Category Archives: Tips

Why Are There So Many Ellipses?!

What goes through a person’s mind while posting when they use a string of ellipses between phrases?

Are there pauses in the thoughts they have while typing? Are these the ellipses of contemplation? Does each dot represent a moment of time passing for the poster while they consider their next words? If we listen hard enough, can we hear the gears of thought clicking between each dot?

Is each addition an afterthought? The things we think to say after we read what we’ve said and determine it has not been enough.

Are they unsure they mean to end the thought at all?

Why are there so many ellipses?!

I have a lot of role playing experience (the nerdy kind, not the — oh, stop it, you!)  I lived through the early Golden Age of the lawless AOL chat room frontier, where twenty people in a room meant so much scroll you couldn’t read your own post, let alone the post of the person with whom you were playing. It was a time when you made character profiles on Angelfire, and 8-bit animated backgrounds meant you were on the cutting edge of free web design (even though you definitely weren’t). And from these experiences in chat rooms and IM’s, I know that people actually feel the passage of time, or the elongating of the pause, the more ellipses they use.  This is actually very natural, as a reader feels the passage of time — between speech, between actions– the more words they have to read. This is why action sequences use short sentences to move the action forward, and also why descriptive passages make us feel like an entire day could have passed between the last thing the main character has done, and the next thing we see them do. There aren’t enough pages in the world to facilitate the practice of “more ellipses = more time”, though.  And, grammatically speaking, more dots does not mean more time has passed since the speaker stopped speaking.

Officially, the ellipsis is used to indicate a pause, especially in the case of thought or speech.  They are also used to indicate a quote is part of a sentence which begins and/or ends before/after the section quoted ( i.e. “[…] more dots does not mean more time has passed […]”).

IMG_0521-0

“here i am………….. being a grammar nazi…………. #winning”

However, in both cases, three is the limit.  Unless you’re ending the sentence with ellipses, in which case also add a period.  Four dots, total.

But then there’s the shorthand world, the world of social media and “casual” speech, which either follows no rule of grammar, or follows some unique permutation of grammar excusing the lack of coherence, all of which is somehow protected under the “I’m just typing casually” umbrella.  (If you’re reading this in a tone which indicates I disapprove, you are very good at interpreting my style.  Gold star.)    Here I think we return to the world where “more dots = more time”, but sometimes I still don’t understand why.  Like, obviously I get that this is what is … sometimes (?) intended (?), but I guess I just don’t 100% believe that to be true.

I just don’t know why it’s done.
Why are you pausing so long?  Why did you not just end the sentence and start a new one?  Isn’t one dot less effort than twelve?  What does it all mean?!

—-

Adalind is a confused and deeply emotional writer suffering an existential crisis over the flagrant misuse of punctuation.  You can find some of her short stories linked above, and others floating around the internet like little literary orphans (none of them named Annie or Oliver).

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Is It “Inspired by” or “Fan Fiction of”?

Photo by Mattox

The pen is only mightier than the sword if the sword is made out of papier-mâché.

It’s no secret I play Skyrim now.  Since buying the game it’s been a regular part of my life,

to the point that some of my dreams have been very Skyrimmy, both in terms of content and perspective.  As I addressed in my post about Skyrim’s surprisingly complex politics, I am THAT gamer.  I’m the gamer who reads all the in-game books and weighs the options carefully before ever choosing a side.  I’m the gamer that initially turned down a quest because it required my character to beat up someone she had just helped, and that made me feel bad.  I’m the gamer who stopped hunting because the sounds of elk dying made me sad.  So it should come as no surprise that I would also be the gamer who spontaneously writes flash fiction based on the imagined reactions of her characters to everything that happens.

Currently I have five official Skyrim shorts, and one short I can say was inspired by it, but this separation between being “inspired by” and “fan fiction of” got me thinking:  What really defines the difference between the two?

Before the emergence of Fifty Shades of Grey, I noticed less scrutiny given to where a writer would pull their inspiration as long as enough details were changed that it could be called an independent story.  Since it could be said that Fifty Shades follows this model, though, I’ve noticed an upswing in readiness to dismiss something as being “fan fiction” based on the source of inspiration, rather than the content or purpose of the prose.

