“The Reluctant Hero”

Flash fiction by Nancy Stohlman

I wanted to just keep walking and pretend I hadn’t seen it. I knew plenty about bags floating in rivers. It wiggled, and I knew I should stop but I kept walking, and I was reminded of my mother sneaking me down to the edge of the river, showing me all the empty bags left in the mud like used condoms – look at those stories, she would say, people just threw them away like trash! They could have lived. And then she would fall to her knees and pray to her god.

So when I saw the woman leaving the edge of the river, I knew what was going on. I avoided eye contact with all the gypsies, beating deflated pillowcases against rocks as I crawled up the muddy banks and caught the tail of the story. I dragged out the waterlogged thing and took it home, where I set its cold, blue body gently on the page and let it live.

Originally published in Flash Frontier. Read original here

“The Fox”


foxFlash Fiction By Nancy Stohlman

I first saw him on the dirt bike path behind the Lightrail. He was 50 yards away, scratching in the sun, reddish brown coat, black paws, white belly. I stayed very still, and when he didn’t run I took a soft step, wondering how close I could get. He preened until I was quite close; his nose was long and sweet. And then, when I was just 10 feet away, he excused himself into the bushes with calculated nonchalance, a final flick of his white-tipped tail.

I walked the rest of the way home feeling exquisite.

Later on my porch, in the temptations of dusk, I sensed him before I saw him, emerging from the overgrowth and into the din of the streetlights. He had the curious look of a boy, new and fresh and wild and sensuous, with vulnerable brown eyes.

I thought about leaving food but I was afraid the squirrels would get it. So instead I left my pillow—covered in the smells of me at my most peaceful and innocent. An invitation. That night he entered my dreams and I embraced a coarse lean body, strong, wiry legs wrapped around my waist in an almost human way.

In the morning the pillow had been nested in, a few scattered white hairs left in the circular impression of his body. I held it to my nose and inhaled the musky, wild smell.

Each night I left the pillow on my porch and each night he returned, inching it closer to the front door until the night I left the door open. The moon cast a square beam onto the living room floor, and there I lay, almost sick with nervousness, when I felt bristles of fur tickle the edge of the sheet. His nose brushed my toe, touched my hair. I held my breath. He circled a few times, gently trampling down the bedding, then settled behind me, his face tucked into the crook of my neck.

The wind blew through the open door and smoothed our entwined faces. I surrendered to sleep in the hazy, bird-chirpy morning, and when I woke he was gone.

But I found his gift left lovingly for me on the pillow: my black cat, lifeless. I felt strangely unmoved as I sniffed it, nudged it with my nose.

Originally published in Santa Fe Literary Review. Read original

Self Promotion or Self Prostitution? Why We Resist Putting Ourselves Out There

Do you hate the idea of self-promotion? Do you tell yourself that you’re not good at it? That you shouldn’t have to do it? If you hate self-promotion, or even the prospect of self-promotion, you are not alone. No matter the genre, all artists seem to share a similar aversion. Most of us are still waiting for an agent/manager/publicist to come and rescue us from the prospect of having to promote…ourselves?

But why?

As artists, we have internalized certain agreed-upon stories, certain cultural mythologies that may be blocking our ability to put ourselves and our work out into the world. And since most of us agree that self-promotion is necessary, it’s worth taking a look at these stories and deciding whether perpetuating them is serving our art and our careers—or not.

1. The Starving Artist Story: “I’m not going to make any money at this, anyway.”

The-Lemonade-Stand1If we were running a company, a large portion of our budget would go to marketing, right? If we were selling shoes, our livelihood would depend on us getting out there and selling some shoes. Even if we were running a lemonade stand, we would understand that, in order to sell lemonade, we would need to make signs or hire neighborhood kids with megaphones to let people know that lemonade is available. If no one knows about our lemonade, then no one will buy it no matter how fantastic it might be.

But when it comes to our art, we’ve swallowed a toxic “starving artist” story, which tells us that we’re probably not going to make any money at this, anyway, so we don’t take the task of promotion seriously. In fact, most of us would probably do a better job promoting the lemonade than we would the art that we have poured our blood and souls into.

It’s crucial to realize that if you want to make a career out of your art, then you have gone into businesswith yourself. I am now the CEO of Nancy Stohlman, Inc., and my product is my work. If no one knows about my product, they can’t buy it. And then I am out of business.

But as long as we are stoking the starving artist story, then we’re going into the game already defeated. If we believe we cannot make a living out of our art…then we probably won’t.

2. The Overnight Success Story: “Once I’m famous someone else will do this.”

This is the story of the mythical artist who is catapulted into fame from obscurity with no promotional effort of their own. While this mythology is exciting, and the media loves to dangle it as some warped version of the American Dream, it’s also a bit like expecting to win the Powerball.

This overnight success story is a darling of artists and runs deep in our culture. But if you look carefully behind most successes, you will usually find a different story. Madonna made hundreds of demos with her own money and personally brought them to every DJ in New York City; Truman Capote sat for 8 hours a day in the lobby of the publisher who refused to see him. Even Rosa Parks, our favorite little old lady who wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus and thus triggered the Civil Rights Movement, was actually a veteran activist for 15 years when she was finally delivered to the right place at the right time.

