my father whispered something”; “somewhere, in between casts”; “I’d felt it this time”; “something entirely else.” Those “indefinite” words continually search for a referent, and that feels about right, doesn’t it, for the nature of things.

NS: This sort of nuance and complexity is (in my opinion) where prose meets poetry. How can flash writers hone this level of nuance in their writing?

RB: I learn (surely not steal) from other writers’ techniques. For example, from Kim Chinquee I learned how to remove modifiers at the end of sentences. At the end of the titular piece in the collection, I originally wrote something like “And then he’ll have to decide whether to stay or leave.” Channeling Chinquee, I changed it to “And then he’ll have to decide.” I think another time I had a sentence such as “In the crib, the baby rattled the bars.” This changed to “In the crib, the baby rattled.”

In reading Poe, I came across this line: “I quickly unclosed my eyes.” Cool way to define things, I thought, by what they are not, rather than what they are. In one story, instead of dislike or hate, I used the word “unlove.” In reading Anne Sexton, I found “my heart / is a kitten of butter.” I loved the repeated “tt” that connected the words. That might become something like “he kicked the deck of cards” in a story, not even close to the wonder of Anne Sexton, of course, but an attempt.

And so on.  In Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma,” he ends the song with the line, “It’s life and life only.” Would the line “it’s love and love only” be too much of a “steal” from Dylan? Hmmm.

NS: Hmmm, indeed! So Randall, you are a very funny person in real life (and on social media!), but the stories you write are often quite serious. And yet the humor slips in very gently, in subtle ways and moments. Talk about humor in your writing. 

RB: By being funny, I think you mean I comb the internet for jokes and either post them or memorize them to deliver at the right moment. I think the humor is a preventative against pretension: it helps me not take myself too seriously. It sometimes works.

NS: This is How He Learned to Love was the first runner-up in the Sonder Press Chapbook Competition—congratulations! Talk your journey to publication with this book.

RB: Not much to tell. They asked if I wouldn’t mind having them publish the collection. even though it didn’t win. Such an honor to be asked by such a wonderful press! I was over the moon. Elena Stiehler provided amazing editing suggestions—and I believe I said YES to all of them, except when she tried to cut a reference to Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh stays. I was adamant about that. No one puts Pooh in the corner. Well, unless it’s Pooh’s Corner. Then it’s okay.

NS: Okay, so here comes the genre question: You’ve published many books in many genres, including prose poetry (I Might Never Learn), a novella (How Long is Forever) and even non-fiction (A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction) as well as being a master of flash fiction. Talk about the crossover.  Does it help cross-pollinate your work or do you have to shake off one genre to fully engage in the other?

RB: To be honest, and I know we disagreed about this idea a bit on our panel at AWP, I don’t care what label gets put on a collection or piece. It comes out the way it comes out. So that’s my “real” answer. But here’s maybe a more helpful answer. The longer my pieces get, the worse they get. This has been confirmed not only by agents, readers, editors, and the like, but by the very best scientists. Big league scientists. And I have often wondered why that’s the case. To make things longer, to draw things out, things need to happen, and I find that to make the choice after choice of “what should happen?” means I’m too often going to get it not quite right. I think I’m better at making the language-level choices of what should come next than at making the narrative choices of what should happen next. After a bit, choice after wrong choice of what should happen next leads to a rather confusing, convoluted narrative. I’m working on it still.

NS: I first read your essay about flash fiction in the Rose Metal Field Guide to Flash Fiction in 2009, when I was writing my MFA Thesis. How do you think flash fiction has changed (for good or bad) in the last decade?

RB: I think I might’ve been able to get noticed way back when just for writing something so compressed and compact; now, the size itself isn’t enough to get readers interested. There might be more focus on what each writer is able to do with that compressed space—and perhaps editors and readers want to see innovation beyond the challenge “Can you tell a story in [  ] words”? So, I think when I was first writing flash, pieces were partially accepted because of the novelty of the form; places weren’t being inundated with very short fictions. Nowadays, I don’t think there is much novelty in writing flash fiction: editors are quite familiar with the form. So writers might need to push the form into new, exciting places or create content that feels fresh.

NS: I totally agree with you–short and clever isn’t enough anymore. It’s a good thing you are short, clever, and brilliant!

It’s been such a joy to chat with you, Randall. Can you share links to buy the book or other promo links?

RB: I just finished HAND IN HAND, a coffee table photo & essay book that matches the macro-photography of my wife Meg Boscov with my own micro. A weekly dose of image and words gives readers (we hope) a year of inspiration, meditation, and reflection. That makes for fifty-two macro/micro doses. It’s available at Matter Press or Amazon . We also have AFTER available on Kindle. AFTER again takes photos from award-winning photographer Meg Boscov, but this time projects them into a peopleless future, and describes, in the prose poetry accompanying each one, the time after the melting, after the rising, after the disappearing, as Earth begins the recovery, out of the woods, a return to form.