I’ve always been very proud of the fact that I’d never felt compelled to write fan fiction, that my worlds and characters were all my own, so when I took an event in Skyrim and twiddled it around to fit Eleasia, there was a part of me that shuffled around in shame.  In the back of my mind was this tiny voice that said “Fifty Shades of Grey, dude,” (my inner voice is a surfer) and despite telling it to gtfo and shoot the curl, I couldn’t entirely shake it.  If I said nothing, no one would know and my story would stand on its own merit, but if I said “This was inspired by Skyrim,” I worried that it would suddenly be perceived as little better than fan fiction, and when I can’t bring myself to like fan fiction in general, it’s not something I would ever want associated with my serious work.

It wasn’t until I sheepishly, and self-deprecatingly said I had “Fifty Shaded” something from Skyrim, and then proceeded to defend the prose, that I really saw the biggest differences between the two.

To start, the most obvious indicators of fan fiction would be the use of canonical settings (Hogwarts, Middle-Earth, Tamriel, Terre D’Ange, the Death Star, the USS Enterprise, etc.)  Within these settings are often canonical characters, but they may not be the focus, as often the use of fan fiction is to allow the writer to feel like they’re a part of their favorite settings, so they create an OC (original character), and this is your basic Mary Sue.  The writer, and by extension the reader, can step into the character-vessel and ride them around the  narrative, which is usually something that comes off as being self serving and lacks dimension and depth in order to feed something in the fan.

But what if you change the names of the characters and locations, add in some original characters, and come up with your own plot for them to follow?  What might prevent it from stepping fully outside the stigma of fan fiction?  My answer would be the writer’s intent.  If a writer changes these elements but continues to write as if the characters are the same as they were in the original source, it’s still just fan fiction in the end.  It’s still an outlet for the writer to pretend they’re having adventures with their favorite characters, which is often (though not exclusively) the drive behind writing them in the first place.  It’s the literary equivalent of watching a Steven Segal movie:  No matter what his character’s name is or what the plot tries to tell you, he’s still just Steven Segal punching stuntmen in the face.

How can you determine how much of your inspiration is inspiration?  Well, what have you been inspired to write?  Can it be boiled down to a theme?  If it’s a scene, what could you say is the simplest motivation behind it?  If you can say “It deals with the struggles of overcoming emotional apathy and learning how to share inter-personal bonds,” or “It addresses the complications that can accompany mental illness” then okay, you’ve got valid inspiration.  If your answer sounds more like “I didn’t like that Legolas never had a girlfriend,” or “Harry Potter, but with schizophrenia” then you’re still trapped by the shadow of fan fic.  And really terrible fan fic, at that.

Most writers, I think, are not in danger of crossing into making lazy variations on established works, but that doesn’t stop some of us from wondering or worrying that a source here and there might have too much influence.  As long as you can identify the underlying theme and use it to tell your story, you shouldn’t be in any danger of letting the source of your inspiration become the only thing people see.

If you want to know what Skyrim inspiration looks like, go back and read The Retriever’s Body from Friday.  For contrast, here’s some unapologetic Skyrim fan fic.  You’ll love both.

—–

Ultimatum

She agreed to meet Farkas at Dustman’s Cairn, but whens she turned to inform Vorstag of their change of plans, he had vanished.  She searched the city, such as she could, until continued searching would mean delaying her meeting with the Companion.  Concerned, disheartened, and a little apprehensive, she left Whiterun.

With Artax saddled and ready, she headed down the main road to the West, thoughts of Vorstag lingering in her mind.  It was therefor, with no small amount of irritation, she instantly identified the lazy gait of the mercenary as he sauntered through the spreading evening gloom.

That idiot!  She thought venomously, spurring Artax to intercept him.  She dismounted to the jingling chorus of her elven armor, an acerbic quip at the ready as she confronted him about leaving so abruptly.

“I’d happily fight at your side,” he said, his pace hardly slowing, “but it looks like you’ve already got a companion.  Get rid of him, and I’ll gladly rejoin you.”  He turned from her and continued down the road, she knew, toward Markarth; his home.  Not once did he look back.  Not once did his step falter.

She was stunned.  Her heart raced, and it ached.  Her mind swirled in silent chaos as she watched the light of his torch bob into the distance until it disappeared around a bend, and once again all was night.

An ultimatum.  The thought echoed through her mind again and again.  An ultimatum.  How dare he issue an ultimatum!  He had no right!  He —A dull throbbing in her chest emphasized the hollowness growing inside her.  The thick steel walls she had felt so easily melting away while sharing his company began to rebuild themselves around her heart.  As she stared into the night, her jaw slowly set and her resolve da

rkened.

And so, let him leave.  The arrogant beast can go back to his inn and live out his days as the unscrupulous sell-sword he was when I found him!

