Aborted Creativity Serves No One

Writing for writing’s sake is marvelous so long as the writer isn’t in denial about his or her dreams. Most writers, whether we admit it or not, want our creations to be recognizably dynamic, in the private sphere as well as for a broader readership. We write because we want to communicate. When fear of playing to an audience or facing an audience upon completion keeps us from ever developing our work, everyone loses. The writer never experiences the wild ride of revision, nor receives revision’s gifts. No readers benefit. Aborted projects may lead to energizing new projects, but aborted creativity serves no one.

 

from “Living Revision” by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

 

 

Flash Fiction 101

 

By S.D. Grimm

 

Fiction in a Flash

 

In the simplest terms, flash fiction is a story in 1,000 words or less. Yep. A whole story—any genre—in less than approximately four double- spaced pages.

 

You might wonder it it’s possible to write a story in under 1,000 words, and I’m here to tell you that it is. I’ve read flash fiction pieces in as little as six words before. If you think that’s tough, consider micro fiction, a story in under 500 words; or nano fiction, a story in under 100 words or less. But don’t be discouraged. Once you understand the basics of how to write flash fiction, I think you’ll want to try it out. Just be careful; writing flash fiction can be like eating potato chips—good luck stopping at just one.

 

No Flash in the Pan

 

Who doesn’t love a good story? Remember sitting around the campfire or at a slumber party and staying up late to listen to ghost stories? People love stories, and sometimes, they don’t want to read a huge novel or watch a two-hour movie. There is a whole audience out there of people who want to be able to read something on the go—on their mobile devices even.

 

There is an audience out there that is craving flash fiction.

 

Who can write flash fiction? You can!

 

As a flash fiction editor, I’m going to break down the fundamentals of what makes up “good” flash fiction for you and give you some tricks of the trade so you can write flash fiction.

 

Ten Components of Good Flash Fiction

 

  1. Structure

Just like any narrative, flash fiction needs a beginning, middle, and end.

A clear story goal, a.k.a. plot.

Well-developed hero and villain, whether it’s man vs man, man vs self, man vs nature, etc.

Setting

 

But unique to Flash Fiction:

 

You’re not going to have subplots. There just isn’t room in something so short. So focus on one plot and one main conflict. Conflict is the heart and soul of a story, and the main conflict needs to appear in a flash fiction piece pretty much immediately.

 

Another thing you don’t want to overdo are scene changes and pointof- view switches. It can be done, and I’ve seen it done successfully, but when editing and rewriting, ask yourself if the change is really necessary. Often it will just complicate the plot in ways that don’t enhance the story.

 

  1. Hook

In a novel, the opening hook is that first scene that draws the reader into a new world. Many times flash fiction will play out its entire story in one scene. So the hook here is the opening sentence. It should set the tone for the story as well as introduce your reader to your character and give an inkling of the main conflict (if it doesn’t delve right into the main conflict). I’ve heard it said that novelists have 250 words to hook a reader. In flash, that’s one quarter of a long story. Other stories might even be done already. You have to grab readers’ attention in the opening line and never let go. If a reader puts down your flash piece, it’s the death sentence.

 

  1. Tension

It’s that “what’s going to happen next” factor. Great storytellers create tension in every scene. When you write flash fiction, there needs to be tension in every sentence. Each sentence needs to move the story forward. Imagine if you can craft a story in which you have tension in every line. Think of how that will improve your writing.

 

  1. Tight Writing

Every word counts when you have so few. So here are a few tips for using words effectively: Backload sentences. This means putting an important, resonating, or strong word or phrase at the end of a sentence. So instead of saying, “She noticed the dagger in his hand,” try “He carried a dagger.” Use dynamic verbs. Tight writing forces you to rethink using those pesky verbs of being in exchange for something stronger, punchier. Instead of “broke” how about “shattered” or “snapped” or “crushed”? These different verbs each convey a more specific form of breakage that will make a reader’s mental image sharper.