Because that’s what it comes down to: “It’s not enough to be at the right place at the right time—you have to be the right person at the right place at the right time,” says musical agent Justin Sudds in his interview for “Take Your Talent to the Bank”. The truth of the overnight success story is that it is usually not overnight at all.

But what’s most problematic about the Overnight Success Story is that it is ultimately disempowering because it takes the responsibility for our careers out of our hands. Our careers become like playing roulette, and we feel powerless to affect real change. And I like playing roulette, but only with what I am prepared to lose.

3. “It’s Not Polite To Brag.” This country is still influenced by our Puritan roots, and so this story is the one that often paralyzes us into non-action.

Here’s the truth: Will some people be annoyed by your promotional efforts? Yes. But usually the ones who are annoyed, offended, or otherwise triggered by your efforts are the ones who have not yet embraced their own self-promotion. So it’s important to remember that their support or non-support for you and your work really has little to do with you and much more to do with where they are on their own path. It’s pretty hard to jump on someone else’s bandwagon when your own bandwagon is rusting in the garage. It’s pretty hard to muster up zest and enthusiasm for someone else when you haven’t put your own work out there in a big way, yet. So when you encounter this kind of resistance—and it can come from the most surprising places—be kind, and remember this quote: “Those who have abandoned their dreams will always discourage yours.”

But the rest of the people won’t care, and in fact they will be happy that you’ve made it so easy for them to support you and your work. It is said that a person needs to hear about something five times (yes, five!) before it sticks, and most people are happy for the reminders.

Self-promotion is not bragging. It’s asking for the support we need to make the careers we want.

In this Puritan society we are told that “it’s better to give than receive,” so we give, we give, we give…but most of us have a hard time receiving. And most of us have an even harder time asking for the support we need with clarity and confidence. If I want people to read my latest story—I have to ask. If I want people to come to my my website, my lecture, or buy my latest book—I have to ask. “Hey, I’d love it if you checked out my work and passed it along.”

In our everyone-for-himself society we have attached a stigma to asking for help. In order to get over this stigma, we have to remember that artists must exist in community, and in order to create and sustain a community, you have to put yourself out there with honesty and authenticity. Self-promotion is truly about asking for the support we need, and building relationships with those who are excited about us and our work. It’s the greatest thing you can do for the promotion of art outside of creating the art itself.

So when self-promotion starts to feel like self-prostitution, remember: We promote our work because we aren’t okay with the mythology of the starving artist; we respect our work enough to take control of its dissemination, not leaving it to the agent fairies to rescue us; we have both the confidence and humility required to put it out there in the world and ask for support.

Many of us don’t promote because we would rather fail privately than publicly  We fear rejection and ridicule; we retreat into craft instead. And yes, it’s true that Emily Dickinson did no promotion. But then again, she never got to enjoy the rewards, respect, and recognition of her work while she was alive.

I want more for myself and my art.

And I want more for you, too.

Finish That Manuscript (And Get it Out Into The World): A Virtual Workshop

Do you have a manuscript you’ve been sitting on forever? Are you stuck in the writing phase or in the revision process? Or have you “finished” but not gotten the response you wanted out in the world?

In this workshop on finishing we will explore:
• What’s keeping you from finishing?
• Are your blocks telling you something about your manuscript?
• How to fall back in love with your work and your vision
• Allowing your manuscript to transform
• Publication—is your manuscript ready to send into the world?
• The different stages of “finishing” a manuscript
• Self-promotion—are you afraid of rejection? (You’re not alone.)
• Finding the support you need to take the next steps

writers-blockIn this 4-week virtual workshop I’ll give you the deadlines you might need, help you structure your writing time into your life, help you transition more easily between creation and revision, and help you become your own best editor. Whether you are planning to submit or self publish, you’ll learn writing tips, editorial and publication advice, how to excerpt and query, and even when to let a manuscript go. And most importantly, you’ll finally rescue your work from the desk drawer and give yourself the satisfaction of completion.

The workshop format will include weekly online instruction, telephone check-ins, and professional line edits (limited). Both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts are welcome.

Begins July 1. For late registration or a free info call contact me ASAP at nancystohlman@gmail.com.

Let’s do it.

Finish That Manuscript: Free Workshop Preview Tuesday, June 25th

Summer Project #1: Finish That Manuscript

Each book we write brings us closer to understanding how to write a book. What phase of the finishing process are you in? And…what’s it costing you to not finish?

Three Types of “Finishing”

1. Crossing the Finish Line. In this phase, you’re creating, allowing, and writing yourself to the finish line of that first draft, where you can write The End and give yourself that well deserved glass of port.

In this phase you need the support, motivation, and commitment to get to the end. A first draft is like a lump of clay—it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to be complete before you can start shaping it into the grand vessel it will become.

2. Alligator Wrestling. In this phase you’ve finished a first draft and now you’re in the revision—re-visioning—process. Re-vision. Seeing again. Sometimes it’s hard to see your manuscript with fresh eyes—like looking for your sunglasses when they’re on your head. Yet the true writing magic usually happens in revisions.

