Happy 2021, friends! So excited to begin a new year and new creative visions.
BTW: I love the word “moxie.” And today I’m re-sharing a piece I originally wrote for Frolic Magazine but is having a lot of resonance for me as we enter this new year:
90% Done…and Stuck? Finding the Moxie to Finish Your Project
There it sits. Maybe it’s a book you started during last year’s NaNoWrimo. Maybe it’s something you’ve been working on since 2005. Or maybe it’s your quarantine project, started in a flurry of inspiration in the spring…and now it’s stalled.
Unfinished work is painful. Projects sitting there are painful. We feel like we let ourselves (and our vision) down. But most of us don’t know how to finish our projects because we don’t get a lot of practice at the skill of finishing.
We get lots of practice at beginnings. Beginnings are fun! Beginnings are full of promise, all hearts and flowers. But even if we’re great at beginning, we haven’t perfected the art of dragging those ideas back to shore and landing them.
And that’s when people quit.
I write flash fiction, stories under 1,000 words, and one of the benefits to writing flash fiction is that you get a lot of practice at finishing. When you sit down to write a flash fiction story you always see the end in sight. Finishing is a skill, like any other skill, and with practice you will get better.
“Finishing” can mean many things. Maybe you need to write the actual ending. Maybe you’re stalled somewhere in the middle, or even in the revising. But if you are in the “90% and stuck” category, you probably need to do one of three things:
You’ve mapped everything out, the entire timeline, a gorgeous synopsis, and you’ve been faithfully following your map…but you’re bored. When you know how your story ends, there’s less motivation to return. No mystery. You already know what’s going to happen, so you aren’t being driven to your computer in the middle of the night with crazy insights and inspiration. No, you are instead following your script, and most days it feels like you’re just punching in on the creative time clock. No wonder you aren’t finished!
What your manuscript needs from you is some spontaneity, some breathing room. You might be really attached to your original vision, you may have spent countless hours mapping it out, but it’s time to “re-vision” your vision. It’s time to give the story some autonomy. Our stories are smarter than we are—and when we try to control and tame them…they can dry up.
Or, on the other end, you have no idea where this project is going at all! You worry that you bit off more than you can chew. It all feels out of control. You’re avoiding it because you’re scared of it, intimidated by the scope of finishing.
Welcome to the creative process. Remember, the muse gives it to us in HER time, so sometimes you just have to be patient. But being patient means showing up every day with an open heart. The long-term relationship of a big project includes the good and bad, the up days and the down days. Your job is to keep showing up. It’s this daily “checking in” with our work that allows it to come to life–or shift gears or whatever it wants to do. Like any relationship, you have to be there consistently, even in small ways, if you want it to trust you and reveal itself.
Sometimes the project is technically “finished” but you’re stuck in the revision process. Maybe there is something missing and you just can’t see it. Maybe it just feels lackluster. Maybe you need to cut some fluff. Maybe you need to go deeper.
In this case it’s time for a second opinion. You’ve been looking at your manuscript for too long and you have blind spots; allow someone who is less invested, and whose eyes are less tired, to give you a new perspective, a fresh vantagepoint. Whether this is a paid professional or a trusted colleague (emphasis on quality here!), remember a good reader/editor will interrogate your text, not rewrite it. They will help you see your project with clear eyes, shine a flashlight into your blind spots, so that you become clear about your next steps.
So whether you need to let go, show up or phone a friend, the important thing is to keep going, if only for the practice of finishing.
Now let’s be clear: There is no shame in quitting a project if you just aren’t feeling the love. Life is too short to waste finishing work we don’t like.
But if you still feel the spark, if your project still has something special, if you’re still curious about how it’s going to end or how to finish what you have started… then it’s time to get yourself back in the game.
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned from being an educator?
I love watching writers fall in love with form. The hardest part is trying to explain and champion the genre to outsiders who are often reticent or suspicious. I often get dismissive reactions, “readers-have-short-attention-spans” or “flash-isn’t-serious-literature.”
Flash fiction is our David against the Goliath of literary tradition.
How important is emotional maturity in writing good flash?
All the rules of good writing also apply to flash. Often I see emotional maturity manifesting as wisdom to know what the story wants from you vs. what you want from the story. Word constraint forces you to get really clear. We are midwives of the story and should be in service of the story–what I would call true creative maturity. This is also where poetry and flash fiction meet—the distillation process requires us to sometimes “write” hundreds of pages to accurately distill one small truth.
Writers compare their successes and failures to others’. How do you deal with other writers’ success and failure? What advice would you give a beginning writer who does such comparing?
I see others’ successes as inspiration for my own. But some days I can’t. For all of us there can be hard days, weeks, or seasons, and it’s okay to be gentle with yourself on hard days. Try to take the big-picture view and remember we’re all in different phases of creative process. For instance, I get to enjoy watching my book Going Short finally go into the world. But I’ve worked on it behind the scenes for seven years, and I’ve published very little in the last year. It’s a rhythm.