 

Pick specific nouns. Instead of “car” try “Volvo” or “Mustang.” Or how about “Dachshund” in place of “dog”? Again, specific images are invoked. Use adjectives and adverbs in their most powerful form: sparingly. Instead of a huge, puffy, white cloud, pick one. Or pick something different: a cotton-ball cloud.

 

Watch those passive-aggressive-voice sentences. They often require more words. By using strong verbs in active sentences, you will keep your word count low and the reader moving through the story.

 

Beware, though. Tight writing doesn’t always mean you should choose the shortest possible sentences. Slipping into telling mode (instead of showing) for the sake of using less words isn’t going to make the story strong. And be careful that you don’t overload with adverbs for the sake of conciseness. You still have to SHOW your action, your emotion and your conflict. Flash isn’t about sacrificing good writing for fewer words. It’s an art all its own.

 

  1. Creative Title

I’ve said every word counts, which includes titles. They don’t count as part of your limited word count, but that doesn’t mean it’s a chance to get verbose. Pick something clever or that has a double meaning. Maybe the tile will be a red herring or give readers an extra tidbit about the story. Load your title with subtext whenever possible.

 

For example, I once wrote a flash piece titled Fearfully and Wonderfully. The theme of the story was about how everyone is different and beautiful in their own way. The plot was about the main character’s death and how afraid she was, but that she ended up not needed to be so afraid because she wasn’t alone—the person with her helped her find the beauty even in her passing. I thought the title played with both of those meanings. Another example is a story titled Mirror, Mirror. Since it was a take on a retelling of the famous Snow White tale, the title helped readers make that connection before they even started reading.

 

Those kinds of hints can ground readers in context, or help the story resonate after they read it and the title brings extra meaning.

 

  1. Setting

Every story needs a setting. It’s easy to think that with a limited word count, setting is a throw away, but it’s not. Readers need a sense of place and time and of who is in the room. Revert back to those deliberate nouns and pick and choose your adjectives carefully.

 

You can zero in on a specific part of the setting—like a vine crawling up a flagpole out of an abandoned playground’s crumbled asphalt. Those are specific details that give a broad sense of setting: abandoned, new life, or possibly something choking life from something else. Imagery in setting is so full of subtext. Use that to your advantage in flash fiction when you can. And make your setting a character. Not just a place card for your characters.

 

  1. Character and POV

As I mentioned earlier, you need a clear hero and villain. Just like in other forms of storytelling, you need to make sure your characters aren’t boring, cookie-cutter, cardboard, people. Make them real. Breathe life into them.

 

In flash fiction, you want a small cast of characters. Large casts are warranted if you’re writing in a genre like epic fantasy. Not in flash. You don’t have time to introduce a huge cast and still have room for plot. After you’ve settled on your short list of characters, choose your POV carefully. You’ll probably only have one. Who will have the most to lose? The highest stakes? That’s your POV character. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box. I once wrote a piece in which the POV character was a snowflake.

 

  1. Backstory

Every story has backstory. But the thing about backstory is that it already happened and doesn’t need to be explained. Needed information should come out naturally in the story and only as the reader needs to know. You do not have time in your flash pieces to dump a bunch of BS (backstory, people!) at the beginning and then get on with your story. Flash forces you to weave in the things your reader needs to know organically.

 

  1. Emotional Investment

All great fiction connects with readers on an emotional level. That’s what they’re looking for. Flash is no exception. This is why you need to show and not tell those emotional experiences. For example, not: “Harry gritted his teeth in determination.” Instead, simply write: “Harry gritted his teeth.” The context will let me know why, and what emotion he’s feeling. Readers don’t want to be told how to feel. They want to feel it with the character. Sometimes naming an emotion has its place, but showing the emotions builds a better connection with the readers. The limited word count of a Flash Fiction piece makes emotional investment even more imperative.