In this phase you need new ways of seeing your manuscript differently, both in pieces and as a whole, as well as identifying your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and inviting the potent potential of unexpected possibilities into your work.

3. Becoming a Player. In this phase you and your manuscript prepare to enter the public arena, and the “finishing” has just as much to do with you as a professional. This is the point where we usually long for an agent to swoop in and do all the uncomfortable work of promoting ourselves, but the catch here is that if we want to be taken seriously, we have to start playing seriously.

In this phase you need help with promotional and professional materials including bios, queries, how and why to excerpt, and learning how to avoid the mistakes of looking like an amateur—regardless of your publishing goals.

*Tuesday, June 25th at 7 pm MST, join me for a 30-min FREE WORKSHOP PREVIEW.

Contact me for registration information at nancystohlman@gmail.com

 

Friends vs. Fans: What’s the Difference?

Fans of German rock band Tokio Hotel scream during a concert in LisbonA friend loves you. A fan loves your work.

It’s as simple as that.

Now if you’re lucky you will have both: friends who are also big fans of your work, and fans who become friends. But the distinction is important, and as artists, I believe our level of success is tied to how well we understand the difference.

And I’m not just talking to writers, here. I’m talking to all artists. For example, when Kinky Mink was in its infancy, we relied heavily on our friends to fill our audiences. This is normal—fans don’t just find you because you make a Facebook page after all, they have to be cultivated. And you do this by starting wherever you are.

But it’s a bit like your mother telling you how talented your death metal band is, or how your novel/sculpture/painting/play is brilliant. You’re always left with the lingering question: Does she love me or my work?

At some point an artist has to cut the umbilical cord and find his or her true fans. And I hate to break it to you, but these may or may not be your friends.

Don’t believe me?

Writers: How many of your friends bought your book but didn’t read it? Or read it but didn’t have much to say?

That’s because they are your friends, not your fans. They love you, not your work.

Think about it from their point of view: Imagine I have a friend who’s an amazing country singer. Well, I don’t like country music. So while I may genuinely wish her all the success in the world, and I may even go to some of her shows to show my support, I will never be a true country music fan. She may be brilliant, and I may be proud of her, but what she ultimately needs is a room full of country music fans, not a room full of others like me who would never attend if our friend wasn’t playing.

This is where many of us go wrong. During those early Kinky Mink shows when I was still relying heavily on friends, I would be hurt when certain friends wouldn’t come (and here’s a big loving shout out to all those who did!). Now when Kinky Mink plays I cast a much wider net, cultivating those who resonate with our music, not just warm bodies to fill the seats. This is true of literary readings, gallery showings, film screenings, and every other kind of event where an audience–live or not–is needed.

The truth is if we can’t expand our audience/readership/patrons beyond those we have a personal relationship with, then we aren’t reaching our full potential as artists. If you don’t find your fans, then you will be forced to make 10,000 new friends if you want to sell out an arena or a first-run of your book! Whew!

And this is why self-promotion is so important. If you continue to rely solely on your friends, you are doing everyone a disservice: 1. You are keeping yourself from finding your fans, and 2. You are keeping them from finding your work.

A true fan will resonate with your work whether they ever meet you or not. So thank your friends for holding down the fort while you got started (thanks!) and commit to finding your true fans.

And for every person who is (or becomes) both, consider yourself doubly blessed.

Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Why Literary Bondage Is Good For Your Writing

The first thing Ellen Orleans said about her flash piece in progress, “How to Write The Name of God”, was: “It’s 1170 words—too long for flash?” The answer is technically yes (though I’ve seen flash defined as long as 1200 or even 1500, as a general rule it’s 1000).

tied handsWriters new to flash often find the constraint arbitrary and infuriating: Why such a stickler on the wordcount? So what if it’s a few words over? But having worked in this form for so long, I can say with confidence that the magic of flash fiction happens because of the constraints. Interesting things bulge against boundaries. From sonnets to writing prompts—even deadlines—many writers find they produce some of their best work when pushing against the wall of a constraint: you can only paint with the color green, you must finish a film in 48 hours, you have to write a story without using the letter E.  The famous Oulipo movement in Paris in the 1960s was made up of writers and mathematicians who suggested that using constraints created a new kind of writing.

Embracing the constraint is the true gift of flash fiction.

Working with flash will make you a very different—and I would say better—writer no matter what you write. You will cultivate a sharper eye to what is truly necessary in your work. So if you find yourself battling against the constraint, trying to make your story fit into flash fiction…relax. You’re going about it all wrong. Because once you “see” your story through the lens of the constraint, it ceases to become a battle and instead becomes about “freeing” the flash story from the longer work.  As Michelangelo said about his sculpture David, “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.”

So Ellen, let’s look at your story, “How to Write the Name of God” and make it fit the constraint.

First of all, I love this story. I love the sweetness of the character, how well I’m able to relate to her struggle, and how as children we all try so hard to make sense of a world that doesn’t always make sense. A child’s struggle is always a glimpse into ourselves, and I love your character’s honesty and transparency. Her dilemma is so pure.

There are two ways of shrinking a story: chipping or chopping. The trick to writing flash fiction is learning to chop rather than chip, looking at the story in sections rather than trying nitpick. When we are picking at the story, checking the word count every 10 seconds to see “if it’s under 1000” yet (yes, we are all guilty), the final result feels moth eaten and thin.

