Category Archives: Writing

How to Write Flash Fiction Crash Course

Puzzled by endless rejections? Unsure what editors are looking for? Are you still letting yourself be misled by those pernicious and persistent writing myths?

Don’t feel bad. It’s not just newbies who are letting themselves be held back by those myths.

Here’s a great introduction to the unique challenge of writing flash fiction. This FREE (!) course reveals the real reasons editors accept and reject manuscripts. (Hint: It’s not what you think.) It also includes guidance in choosing a POV for your next story, as well as time-tested principles in crafting relatable characters and compelling plots.

Enjoy!

Quote of the day

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn knew the human heart well. This insight explains why the bad guy who sees himself as the good guy makes a more believable antagonist. The mustache-twirling villain seeking world domination because that’s what villains do makes boring reading. When both the protagonist and antagonist have to deal with internal and external conflict, the reader feels like a miner panning for gold. We want to discover characters with depth, characters who are capable of surprise and even winning our sympathy.

The Monster behind the mask

Stephen King
Stephen King

One of the few writing books I keep on my desk is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s really two separate works. The second half offers one of the most concise and useful guides to clear, lively writing ever written.

But it begins with a short bio of the author, a life story I was not previously aware of. Despite (because of?) his success, Mr. King grappled with both alcohol and drug addiction. Though he didn’t overcome these problems until a forceful intervention by fed-up friends and family, he did deal with his addictions the best he could. As he puts it, a part of him recognized the problem: “It began to scream for help in the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters.” (On Writing, p. 96)

The Shining and The Tommyknockers express how that part of his psyche regarded his addiction. But Misery, in my opinion, is a more profound and revealing image of addiction. Annie Wilkes, the psychotic nurse who both idolizes and tortures the protagonist, symbolizes cocaine, which makes you feel good at first but extracts a heavy toll.

Notice that the protagonists in all three novels are writers. Hmm.

Other authors have imagined monsters as symbols for their deepest wounds. In The Recognition of H.P. Lovecraft, a marvelous account of Lovecraft’s posthumous rise to celebrity, S. T. Joshi observes that Lovecraft’s monsters “were not to be taken literally but as symbols for the philosophical conceptions he sought to convey.” (p. 283) Lovecraft’s gods and demons have no regard for puny humans. A self-described man of “extreme sensitiveness,” Lovecraft long nursed an aching nostalgia for lost innocence and shattered ideals, victims of an impersonal, cold universe. His tales of isolation, despair, and creeping terror reflect his view of the uncaring forces that control human destiny.

A similar dynamic is evident in Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin’s classic. Levin did not believe in devils, but his most famous novel uses Satan as a symbol of the real evil people commit out of greed. Rosemary is not only lied to by people she trusts, but is betrayed by her own husband, who allows her to be raped for his own personal gain. Treachery is the ultimate evil, which Dante believed to merit punishment in the ninth circle of hell. I imagine Levin would have agreed.

Changes in latitudes …

That unshaven bum is me on my back deck at Carolina Beach, armed with notebook, binoculars, and strong coffee. We’re SLOWLY transitioning to the beach, and on our last trip earlier this month, we really lucked up on the weather.

While my wife worked her real estate magic on the phone, I worked on a sword and sorcery story. Though I’ve long relished the works of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber, I’ve never before tried my hand at this genre. Of course, this calls for guerrilla-style research, from the history of the locale I’ve picked, to the tropes and traditions of sword and sorcery adventures.

Now that’s my idea of a good time.

And while changing latitudes, I’m changing a few attitudes as well. I’ve always insisted on writing at my desk in crypt-like silence. But I’m learning to adapt and take advantage of writing opportunities as they come along. I wrote in the car on our way down, and, as you can see by the Mona-Lisa-like smile on my face, am getting the hang of composing by the sea shore. The hypnotic rhythm of the crashing waves seems to pull me forward, and I’m pleased with the manuscript. It has magic. It has knives. It has slings. And of course, desperate battles.

To get in the proper spirit the morning I wrote on the deck, I did Isshin-ryu katas for a half hour and then Julie and I took a long walk on the beach. I’ve long believed in the mutually reinforcing interplay of the body and the imagination. I like the way Nietzsche described how walking sparked creativity:

“We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.”

Thoughtful indeed. The sea, which has a role in my story, teems with history, wonder, and vivid spectacles of life and death. I think Freddy was on to something.

Quote of the day

Image by Andrew Lih

“Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things—childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves—that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.”

Salman Rushdie

Making your vision apparent

Promotional still of Mia Farrow

Last week’s post featuring Lin Carter‘s observation about H.P. Lovecraft got me to thinking about Rosemary’s Baby.

Carter found it fascinating that Lovecraft, a thorough materialist, could enthrall the world with his terrifying tales of “evil and fallen gods.” Carter’s take was that Lovecraft utilized his firm grasp of science and materialist outlook to craft stories made believable with concrete details and methodical precision.

Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby and Veronica’s Room, used an approach similar to Lovecraft’s. Like HPL, Levin was an atheist, yet his horror tales make supernatural evil seem frighteningly real, even palpable. In both the novel and Roman Polanski’s excellent screen adaptation, Rosemary’s Baby draws you in with odd but apparently mundane details. The realtor who helps Rosemary and her husband Guy find an apartment is missing fingers. When Rosemary and Guy move a dresser from the wall, they realize it hides a secret room — but it’s only an empty closet.

Nothing to see there, right?

As the truth about these seemingly innocent details slowly comes out, you’re fascinated by the inescapable conclusion that there’s something sinister going on, and it’s impossible to turn away. Like Rosemary, you’re in this thing now and there’s no turning back.

So why are confirmed materialists such as Lovecraft and Levin drawn to supernatural subjects? And what enables them to be so convincing?

Both men knew that writing depends on exaggeration and metaphor. I like the way Flannery O’Connor put it: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Of course, O’Connor was a traditional Catholic who aimed to make readers perceive supernatural evil by vividly presenting earthly evil.