 

  1. Twist

Unique to flash fiction is the twist ending. A lot of stories have a twist at the end, but it’s always a part of flash fiction. You’d think it would make the story predictable, and that’s where the fun of writing it comes in. The twist doesn’t always happen at the end, but it should be near the end. It makes the end satisfying and hard-striking. The whole story leads up to that moment, and it’s so perfectly set up and veiled at the same time. You’re pulling the blindfold off the reader, but having them nod and say, “Yes! I— Yes, this is exactly how it should have been! I should have seen it coming!”

 

from “Jot That Down; Encouraging Essays for New Writers” edited by A. L. Rogers

 

 

Stimulating Creativity

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way offers a lot of good ideas for stimulating creativity. One of the most helpful for me is the artist’s date: once a week doing something for and with yourself that feeds your creative side. It should be fun, and it should be good for your creativity; beyond that there are no rules. I don’t always keep a weekly date, but I use the artist’s date as an excuse to make regular trips to downtown Chicago-a bus ride for me-and wander museums, galleries or offbeat shops that make me stop and experience others’ creativity. Sometimes I take myself to a movie matinee, or I shop for a book and then go to lunch. Sometimes I simply spend extra time reading what I really like, or I rent a movie that offers inspiration or information concerning the work I’m writing. For instance, the atmosphere created in Fried Green Tomatoes gives me a creative boost when I write fiction set in a rural locale. Sometimes my date involves a thermos of tea and a leisurely walk along the lakefront. Nature is good for my soul, and during the warmer months I make dates to spend time in nearby parks and beside lagoons.

 

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

 

 

The Basic Ingredient

Genuine, openhearted engagement—what Brenda Ueland calls “interestingness”—is the basic ingredient of a fruitful creative process. Because of this, stories are essentially egalitarian in nature, meaning that each and every one of us ordinary people who writes has the capacity to move a reader. Have you ever sat through a memorial service at which a grieving grandchild read a coarse but genuine rendering of the departed one’s life and set everyone weeping? Have you ever received a card that touched you so profoundly you saved it for years? When I taught seventh grade, my struggling students always floored me with their poetry; it was raw and real because they put their hearts into it and spoke the truth. They didn’t yet have the self-consciousness or ambitions that trip most of us up.

Talent and skill and craft and effort will all increase the effectiveness of our writing, but the essential ingredients for stirring a reader’s heart are available to everyone who loves writing: curiosity, dedication, and courage. Much of the work of learning to write effectively involves stripping away all that interferes with our natural inclinations to explore, and expanding our capacity to recognize and name the truth. 5

 

from “Living Revision” by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

 

 

Top Shelf Books

For those who are keeping score at home, these are the people who take up the most space on the top shelf in my hallway.

A Belgian priest named Louis Evely published a book in the sixties called That Man Is You, a book given to me to read as part of a discipleship class when I was in high school. Whatever influence Father Evely had on my spiritual journey, his most powerful influence on me came from the blank-verse style he used to write the book. I do not write in that form anymore, but the blank verse taught me how to take sentences and paragraphs apart, how to break them into separate pieces and see how they fit together to make writing that can be heard when someone reads the page.

Some of Frederick Buechner’s books are on the shelf. Now and Then, one of the deeply moving autobiographical books he has written, taught me a seminal truth. “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is,” he writes. “In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it.” For better or for worse, I have spent a lifetime doing that, and doing so on paper in the hope that others might come to listen to their lives as well.

Three by Annie Dillard—The Writing Life, An American Childhood, and Teaching a Stone to Talk—taught me to write as directly as I can, though I do not always live up to the challenge. She taught me to connect one story to the next until a whole comes forth.

Letters to a Young Poet is there, a tiny volume containing half the correspondence between the early-twentieth-century Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and a poet-to-be. The latter kept the letters from the great man, not the other way round, and those letters later found their way into publication. Whenever I want to turn in my pen and my poetic license, I read Rilke’s letters, get a good night’s sleep, and get up in the morning and go back to scribbling.