When chopping, it’s important to pay less attention to what is being eliminated and more on what is going to be left. You are trying to figure out how to remove the excess so that what is left becomes more prominent. My instinct on your story is to take a healthy swipe at the beginning, landing us inside the classroom as soon as possible. Imagine your story begins like this:

How to Write the Name of God

If you are an 11-year-old at Temple Beth Shalom Hebrew School, you write it G-d or G*d, or maybe just Gd, but never all the way, God.

With this chop you would now drop us right into your story and also tie your title to your first sentence (I also changed “spell” to “write”). You would suck us into the narrative and cut 241 words—enough to land you in flash territory in one swipe.

To clarify: does this mean I don’t like your current opening with all the names? Actually, I do, and I think you should put some of that into the story later, as the character is trying to figure out what to put into the box. And frankly if your story were only 500 words, you might just leave it.

But again the beauty of constraints is that they force us to look at our work with a more discerning and sometimes brutal eye—and for most of us that is actually a good thing. And something mysterious happens when we kill our darlings: Like a faint pencil mark that can’t be completely erased, those phantom darlings are still there, still delivering their messages in the spaces we’ve cleared away.

Thanks, Ellen, and Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

(Feel free to join in on this or any other conversation, and if you have a flash piece in progress please find me on Facebook or message me at nancystohlman@gmail.com)

How to Write the Name of God

By Ellen Orleans

God, we learn, has many names, including ElohimHa Shem, and Adonai.  Elohim means Mighty Ones, which is no surprise except that it’s plural.  (The Rabbi says this multiplies God’s power.)  Adonai doesn’t have even an English translation. It just means God, my  Hebrew School teacher says, tired of my questions. Ha Shem means The Name which is confusing but also kind of cool. His name is The Name. There’s also El Olam: “the world,” “the universe” or even infinity or eternity. “Very trippy,” as my sister would say.

Another name is El Echad which means The One. “One with a hundred names,” I think, “How ironic.” I am eleven and nothing is more clever than irony.

In English, God’s names are Almighty, Master, Highest,  Father, Lord, Ruler, and King. Also, Most Powerful One. If God is so great, I think, why is he so insecure?

Years later, in a congregation led by a female rabbi, infused with liberals and sprinkled with queers like me, I will  hear new names for God:Creator, Spirit, Beloved, Shekhina. But by then it will be too late—the white-haired, scowling judge man will be seared into my imagination.

Anyway CreatorSpirit, and Beloved are years off. Now it’s 1971 and the biggest question here in fifth grade is not who is God, what is God, or even “Can God create a rock so big that even he cannot push it?” but “How Do Spell God?”

If you are an 11-year-old at Temple Beth Shalom Hebrew School, you spell it G-d or G*d, or maybe just Gd, but never all the way, God. Because if you write down God, then that piece of paper, like all the prayer books with God printed out—all its letters, no dash, no asterisk, no missing “o”—that paper cannot not be thrown away.  It is sacred.

Which is exactly the point when Baruch Benson, who’s Bobby Benson in real life at Burnet Hill Elementary school where he sits two rows behind me making armpit noises, whose Hebrew name means Blessed One even though that’s the last thing Bobby is, when Baruch Benson in the final minutes of Monday afternoon Hebrew School, writes GOD, all caps, all three letters, on a piece of notebook paper and shoves it into Kenny Graulich’s back pocket.

“Have to keep it forever,” he sing-songs as the bell clatters, our high-pitched punishment before freedom.

In the hall, Kenny yells “Glenn! You’re it!” and slaps the God-paper into Glenn’s hand, where it stays until Glenn passes it to Shimon, who’s always off in dreamland anyway until Cheryl, thinking it’s something else, grabs it, giggles, and pushes it off onto Debbie. By now we’re in the parking lot, waiting for, looking for, our carpools home.  Before running into the sea of parents, station wagons and sedans, Debbie passes the damp folded-unfolded-refolded note to Lynn Becker, who rolls her eyes and gives it to Nurit, who’s new and from Israel and doesn’t get the game. That’s when I take it because, unlike Lynn, Debbie, Cheryl, Glenn and Kenny, I know want to do with the name of God.

You bury the name of God.

If I had liked Glenn or if he’d written God’s name in fancy calligraphy, I might have kept it, at least for a while. But GOD was just three awkward letters, smudged pencil on creased paper.

Still, it was God.

That night, in the back of my dresser, I found the white box that had held the velvet case that had held the gold Chai my grandmother gave me when she returned from Israel two years ago. The box, I decided, was good enough for God.  I covered the bottom with Kleenex, neatly refolded the paper and put it inside. Tomorrow, I’d bury it in the back yard. Ashes to ashes. Dust to Dust. It was a good plan.

I turned off my bedside reading light.

It was a good plan…except.

Would God get lonely there in the dirt?  I thought of the box, the tissue, The Name, underground for years and years, long after I grew up and moved away. And after that.  And after that. Eternity for Eternity. All Alone for The One.