Christopher Bowen is the author of the chapbook We Were Giants, the novella When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed, and the non-fiction Debt. He was a semi-finalist in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Novella Competition and honorable mention in the 45th New Millennium Writing Awards in the non-fiction category. He blogs from Burning River.
Robert Scotellaro has been a treasure of the flash fiction community for many years. Back in 2015 I said of his work, “Scotellaro demonstrates that the more we understand our stories, the less we have to explain them. Often the journey of an artist is a journey of learning what to leave out: Rothko’s complex surrealism eventually matures into single or double colored canvases; Picasso’s realistic drawings mature into simple thick lines and shapes—and writers such as Scotellaro say even more with even less… His work takes the leap into mastery, zooming in on the subtle moment at hand and letting that one drop of water tell the story of the entire world.” Now, with the release of his new collection, What Are the Chances? we get the opportunity to take another step on this journey with him.
Nancy Stohlman: Welcome, Scotty! First, and in the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in 6 words:
Robert Scotellaro:Flash exploring the vagaries of “chance.”
NS: You are widely considered a master of flash fiction, and deservedly so. Talk a bit about how you found the form—or did it find you?
RS: Thank you, Nancy. I think the form found me. I was always innately drawn to brevity in literature: poetry, the short story, flash and micro fiction. Reading the work of Emily Dickenson as a teenager opened me to a level of compaction that (ironically) seemed borderless in its ability to express the intimate doings of inner and outer worlds with such clarity, emotion, philosophical sensibility, and power. That was an early eye-opener.
So I started out as a poet. In the seventies I also wrote fiction (including a short novel in 1971) that incorporated what I called “segments”—what now might be considered microfiction. It was surreal and reflected the times. (A joint prior to reading was required.) Most of the full-length stories I wrote subsequently were comprised of those “segments.” It was natural for me to write that way. I guess I was always a sprinter rather than a marathon runner in terms of lit.
After a time I was writing short-short stories regularly. When I discovered the anthology Sudden Fiction by James Thomas and Robert Shapard I was elated. The very short form was being showcased (taken out of the shadows of “filler” status in magazines). Then came the iconic anthology: Flash Fiction (72 Very Short Stories)by James and Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka, and many such books by W. W. Norton were to follow.
In 2018 I went full circle and Norton published New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, an anthology co-edited by James Thomas and myself. I remain as excited as ever about exploring the limitless potential of the genre.
NS: What are the Chances? is very cinematic—in fact I read all your stories almost as if they are mini movies. Does that description resonate with you?
RS: It does. I think many of the stories I write are not so much language pieces, but rather characters interacting in various settings and situations which lend themselves to those visual possibilities. Scanning What Are the Chances? one finds characters in a hot tub, an Uber car, a commune, a cave, on a fire escape, a carousel, in a subway car, behind a rectory… I view the stories in that cinematic way as I’m writing them.
Plus I like creating different characters (delineating them) and letting them interact on their own, as opposed to an “author-recounting.” Perhaps this adds to that cinematic element in my work.
NS: In the title story, “What Are the Chances?” there are two techniques that I love: the deliberate use of repetition and the way you strategically manipulate your title. Can you let us in on some of your other “masterclass” writing techniques, particularly around flash fiction?
RS: I’d like to do more stories using various refrains in that manner. They create a kind of rhythm, a word-tumble of sorts, to the finish line.
Far as titles (I almost always) don’t think of them until a story is completed. In the case of the title story: “What Are the Chances? I was taken with how timing, chance, and random happenstance can alter a life/lives, and that all of these elements were contained within that piece. I felt this title served the collection, highlighting that occasional theme which runs through it as connective tissue.
Not sure about the “masterclass” part, but what I feel is essential to writing flash, is the “telling detail” (replete with implication). Perhaps several that create an allusion to something bigger— more at stake upon reflection—after the last word is read, providing a kind of lingering resonance.
NS: Yes, “refrains” is the right word, I think. For example, in Nothing Is Ever One Thing published earlier this year from Blue Light Press, you have a series of “Micro-Fables” that thread through the other stories. Love this idea—can you talk about the inspiration?
RS: With Nothing Is Ever One Thing I wanted to “mix things up” a bit, bend/blend genres. There are also four “P.S.” stories throughout. I sought to incorporate lots of tempo/tone shifts. The micro-fables are prose poems—microfiction’s kissing cousin. I am, at this point in my career, fascinated with the notion of investigating form. Forms within the very short form. I have a chapbook’s-worth of such stories recently completed and a full-length manuscript I’m finishing up devoted to “like” forms. And I’m finding infinite possibilities for variety within them. I’m pretty excited about this new direction.