I don’t need him.

The thought was a hiss that burned her, cauterizing the ragged, bleeding edges of her trust.

She didn’t need him.  She would never need him.
—–

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adalind is an international literary sensation who believes men over 6’4″ are actually just midgets in a man suit, no matter how convincing their totally sweet spin kicks are.

For more of her completely non-derivative writing, check out “Don’t Let Her In“, the weird fiction tale about a quiet hamlet in Eastern Europe consumed by an ancient evil.  “Pitch-perfect with elegant language and ‘missing pieces’ that drew me in and kept me thinking about it afterwards.” – John Fiore.

—–

He had dreamed over and over again of rushing toward some great precipice, over which he knew he must fall, but every time he approached the edge he was sent back to find it again. He wondered if that’s what the others had dreamed when they Faded, only nothing had stopped them from falling.”  –  The Last Tower, available on Smashwords in September!

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Here’s a Question: How Perfect is “Too Perfect” for Characters or Races in Fiction?

I don’t recommend using this method for writing your fiction, but I can’t really stop you, you rebel.

I tried asking this just earlier today, and was very nearly stoned to death by another writer who felt that the question was so old and over-asked that the answer should be part of the automatic mindset a writer gets the first time they decide to write, like a new writer benefits package complete with FAQ and club pin, but if it’s really asked often enough to be an “old meme”, as they put it, then doesn’t that mean there are people who still want to know? There are always new writers, new reasons to ask the same questions, and I don’t think it’s very fair to slam the book on a topic simply because you, as an individual, have found the answer that works for you.

It’s obvious,” they said. “Give them flaws.” But is it really that obvious? For some of you, you might be nodding your head yes, and saying “Of course it’s that obvious,” but we’d never be in danger of encountering Mary Sues, Gary Stus, and Paragons if it was really that obvious to everyone.

A Mary Sue/Gary Stu, for those who may not know, is defined as a character lacking flaws that give dimension and credibility, and is frequently a paper-thin “wish-fulfillment” character for the author, allowing them to imagine that they are the ones having these adventures. When you see the term, it’s most often because you’re reading about fan fiction, but this doesn’t mean it hasn’t appeared in traditionally published fiction, either. Bella Swan, for instance, from the supremely popular Twilight Saga (as if you needed the reminder), could be called a Mary Sue. Though we’re not given specific details about her appearance, we are led to believe she’s both beautiful and popular, but for no obvious reason. She doesn’t participate in any meaningful school activities, but remains the center of attention at school so long as it serves the author’s interest, which is usually until Edward shows up, or is mentioned, or thought about, or missing. But this isn’t about my opinion of Stephanie Meyer and her Frankenstein’s Monster of a series, it’s about characterization! (And she has none! ZING!)*

Pictured: Character depth.

Now, Mary Sue and Gary Stu are the two-dimensional trope extremes of flawless fictional characters, and sometimes they can be easily avoided by adding a simple flaw here and there, but what if you’re writing a legendary hero in an epic fantasy? Say, Heracles. (Go on, say it. “HerAAAAACKles.” It’s fun, right?) Good. Now that we’ve got that out of our systems, our new story revolves around a Greek character named Heracles. He is the son of the king of the gods, but also half human! Is this a flaw? Well, that all depends on how you treat him. If his being half human diminishes his strength, allows him to be killed like any mortal, denies him the ability to ascend to Olympus, or lack all the rhythm it takes to win the ladies through the power of dance, then yes; you have yourself a successful flaw. If, however, being half human just means he’s not a god, but really he’s mostly a god, then you don’t have a flaw at all. What you have is a Paragon.

A Paragon is a peerless example of perfection, and when it comes to writing characters, a Paragon is often a two-dimensional protagonist who can never be defeated. No, not even by the evil Dark Lord of Evil, who has also never been defeated. When it’s obvious the Paragon will always win, there’s no reason to believe there’s any risk involved in the adventure. This is a problem when you want the reader to feel the tension when you give your protagonist obstacles to overcome. Paragons don’t struggle with obstacles, they explode through them and smell fantastic and don’t need to change their clothes ever, because they never get dirty or sweat. That might be great if you’re living in a romance novel where making naughty after a battle would be kinda gross if the protagonist wasn’t a Need No Shower kind of guy, but most of us aren’t romance ingenues, so, in my opinion this is a problem, because it disengages the reader from the character they should care for the most.