What could keep God company? What was mighty enough for The Mighty One, what could befriend The Universe? More to the point, what would fit in the box?

In bed, in the darkness, I considered the tiniest occupants of my room. The glass cat with the chipped glass ear. The dollhouse tea kettle. The miniature ceramic mouse, looking up, about to pounce. My Grandma Moses postage stamp, cancelled. My Apollo 8 postage stamp, uncancelled. Nothing seemed like the right match or maybe I didn’t want to give any of them up. Not even for God.

For the next three days, I scrutinized the world for the perfect thing to put in the box with God.  A flower petal would shrivel up. An inch worm would die. Pine needles? Too much like a Christmas tree. A yarmulke wouldn’t fit and a loose thread from a Temple tallis, well, there weren’t any loose threads. I tugged at one and nothing came off. I could spill a drop wine on it, like my father spilled wine in the Passover Seder, a tradition from his father and grandfather, but that seemed more like a stain than a friend.

Half a Hanukkah candle? A clove from the spice box? Crumbs from last week’s challah? (Crumbs next to God? Definitely ironic.)

Ashes? Dust?

Walking home on Friday, thinking of God’s names, I remembered Elochim. Mighty Ones. Plural.

God needs God.

At home, on my best stationary with my best pen in my best handwriting I wrote

God   God   God

God   God   God

God   God    God

and folded it into fourths. I lay my Gods on top of Baruch’s God and taped the box shut.

As I walked behind our house—gardening trowel in one hand, the box in the other—I could smell our Friday night chicken baking.  We would be lighting the Sabbath candles soon. I hurried past the swing set to the garden bed where early violets and lilies-of-the-valley shared the soil with mossy rocks. The soil was damp and easy.

There are Hebrew blessings to recite when you hear thunder, feel an earthquake, or see lighting or a comet or a rainbow.  There’s a Hebrew blessing for when you see the ocean or lofty mountains or exceptionally beautiful people. There’s even a blessing for strange-looking animals.

But what do you say when you bury God’s name between violets and lilies? When you cover God with a blanket of dirt?

What you say, I realized, is Psalm 91, the Bedtime Prayer. Or at least, what you can remember of it.  I knelt in the garden bed, wet earth seeping into the knees of my jeans.

With my wing, I cover you.

Under my wings take refuge.

For you yearn for me, I shall rescue you.

Fortify you, because you know my name.

*

A former columnist and essayist, Ellen Orleans is the author of five books of queer humor, including the Lambda Literary Award winner The Butches of Madison County. She co-edited Boulder Voices, an anthology published in response to Colorado’s Amendment 2, an anti-gay referendum later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Her story “Outreach” won the 2007 Gertrude Press Chapbook Competition for Fiction. Her writing has appeared in the anthologies Primal Picnics, Milk and Honey, The Incredible Shrinking Story and, forthcoming, A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park. Excerpts of her book, Inside, the World is Orange have been published in The Denver Quarterly; Palimpsest; wigleaf; and Eccolingistics and performed as part of a Stories on Stage/Buntport Theater production.  Other work has appeared in Trickhouse, Blithe House Quarterly, The Washington Post, Rain Taxi, and the Lambda Book Review.  The former curator of  Boulder’s Yellow Pine Reading Series, Ellen now leads story hours for toddlers and builds cigar box art in her garage in north Boulder.

Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Is this Flash Fiction or a Prose Poem?

Alright Rosemary, with your piece “Flashback” (full text below) on the docket and your comment to me about “is this flash fiction?” you have now made it impossible for me to put this conversation off any longer!

ImageMy hesitation, of course, is that definitions can be slippery, and the minute you try to define something it quickly escapes its own definition (recently I had a similarly challenging conversation about defining “erotica”). And because flash fiction and the prose poem share many traits, and the boundaries are somewhat fluid, the best we can do is clarify the shades of gray and make the two more distinct from one another.

So here goes: Prose poems are poems crafted with the traditional sentences and devices of prose writing but still relying heavily on poetic devices such as heightened imagery and precision of language.

Flash fiction are stories crafted with the devices of storytelling such as story arc and tension but compressed into limited language, normally no more than 1000 words.

So obviously there is already much natural crossover, particularly around their use of deliberate and concentrated language. But what separates the two? Can’t flash fiction use imagery and emotional effects? Absolutely. Can’t poetry tell a story? Of course. I think the answer lies in the primal impulse or driving force of a piece: Prose poetry is driven by imagery and emotion whereas flash fiction is driven by narrative.

So Rosemary, let’s look specifically at your piece, “Flashback”, with these thoughts in mind. And rather than worrying about defining it, let’s instead push your story unequivocally into the realm of flash fiction.

First off, I have to admit that I am a big fan of the mini-mini, the extra short flash piece, so I love when a writer has the precision of both language and focus to craft a tiny little nugget, as you have done here. And right away your first sentence pulls me in with an action (story movement) a pointed finger (characterization), and an ownership: I surveyed that (tension).  It suggests conflict and narrative brilliantly without any wasted words or time.