NS: As soon as I read “Mr. Nasty” (in What Are the Chances) I had a flashback: I chose (and loved!) this story for a Fast Forward anthology over a decade ago! My, how time flies. Which goes to say you’ve been writing flash fiction for a long time. Tell me: How has it changed in the last decade or more?
RS: I liken it to a music concert where a performer plays new tunes, but adds a dash of “oldies” that have stood the test of time. That mix well.
Fast Forward was a terrific venue for flash. I think I published four or five pieces in various volumes. If I’m not mistaken your co-editor, Kona Morris, read “Mr. Nasty” on a Colorado radio station. You all contributed so much to short form lit with those anthologies.
Far as changes—good lord!—so much has evolved with the genre since then in terms of popularity, expansion, and status. Flash fictionis no long consigned that “sub-genre” category. It is its own genre now. Officially. Standing on strong legs. Now you can hardly find a magazine (including the major ones with The New Yorker on the list) that don’t publish flash. And there are a plethora of personal collections by outstanding authors continually finding their way to print. There are important anthologies by W. W. Norton and many others in America as well as internationally. And now there is even a significant Flash Fiction Collection housed at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Flash is thriving.
NS: Which leads to the exclamation of wonder that you published not one but TWO books in 2020, a year in which publishing has been challenged like everything else. Can you talk about how these two books are different/complementary to your oeuvre?
RS: Actually Nothing Is Ever One Thing was published in 2019. What Are the Chances? was accepted in 2019 as well, but Kevin Morgan Watson at Press 53 didn’t want them bumping heads (promotion wise) in the same year, so we waited for a 2020 pub date.
I think both collections tread that territory between misplaced intentions and a quest for connection, solace, and redemption, with humor/irony close enough at hand to grab onto. Uncertainty, of one sort or another, is perhaps the biggest thing that trips us up. I like exploring that, and how we stumble or correct to find peace with it.
Nothing Is Ever One Thing is more experimental because of the genre shifts (prose/prose poetry). However, with What Are the Chances? I’ve welcomed examining challenging subjects (still at a slant) and in a variety of ways.
I think Kevin was right about waiting. It’s allowed each collection to breathe a bit.
NS: I agree. What’s it been like to publish a book in the Year of Our Lord 2020?
It’s been a sweet counterbalance to these dark times. I so miss the hugs of friends at readings, other gatherings, my daughter many states away, dinners out… But it was so great working with Kevin at Press 53 and his editor, Claire Foxx, on this book and with Diane Frank at Blue Light Press before that, with my previous collection in more stable times. I’m so grateful.
NS: Advice for writers working on a book?
RS: When you have enough stories for a collection to assemble, see which of them rub together in interesting ways. Sometimes similar themes side by side with fresh approaches work well. Sometimes it’s tempo shifts that are more interesting. Read the stories out loud. Sometimes that clanking sound in the machinery is what makes the movement more compelling. Sometimes it’s the smooth purr of words you’re after. Don’t look over your shoulder. It’s important to make the process as organic as possible, maybe even fun. Finding a publisher is something else entirely. Too bad there isn’t something like a dating service for publishers and writers. You’d probably learn all you needed to after the first drink.
NS: That is perfect advice. And I love the publishing dating service! Anything else you want to add?
RS: In terms of writing that book/those stories: show up!Be bold! Writing is all about mystery and discovery. Never let the blank page or screen intimidate you. You cannot have the reward of discovery without the mystery.
NS: And this is why you are a master. It’s been such a pleasure getting to pick your brain! Can you share the links to the book/books and other promo links.
Robert Scotellaro has published widely in national and international books, journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, NANO Fiction, Gargoyle, New Flash Fiction Review, Matter Press, The Laurel Review, and many others. His stories were included in Best Small Fictions (2016 and 2017) and Best Microfiction 2020. He is the author of seven literary chapbooks, several books for children, and five full-length story collections: Measuring the Distance, What We Know So Far (winner of The 2015 Blue Light Book Award), Bad Motel, Nothing Is Ever One Thing, and What Are the Chances? He was the recipient of Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry. He has edited, along with James Thomas, New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction published by W.W. Norton & Company. He is one of the founding donors to The Ransom Flash Fiction Collection at the University of Texas, Austin. Robert lives with his wife in San Francisco. Find him online at: www.robertscotellaro.com
Do you love to travel AND write? Do you find some of your greatest inspirations come when you are out of your comfort zone, stimulated by novelty and absorbing new experiences? Then you are going to want to hang out and listen to Marilyn Ball and I talk about the power of travel, the power of writing, and the gorgeous juxtaposition of my two favorite things.
Show notes: For over a decade, Nancy Stohlman has been writing, publishing and teaching flash fiction around the world. Much of her creative process is finding the sweet spot as a writer, performer and innovator and she teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Nancy tells us about her new book on the writing of flash fiction, “Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction,” and her future Flash Fiction Retreats for 2021/2022. Flash fiction is changing the way we tell stories and Nancy is an enchanting storyteller!