But what if we’re not talking about a single character as being flawless. What if we’re talking about an entire race of Paragons? What if we’re talking about . . . elves? Ooooo, mystical, shiny, immortal elves! Well, let’s rewind a bit here. Odds are we’re not talking about the kind of elves that can be described as “wee folk”, who mess about at night making shoes and cookies. We’re probably talking about Tolkienian styled elves, and that’s a problem, too. Tolkien’s elves were far from perfect. On the surface, in The Lord of the Rings specifically, it can appear that the elves embody a kind of perfection. They are immortal, beautiful, magical, in tune with nature, highly skilled warriors, healers, and mediators, but beneath that, many of them suffer from blinding pride. You need look no further than The Silmarillion for proof of the dangers this elven pride can produce.

In many instances Tolkien illustrated that anyone can become corrupted, no matter how innocent or impervious they may seem, from Frodo to Galadriel, yet in modern interpretations of the tall, beautiful, immortal elves what we see are facsimiles painted in perfection. These elves are the upholders of all that is good and moral (according to the author’s perspective), they are the stewards of nature, and they represent the highest moral judgment, all while being beautiful and ageless as everyone and everything else around them is flawed and probably horribly disfigured. Tolkien’s elves live on in our collective memory because of their depth, but when taken as a blank template, they lack any of the elements that make them worth remembering.

I think this quest for depth is what people are trying to address when they ask about perfection. They’re not looking for a chorus of “There’s no such thing as perfection,” a phrase that can mean “so just write whatever you want, and hang the opinions of everyone else”, or it can mean “so no one will believe it if you write it”. Either way, it’s one of the least helpful phrases I can think to offer in response to any question about the subject. I think one of the things we’re really asking here is “How close to ‘perfection’ can I write a character or race before the reader stops connecting with them?” and I think part of the answer comes down to both defining what “perfect” means to us as individuals (part of the “there is no perfection/utopia because no one can agree” argument) and defining what we consider to be the plausible flaws that bring a character or race away from the brink of perfection. It doesn’t have to be a huge flaw like “was blinded six weeks ago and is struggling to cope”, it doesn’t have to create a Damaged Character like “witnessed the death of parents and became obsessed with bats and vigilantism” , it just has to be believable for the character in their situation, like “extreme aversion to the color yellow, which happens to be the favorite color of the love interest”.

For me, a character expressing the idea of “perfection” is one that is no longer in need of personal growth. They are at the apex of development, and have no room for improvement. Where a Mary Sue or Gary Stu lacks flaws, the “perfect” character, the Paragon, lacks the ability to change. Regardless in what manner change would manifest, the absence of change makes a flat, boring, and sometimes very annoying character. What we want to see when we follow a character’s journey is growth. We want to see them change over time, to be effected by the events and people around them. Frodo’s shift from the happy homebody Hobbit of the Shire to the haunted soul who sails away with elves to Valinor. Luke Skywalker’s change from the naïve young mechanic on Tatooine to the self-assured Last of the Jedi, capable of putting a stop to his father and the Emperor. Rand al’Thor’s descent into madness via unrelenting harassment from shrewish women on all sides. This is what we want to see! Well, maybe not the last one so much. But what we don’t want to see is Heracles sweeping peril from his doorstep with a yawn before sitting down to a nice cup of ambrosia. We don’t want to see the Doctor and his companions walk away unscathed every time something threatens all life on Earth. We don’t want to see Dr. House show up to work with a smile and a bounce in his step, tenderly see to the patient and their family, and solve every mystery with sensitivity and as little conflict as possible before he skips home, whistling, to spend a happy, but uneventful evening with his family. That’s just not House, and love him or hate him, he’s memorable because of all his flaws.

So go ahead and make a character people hate, but make them hate him/her for their flaws and not the lack thereof.

—–

*Example of personal opinion. No looking to start a fight between Twilight supporters and non-supporters, so focus on the topic, not the zing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adalind Monroe is a wildly successful novelist in her head, trying to get the world to catch up by producing quality blog posts and unbelievable feats of fictional daring do. She enjoys Chinese food and short walks on the beach. Actually, she prefers sitting on the beach; the sand is too hot for her sensitive baby feet.

Don't Let Her In (Cover)

If you enjoy her writing and want to experience the magic that is character growth in action, download “Don’t Let Her In”, a weird fiction tale that will chill the willies right out of you and replace them with more different willies. Worse willies. The williest of willies. Also, it’s free, damn you. FREE!

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Why Do We Read?

Pictured: An avid reader.

Maybe the first question I should ask is “Why do we stop reading?”