But the story starts to lose that initial tension and eventually feels more like a snapshot. Remember, one of the keys to flash fiction is a sense of urgency, of something unfolding—or having just unfolded. I think you can bend your story arc a bit more prominently to let your message be driven by the narrative rather than be implied. Currently the narrative becomes downplayed in favor of the message about land and ownership. In a poem you can deliver this message in many ways, but in a flash fiction piece you always have to get there through narrative.

One way you might do this is to craft the backstory leading up to this moment. Perhaps you do this in a series of escalating images that deliver us to this act of (subtle) defiance, so that even though we are entering the story at the end of the story arc, what comes before still feels prominently bent. Consider one of my favorite (tiny!) stories that does just that:

The Scarlatti Tilt—by Richard Brautigan

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

OR you could make the action—her defiance/confrontation—happen more in the present moment. Right now your driving energy seems to be the message, but this message could be delivered more effectively by never actually saying it.

For example: Currently the man drives by at the beginning of the piece, points his finger, and then he’s gone (taking a lot of the tension with him). So the woman, our protagonist, is literally just standing in his dust. What if you were to let that moment—him driving by and her coming to the porch to meet his gaze…what if you were to let that moment build? He’s driving slowly, and she’s walking to the porch to stare him down—she’s not about to cower. In that moment when their eyes meet we feel the defiance, and then the dust rising between them becomes something much different. And you will have delivered your message obliquely through narrative rather than through a straight polemic.

And one last (minor) thing: Watch your sentence fragments. They seem to reflect possible previous line breaks, but an abundance of sentence fragments can become distracting unless they are directly supporting the content (for example, if you are talking about chopping up the land into parcels they might work well).

Rosemary, thanks again for letting us see your process on this piece, as I’m realizing that this is a conversation that many poets and flash fiction writers are currently having, and thanks for allowing me my two cents on the topic.

Please feel free to comment and continue the conversation. And if you would like me to consider your flash fiction piece in progress for the topic of a future conversation, please email me at nancystohlman@gmail.com or find me on Facebook.

Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

Flashback

By Rosemary Roysten

The man who surveyed the land drives by, points his finger:  I surveyed that.  The woman looks out, sees large brick homes with only a few feet between them.  Empty wooden decks.  Blinded windows.  The man who surveyed your land does not live on it.  He makes money from marking what you believe is rightfully yours.  An imaginary boundary that appears very real – one that will hold up in court.  A deed, a document you can find in the county courthouse.  Plats.  Plumb lines.  But all this makes the woman laugh, because she neither believes in the calculation of time nor the ownership of land.  How does one own what owns itself?  Land Is.  It exists with or without boundaries.  Just look at a map.  The Panhandle of Florida.  Where does Alabama end and why?  Because a man drew a sword and drew a map and then drew a claim.  The land is the land.   None of it is yours.  All of it is.

Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Size Does Matter

I’m excited to feature my old colleague, Nicholas Michael Ravnikar’s, piece in progress, “The New Addition”, for this conversation. Nicholas and I worked together on two flash fiction anthologies with Fast Forward Press, so I’m thrilled to revisit his work!

ImageOne of my favorite exhibits in the Chicago Institute of Art is the Thorne Miniature Rooms: tiny replicas of actual rooms painstakingly crafted on a scale of one inch: one foot. You press your face up to each of the 68 windows and gaze at the tiny world inside: fully formed rooms, complete with intricate period details, exotic woods, fabrics, chandeliers and hand-woven rugs. The attention to detail in each room would be fascinating even at life size, but the true fascination is the fact that they are just so damn tiny! Like painting the Mona Lisa on a grain of rice or a sculpture of Charlie Chaplin balanced on an eyelash.

So let’s go ahead and debunk flash fiction myth #1 right now: Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s easier. Anyone who has written poetry knows how long you can agonize over 100 words.

One of the reasons people love flash fiction is, like the Thorne rooms, there is something awe-inspiring about entering a perfectly formed little world. If it’s done correctly, the stature becomes part of the art: readers can’t believe they just had such a complete story experience in such a tiny space. It becomes more of a testament to the skills of the writer, not the other way around.

So Nicholas, let’s talk about your piece, “The New Addition” (full text below).

When I enter your piece it’s like I’m entering one of these exquisite little rooms. I’m immediately grabbed by the description of the ketchup sandwich all the way to the insect paste, and there’s an urgency that yanks me into the sentences like I’ve been kidnapped into your world. It’s so exciting. Within seconds I feel implicated in the story, as if by witnessing the action I’ve somehow participated in it. And that is really the beauty of abstract art: to invoke feelings that you couldn’t get to by more conventional ways.

But there is a lack of coherence that ends up pulling me into this exotic world and then leaves me stranded and confused. And I realize I’m in touchy territory because coherence isn’t always a goal for a writer. You are admittedly in love with language, and your world is so cleverly fragmented and infused with intrigue…but I feel like you lead us into the room and don’t lead us out.

And we’re so smitten that we almost want to forgive you for this.

But let me offer this suggestion: even if coherence wasn’t your original goal…we want so badly to understand! Because we want to stay in this world. Therefore, if you can give us both this imagery and intrigue and the satisfaction of really allowing us cognitively into the piece, it will go from beautiful to phenomenal and have a more lasting effect.