John Le Carré and Graham Greene are two legendary British novelists. Many people know the former because of the fictional spymaster George Smiley, a character portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness on PBS. Mr. Greene’s work runs from crime to intrigue to war to satire. I started out reading both of these writers as “entertainments,” Mr. Greene’s term, and finally came to realize they were both teaching me to look for light in the midst of the darkness that seems all around us.

My journey in the direction of learning to pray eventually led me to Thomas Merton. I do not go anywhere without a copy of Thoughts in Solitude. Sometimes kindly picking me up when I am discouraged, sometimes gently reminding me that this work is not life and death, he always reminds me that I am only making sentences here. Not life and death by any stretch.

Darkness Visible, the slim book written by William Styron about his struggles with depression helped save my life. I first read it when I was in a psychiatric ward. I recommend the book to writers because so many of us struggle with this particular disease whether or not we know it, admit it, or deal with it. Styron helped me do all three. And with great power he taught me that if you are going to write a memoir, it is only right to tell the whole truth and nothing but.

Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War began its life as an assignment to write a short popular history of the war. Over twenty years it became his life’s work and thousands of pages long. He takes an old story with an ending we already know and retells it so compellingly that we are deeply engaged in the story again. Not a bad model for anyone who writes about religion from time to time as I do, writing based on a Story most of my readers know by heart.

Doris Grumbach’s memoirs teach me to pay more attention to the daily in my life, attention to the seemingly inconsequential, attention to which things actually receive my time and my energy and my art.

The twenty-one novels Patrick O’Brian wrote about the Napoleonic War adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, caught my eye and ear a few years ago. About the fourth time through them, I realized that even though the Aubrey novels had been categorized as adventure, they were really books about a friendship between two men. I read them every year now. If I cannot learn to be a better writer, I hope to learn to be a better friend.

 

from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen” by Robert Benson

 

The Lamp Stays Lit

My father seemed to have a knack for stumbling onto books by new writers, new voices. As his own family grew, his study was converted into a bedroom for me. His book collection stayed put, and I would read the books he brought home by the light of a little lamp on the bookshelves beside my bed. I rarely turned off the lamp even when I was about to fall asleep.

I still keep a small lamp lit in the central hallway of the little house where I live. It sits on the top of the shelves my grandfather built, shelves that are crammed three deep with books. But the light of the lamp illuminates a single row of books held in place between two triangular marble bookends. The row contains a selection of my favorite books by my favorite writers, some of which are from my father’s collection. The lamp stays lit all day and all night.

 

from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen” by Robert Benson

 

Religious Books

 – by Frederick Buechner

 

There are poetry books and poetic books—the first a book with poems in it, the second a book that may or may not have poems in it, but that is in some sense a poem itself.

In much the same way there are religion books and religious books. A religion book is a book with religion in it in the everyday sense of religious ideas, symbols, attitudes, and—if it takes the form of fiction—with characters and settings that have overfly religious associations and implications. There are good religion books like The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, and there are miserable ones like most of what is called “Christian” fiction.

A religious book may not have any religion as such in it at all, but to read it is in some measure to experience firsthand what a religion book can only tell about. A religion book is a canvas. A religious book is a transparency. With a religious book it is less what we see in it than what we see through it that matters. John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany would be an example. Huckleberry Finn would be another.

Writers of religious books tend to achieve most when they are least conscious of doing so. The attempt to be religious is as doomed as the attempt to be poetic. Thus in the writing, as in the reading, a religious book is an act of grace—no less rare, no less precious, no less improbable.