There’s a problem here. Do you see it? Here, I’ll help you find it: When you stop reading, you don’t SOLVE problems, you CREATE problems, problems you can’t even see coming, because you’ve put on blinders to keep out all the other voices, voices that could teach you things, voices that tell you what to avoid. And yet, this is a thing that many writers have done. Do you see how this might be a problem for you? No? Then how about this: As a writer, when you decide to stop reading, it’s like thinking you’ve figured out the key to never having body odor again is to stop showering.

Take me, for instance. No, I didn’t stop showering.  But, I know I’m not the only writer to have stopped reading the work of others in an attempt to keep the ol’ brain pallet clean of outside influences. The problem with that, however, is that the avid reader I was when I was a child, the reader who couldn’t put down a pencil and stop writing to save her life (despite also not being able to finish any story she started writing), became a shriveled up old hermit lady grumbling in some forgotten recess of my mind while the writer in me starved. The world builder and imaginist thrived well enough, but in the years I wasn’t reading (yes, years), I also wasn’t being very productive, either.

It seems to me that for some reason we think it’s okay for an artist to be influenced by other artists, to have artists producing similar work considered to be part of a movement, but when speaking of writers doing the same, we’re either derivative or “the next <famous author of the same genre>”. Yet H.P. Lovecraft quite openly borrowed from his peers, writing what he called his “Poe pieces” and his “Dunsany pieces” (better known as his Macabre stories [approximately 1905–1920], and his Dream Cycle stories [approximately 1920–1927] respectively). Though he perhaps perfected his unique voice when telling the stories in his Cthulhu Mythos (approximately 1925—1935), it was not for this decade alone that he’s remembered as being one of the greats, or as having a distinctly unique way of telling stories. So why are we so afraid of the influence other writers might have over our work?

Photo courtesy of MiiraT

Pictured: Derivative work.
“I’ll get you, my pretty, and influence all you writing by making you emulate my own!”

Because we’re afraid of that blasphemous term “derivative”. Some of us don’t want to hear that a reader is reminded of Harry Potter, or of Issac Asimov, or of The Last Unicorn, but we don’t really have any control over what a reader’s exposure and experience will impose on the writing once it’s left the carefully crafted shelter of our minds, and limiting our own exposure to these sources only ensures that we’ll be completely incapable of identifying them, and thus incapable of removing or modifying them to avoid the inevitable comparisons.

Writer, teacher, and editor Lori L. Lake once wrote about two aspiring writers she had in a creative writing course who came in with a partially written fantasy story each. During a critique session where the class read sections of each writers’ work, it was expressed that they found their work was “derivative, repetitive, boring, and that it had already been done, re-done, and over-done.” They were crushed by what was news to them. These two aspiring writers had no clue they’d told stories as old as storytelling itself, as neither had read, nor had any exposure to fantasy stories prior to their own forays into the genre. “They spent a lot of time imagining worlds with evil dark lords,” Ms. Lake wrote, “and creating characters who may as well have been Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.” But, when you spend no time acquainting yourself with what already exists, this is exactly the sort of obstacle you face.

But what if you just don’t have the time to read? What if you’re a busy playwright with three murder mysteries on the line, and a three hour tragedy in the works and you can barely find the time to work on those, let alone find time to read someone else’s stuff! To this imaginary and not at all real person I spoke to last night about this very thing, I think Mr. Stephen King has something to say to you.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.

Yes, that was a smack down from one of the masters of modern horror. If you don’t have time to read,

Pictured: Writer tools.

you don’t have time to write. The same five minutes you snatch here and there to scribble on your note pad could be given occasionally to reading a few pages of a book. It’s harder to write while you eat lunch than it is to read, and that right there is pretty compelling as far as arguments go.

But what about these “tools”? Well, our tools are words, aren’t they? When an artist wants to improve their craft, they study the masters. When a writer wants to improve their craft, they read.

Consider this the next time you’re thinking about not opening a book: How, exactly, do you know what a well written story looks like if you’ve stopped exposing yourself to them? It’s easy to decide that most of the books published these days are rubbish, but do you even know why you think that? Have you sat down to really look at what you dislike? Is it the way the characters are written? The sentence length? The sentence structure? How can you avoid the things you hate reading if you aren’t sure what they are? You need to be a critical reader.