One of the ways that I think you could bring clarity to the story without sacrificing too much abstraction is to let your characters themselves be signposts: Right now the story begins with “they”, which we know includes her and someone else. Then we meet “you” narrating. Then we meet “her girlfriend” in Mexico—and we’re not sure if this is the other half of the “they” from the beginning or a fourth character. There is a “girlfriend’s drug dealer” as well as a “he’ that shows up at the end, which could be the other half of the original “they” or could be referring to the dealer. By the end of the story my brain is holding onto to all six threads trying to make them connect. But eventually I surrender and decide that in order to really get it I’m going to need to be 25% smarter.

So this is actually the flipside of what I was saying a few weeks ago about trusting the reader: Trust the reader, but leave breadcrumbs just in case.

Again, I realize that being crystal clear doesn’t have to be a goal. But the lack of coherence might be keeping readers at an unnecessary distance when you want them enmeshed, and I don’t think it wouldn’t take too many strategic clues to keep the reader fully engaged. Right now we’re being pulled out too often trying to make sense of it. But the bottom line is we want to stay in this room you’ve crafted, so throw us some crumbs and we’ll follow you, I promise.

Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

 (I welcome all comments and conversations, so join in! And feel free to find me on Facebook or contact me at nancystohlman@gmail.com)

THE NEW ADDITION

by Nicholas Michael Ravnikar

Ketchup sandwich in hand, the crest of winter, St. Patrick’s day. It’s around the time of the new addition. The wedding was last June. This is the first time since that they’ve slept apart. The sheet-plastic walls and the sawdust got to be too much for her. Then she thought of you, filled the gas tank and booked the same room. At least, she thinks it is. What a mouthful. No more of this.

Notice the sweet summer storm sort of sunset in this photograph she’s thumbing. You never gave her this one: your shirt after the plate glass lacerations, lying on a concrete Embarcadero bench. She had to dig around for a copy online—it wasn’t hard, with your public profile. She ordered a print from the Walgreens by the overpass. The blood dyes the fabric, amplifies her pulse. When did you last investigate the seams of her tendons audibly?

The telephone you left smeared with Jiffy your last night here sits beside her. She indexes your flat-naked craw, recalls how you threw the plastic salmon base cradle at her girlfriend’s dealer when you discovered them. Her loud skin, this browsing of images, and your thin grimace wondering back into her figure to arch her spine again. Slightly clad in low-thread count rough motel sham, her thighs fold over memories of you, of your calluses.

More of them are like us here.

Two blocks from Broadway, you meant. You could always appear tender.

Flamethrowers, she said.

Or else they had assault rifles.

Big difference.

Why did you have to see me first?

Then one can’t locate the other, and the latter keeps quiet. Eventually, she’ll call. Or he will, impossibly. Even if that, holding withered boundaries. And then captions run in yellow Ariel across the bottom of the flat screen: “Either the Vikings or the Raiders will kill us next year.”

You need to call babies human babies. She makes this resolution. And that helps a bit.

It’s even weirder when starlit seas compound her view of the village as she leans across the harbor, squinting. The next step of her calming calls for an insect paste smeared across the map of her features. It burns some. Then it comes: a sisterly smile. Stunning. The next morning, she drives home mumbling her five-year-old response to you: Life is never normal.

 *

Nicholas Michael Ravnikar saddles the tears of Mesoamerica with committees that bloom out the windows of his hopscotch factory. “Nine years ago, I watched a fire consume a kindergarten school desk,” he says. “We poured a makeshift absinthe on the embers. Today, I delight in more sordid fancies — for instance, skateboarding after three years at twelve in the afternoon.” With 83 texts (mostly English) in circulation at many small venues online and in print, he resides between one and twenty miles from the coast of Lake Michigan, just past the northern limns of the Illinois-Wisconsin border. Look for his haiku on Facebook.

Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: The Story Begins Before The Story Has Begun.

I love the creative ways that writers sneak meaning into unexpected places. Many flash fiction writers decide that, when every word really does counts, even the title is an opportunity to convey meaning to a reader. Which is why I’m so glad that we have M’s piece, “A Three-Character Play Wherein One of the Characters Never Appears on Stage” on the agenda for today. (Story in its entirety below)

I have to admit that I love a well-crafted title, and I’ve used this technique often myself in stories such as “My Boyfriend Lives in the Tree In Front of My House,” and “Sometimes I Still Smell the Smoke in the Walls.” A fellow writer, Travis MacDonald, even takes guerrilla titling to an extreme in his piece:

Everyone Enjoyed the Buffet At The Chef’s Wife’s Wake Until That Awkward Moment When The Neighbor’s Dog Disturbed The Casket, Spilling Little Yellow IOUs All Over the Borrowed Carpet.

Flash fiction writers are discovering what journalists have known all along: headlines and lead sentences—the who-what-when-where-why served up front and without apology—are essential to communication between writer and reader. Titles I love include Ron Carlson’s “Bigfoot Stole My Wife”,  Kona Morris’ “I’m Pretty Sure Nicholas Cage is My Gynecologist” and Rob Geisen’s “The Night I Discovered I Wasn’t as Cool As Han Solo”. Whether your title is somber or humorous, a well-crafted flash fiction title can convey meaning to the reader before the story has even begun. A nice trick when you only have 1000 words, no?