 

Honoring Your Passion to Write

 

By Sarah Arthur

Maybe you’ve always wanted to be a published writer. Or maybe you enjoyed writing at some point in your life and would like to pick it up again, just for fun, because it delights you. The act of writing is a worthy activity, even if it’s just a hobby for now. Here are some ways to honor your passion:

  • Set aside time daily, weekly, or monthly just for writing. I get together monthly with a friend for dinner and a “writing date.” When we’re done eating we open our laptops and work on our fiction projects, pausing occasionally to chat or get another chai. The accountability to another person means that I will show up and write fiction at least once a month.
  • If you share a family computer, consider getting a designated computer/laptop just for you.
  • Ask for writing resources (software, setting up a writing desk/office, magazine subscriptions, attending a conference,) for Christmas, birthdays, etc.; or save up money. Yes, words are cheap, and writing can be as simple as a paper and pencil. But other people spend piles of cash on their hobbies–golfing, anyone?–so don’t feel guilty about it. This is important to you.
  • BACK UP YOUR WORK!!! You never realize how vital your writing projects are to your soul until you lose one or more of them. I use a combination of Google Drive, Dropbox, and an external hard-drive.
  • Join a writing group, locally or online. You can hunt around websites such as Writer’s Digest, which has discussion forums and online communities.

If/when you’re ready to take the next step to freelance or publish your work:

  • Get a professional-sounding email address. You want publishers to take you seriously.
  • Create a simple but tasteful and professional blog/website. You want the world to be able to find you easily by a simple internet search. Keep the information on your site current, and post periodically to show that the writing life is important to you.
  • Research the publishers/publications that interest you. When you read a book you like, notice who publishes it and then go to that publisher’s website and see what kinds of resources they produce. Check out the annual Writer’s Market Guide for your genre–your local library will likely have a copy.
  • Join LinkedIn or some other professional network. This is not the same as Facebook, in which you connect with just anyone. Limit yourself to writing and publishing networks, plus whatever area is your specialty (for me it’s youth ministry; for you it might be quilting or radiology). I’m a member of LinkedIn as well as the Redbud Writers Guild.
  • Make business cards. You can find some really good deals on VistaPrint, or check with a local graphic designer.
  • Learn how to craft excellent pitches and proposals. Author and publishing coach Margot Starbuck includes some great resources on her blog, or you can check with a guild in your genre. NOTE: Someone asked me if you have to have a completed manuscript in order to pitch to agents and/or editors, and the answer is “It depends.” If you’re pitching a novel, it should be finished: they need to see that you can deliver. But if it’s nonfiction, you can pitch a title, description, synopsis, and 1-2 sample chapters. Always include a bio with your credentials as a writer or as someone who knows the topic well.
  • Attend a writer’s conference where you can meet agents and publishers. I’ve suggested a few below. Be sure to have all of the above things in place before you walk through the doors of the conference center: this shows that you are serious.
  • Getting published doesn’t just happen—you won’t be “discovered.” You have to put yourself out there but without being totally obnoxious.

Writing & Publishing Resources:

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Sarah Arthur is a fun-loving speaker and the author of a dozen books on the intersection of faith and great literature, including the celebrated A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time (Zondervan/ HarperCollins, Aug 7, 2018). With insights into Madeleine’s spiritual journey as well as interviews with her friends, family, colleagues, and influential fans, what better way to celebrate what would’ve been Madeleine’s 100th birthday in 2018?

 

Also, don’t miss the latest on Sarah’s book The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (co-authored with Erin Wasinger; Brazos Press, 2017), which traces two families’ year-long experiment of translating downwardly-mobile spiritual practices (such as hospitality to the struggling, simplicity, social justice) into their suburban context. Listen to the Small Things podcast, read our fantabulous blog, & more here.

Check out Sarah’s latest musings, find updates about her writing and speaking, read excerpts and reviews of her books, and purchase signed copies of her resources for both individual and group reading.

 

www.saraharthur.com

Creativity Is Whole-Life Engagement

You can’t engage with a creative process and not engage other processes. When you are exploring and unveiling, your emotions get hooked, your intellect gets hooked, and your deepest beliefs about life get hooked. If creativity is nurtured well and allowed to grow, it will grab onto your life in multiple ways.

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

 

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