 

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning collection MAD TO LIVE, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in THE ROSE METAL PRESS FIELD GUIDE TO WRITING FLASH FICTION, and he appears in BEST SMALL FICTIONS 2015 & 2017 & 2019 and The Norton Anthology NEW MICRO: EXCEPTIONALLY SHORT FICTION & The Norton Anthology HINT FICTION. He founded and directs FlashFiction.Net and has been published and anthologized widely, both online and in print. Recent books include the prose poetry collection I MIGHT NEVER LEARN (Finishing Line Press 2018), the novella HOW LONG IS FOREVER (Running Wild Press 2018), and the flash fiction collection THIS IS HOW HE LEARNED TO LOVE (Sonder Press 2019).  He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College.

Write a Flash Novel May 11-22

Write a Flash Novel

May 11-22, 2020

This workshop is now SOLD OUT. Stay tuned for additional summer offerings.

7ce163b50c8d11cda50c0af6d803e41cDo you have a large, book-length idea that you’ve been wanting to bring to fruition? Do you love the intensity of FlashNano or NaNoWriMo? Then get ready: In 10 days we will create a flood of words and you will leave the workshop with the bones (at least) of a flash novel.

What’s a flash novel? With the scope and complexity of a novel, and the size and ingenuity of flash fiction, the flash novel is a new type of book, a breakout genre that can deliver a sophisticated reading experience in a compact space. In this workshop will envision, draft, collage and create the momentum for that large-scale idea you have been wanting to tackle.

Participants should come with a basic understanding of flash fiction and have ideas for a book-length concept. Limited availability.

Questions? Contact me at nancystohlman@gmail.com

“Nancy Stohlman’s Flash Novel workshop was so helpful and so much fun I took it twice. Nancy’s wonderful course materials—readings, commentaries, exercises, critiques—arrive each morning like a magical gift to unwrap with the day’s first coffee. Now I’m hoping she’ll offer a Flash Novel Next Steps workshop!”~ Sally Reno

“Nancy will help you to become a better writer—while having an awesome time. The best thing about working with her is that it doesn’t feel like work; the atmosphere is positive, generative, encouraging. I took her “Write a Flash Novel” class. These days I’ve become a slower, finicky writer, but her class pushed me out of my finickiness and into producing work. I wrote the hell out of those two weeks. Every day there was an inspiring prompt and lesson. It coaxed me out of dull perfectionism and allowed me to make a mess (a requisite for any artist).”~Leonora Desar

“The day I signed up for Nancy Stohlman’s “Flash Flood: Write a Flash Novel” workshop, I entered with five underdeveloped ideas. By the workshops conclusion, one of these ideas blossomed into a cast of characters with personalized desires, humor encompassed in varying flash forms, and previews of my fellow writers flash novels in-progress. This workshop enables writers to construct a table of contents, toy with characters (new and old), and exchange ideas on how to proceed in writing their novel in flash once the workshop ends.” ~K.B. Carle

“I feel very lucky to have taken three of Nancy’s workshops. They have all been fantastic and exceeded my expectations. Not only are they well-organized and in-depth, but Nancy has a knack for making course material accessible in a way that also reaches beyond writing at times, pulling examples from other mediums to bring a point across in a different way. No one else does that, and I love it! The classes have introduced me to some of my new favorite authors and ways of approaching stories that I’ve not encountered anywhere else. These courses have stretched my skills and my writing has only grown stronger as a result. My only wish is that there were more of them on offer.” ~ Sara Hill

“I am always blown away by Nancy’s insights, comments and concrete suggestions and the deep attention given to each piece by the other writers. Of all the real life and online workshops I have participated in, Stohlman Workshops have provided me with the best critique, guidance and greatest sense of connectedness, albeit brief, to other writers. The materials are organized, clear and interesting. Nancy’s expertise as an instructor, editor and writer are greatly appreciated. I am challenged but never intimidated. Nancy embodies what it means to be a great teacher: she remembers what it was like not to know how, breaks the objective down into manageable lessons, gently guides and raucously encourages every success.”~Katherine Beck

“Nancy Stohlman’s Novel-in-Flash Workshop was a thoroughly rewarding experience. Nancy was an encouraging and passionate instructor. She fostered a supportive community of writers. Her knowledge of flash fiction helped me move out of my comfort zone and try out different techniques I would otherwise have been afraid of trying.”~Candace Hartsuyker

“Nancy Stohlman’s Novella in Flash Workshop moved my writing ahead in a direction I never imagined.  Before it began, I feared I’d signed up for more than I could handle. But, in a ‘flash’, Nancy, a generous person, with an infectious creative spirit assuaged those worries. From the first workshop day to the last I received encouragement and insightful responses to my writing.”~Jo Goren