But is that cheating?

I suppose, technically, if the story is exactly 1000 words and the writer is only trying to squeeze in a few extra, it could be questionable. But more often than not, an effective flash fiction story falls well short of the 1000-word cutoff anyway, so it’s usually not so much about “getting in extra words” as it is about using the title differently. Borrowing from journalism—which, incidentally is another place where writing is confined by layouts and wordcounts—the flash fiction story squeezes meaning into every available space.

So M, let’s look at your story, “A Three-Character Play Wherein One of the Characters Never Appears on Stage

Obviously I think your title is really working to not only convey additional information to the reader but also to provide a potent “hook” into your story. I also like the natural leanness of your language—I can tell you come to flash fiction from poetry, and often poets have an easier grasp on this than writers coming from other genres. And lastly you have some really striking images—I particularly like the building as a delinquent dental patient and the pear in yogurt as volcanic islands. I feel as if this story is already well on its way to being an effective piece of flash, keeping tension strung and covering a great deal of distance in a short amount of time.

What still needs work are some technical issues of clarity most often brought about by your use of multiple pronouns. While I’m also a fan of nameless characters, I find it works best when you limit anonymous characters to one male and one female. As soon as pronouns are used for more than two characters, or if two or more characters are using the same gender pronoun, it can quickly become confusing.

Right away in this piece I’m not sure whether “her cigarettes never go out” and “she never leaves the window” refer to the neighbor or the speaker—it could be either. When you finally say “he lives across the street” I’m surprised that the neighbor is male. Then I’m trying keep track of the “he” of the neighbor vs. the husband, and the “she” as our speaker vs. the dead woman, who may or may not be the same woman? Now I realize a bit of mystery, especially in the Hitchcock legacy, can be wonderful, but too much might be getting in the way of your story.

There are many ways you might be able to fix this. One suggestion is rather than using straight pronouns, you can use different “names” such as “The Husband”, “The Neighbor”, etc. Or you can refer to characters as “the one that smokes” or “the one with the lamp”.

Lastly, by the end I’m still unsure if he killed a third woman “she” or the speaker. (If this is what you are going for, then great, but if you wanted more clarity by the end you may still have to tweak). And then when he addresses himself by name, Jeff Jeffries, after a story full of anonymities, it feels just a touch too “ta-da!” and possibly contrived? Not sure if you need it…

M, I think once you can clear up these confusions for the reader, the story will have the effect you want it to. I hope this helps you on your revisions, and thanks so much for trusting me with your work and letting us all learn from your process!

Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

Please feel free to join in the conversation! And if you would like me to feature your flash piece in progress, please find me on Facebook or email me at nancystohlman@gmail.com.

*

A Three-Character Play Wherein One of the Characters Never Appears on Stage

by M 

She has a neighbor. Her neighbor has a lamp. The lamp has a green glass shade. The lamp never goes out. Her cigarettes never go out. She almost never leaves the kitchen window. It’s the only place she smokes now. He lives in the building across the street. She’s watched the window for weeks. She’s never even seen him.

Eight in the morning, the lamp is on. Three in the afternoon, lamp’s on. Midnight. Lamp. On. It’s pre-dawn. The building looks like the mouth of a delinquent dental patient, every tooth knocked out by neglect except for one green straggler suspended by a rubber band of gum tissue.

She’s on the second floor. She has binoculars. She’s too low to see anything but the lamp. “You look like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window,” her husband says. He’s scratching his balls and doesn’t remotely resemble Grace Kelly. He’s obsessed with bottle blondes in classic films. He’s carrying a glue bottle. He thinks she spends too much time in the kitchen since her mother died. She thinks he spends too much time out of it. She wants to ask why glue doesn’t stick to the inside of the bottle. She wants him to sing I got glue, babe. “If this is your idea of quitting, it’s not working,” he says.

She’s waiting for the day, the hour, the lamp goes out. She’ll call the cops. “This doesn’t require police intervention.” She says something out of the ordinary: A slight evasion in the infinite cosmos of arrested light. Gregory Building. Fifth floor. South-facing corner apartment.

It’s a slow night. They find the corpse in the bathroom. Female. Blonde. Early thirties. Fatal blow to the back of the head. Blood coating the rim of the tub. Every front tooth knocked out.

“Jesus, chill out, Jeff Jeffries,” he says. He’s slicing a pear into a bowl of vanilla yogurt. The slices are volcanic islands. The yogurt is a tranquil lagoon. His knife is caught by the glare of a grow lamp she turns on every morning, turns off every evening for the orchid she knows she’ll kill. It needs light and dark in equal doses. Eventually she’ll forget this.

 

M is a performance poet who occasionally dabbles in other genres. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals, and received a number of awards, including finalist position for two consecutive years in the annual Rattle $5000 Poetry Prize. Her poetry chapbook, To That Mythic Country Called Closure, winner of the 2012 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Prize, will be released in the fall of 2013. You can listen to her perform selections of her work at the Rattle Audio Archives:http://www.rattle.com/poetry/audio/. She also does her own manicures weekly, and has been known to wear foundation, mascara, and lipstick while undergoing major surgery.