A critical reader is one who can analyze the prose in a way that opens up opportunities to learn new methods that might improve their own writing, and methods they might prefer to keep away from entirely. The successful writer is a critical reader. See, it’s not all about reading your favorite authors and saying “Golly gee, if I just use more metaphors about clouds, I’ll be a better writer!” Sometimes it’s about picking up a book by someone you can’t stand and pin-pointing all the little things that make them so difficult to enjoy. It’s not enough to say you hate the short protagonist, though; you have to really take a hard look at what you’re writing and ask yourself if you’ve been doing the same thing, and then correcting it.

In addition to asking yourself what a writer has done that you really enjoyed and practicing those methods, there are a couple of exercises that can help you grow both in your craft and as a critical reader. The first is to take a passage from an author you like and rewrite it with a new focus. Keep true to the events and plot, but change what is meaningful to the reader. The second exercise is to take a passage from an author you dislike and change it into something you wish they’d written. Personally, I think the second exercise is the more helpful, as it forces you to really focus on the methods the original author used to convey the ideas first, and then apply what you think to be better, all the while trying to consciously avoid what you disliked in the first place.

There’s a particular Australian fantasy author whom I personally cannot read. We’ll call her “Terrible”. I made it about six pages into Terrible’s first book in a series before I had to stop myself from setting it on fire. Now, Terrible hadn’t been doing well for herself at any point in those six pages, so she was already on literary probation, but when she used the word “doomed” in three consecutive paragraphs to convey the exact same concept with little to no variation, I threw the book across the room. What did I learn? Other than the fact that Australia needs more writers to challenge her and paperbacks have far too much wind resistance, I learned that repetition without variation infuriates me, and that I think Terrible stole the manuscript from an exceptionally talented five year old before slapping her own name on it.  I learned that the opposite of prose I enjoy is the sort that reuses words that really stand out at the same time it picks words that stand out, and reuses them.

By contrast, two of my favorite authors taught me not only that I can love a story written in first person, but one of them also reminded me that the journey is sometimes more important than the destination, and that it’s okay to take your time getting there.

Pictured: Not winning.

Writers have a responsibility to themselves and to the readers they hope to garner to always keep perfecting their craft. You’ll hear time and again from various sources that there are no new stories, that every story there is to tell has already been told a million times. That sentiment isn’t wrong. When you choose not to educate yourself on the methods used for telling that age old story, you shoot yourself in the foot before you even join the race. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to run a race with a shot-through foot, but winning is pretty difficult.  Mostly you end up passed out on the ground from blood loss just a few yards away from the starting line. Professional athletes call this a “disadvantage”. You put yourself at a similar disadvantage when you decide that reading is only going to distract you, or influence your style beyond your control. I argue that not reading limits your resources, inspiration, and that very same control you think you have in spades, but have diminished through ignorance.

So go on and read already!  What are you waiting for?!

—–

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adalind Monroe is an uppity little kick in the pants with a heart of gold who only wants to help you get a jump start on reading to expand your horizons by offering her Lovecraftian short “Don’t Let Her In” for FREE.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

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Flash Fiction: The Novel

French in action? Or another lie. (Spoiler: It’s another lie.)

La petite nouvelle the French call it. Actually, they don’t. They don’t call it that at all, I just lied to you because it sounded nice. They really call it micronouvelle, and it is what most of us know as flash fiction.

But what IS flash fiction, you ask? That’s a tricky question to answer with any specificity. There are those who would say that flash fiction is any story told in no more than seventy-five words, and some might call them Nazis for it (Me, specifically. I would.), but most can generally agree that limits ranging from five hundred to one thousand words are at least popular enough to sound like the new standard. Personally, I stick to a limit of five hundred words, because I feel that extending it to a thousand may as well open the door to a full-on short story, and nobody asked for that, so keep it in your . . . brain. Guy.

As this is my blog and we’re asking me what I think on the matter, I’m going to tell you my reason for this opinion briefly. Most of it comes down to the belief that in a piece of flash you are looking at one moment in time, and not the history behind it or the consequences that follow. You, as the author, may have ideas about how events transpired, what brought the characters to where they are, and where they might go when the moment ends, but that’s not for the words written to tell.

“If my ideas don’t fit in five hundred words, though, why should I bother with flash?”

I hear you, dude speaking out of turn, and I have an answer conveniently prepared ahead of time for this very occasion. The answer is, in my opinion, because it’s easy to meander around a novel-length story until you find what you need. It’s easy to embellish a scene with more ambiance and dialogue, and to pad out the length with exposition, but this can lead to that dreaded of all quagmires; the Infodump. When you’re required to think in the briefest of terms, to convey thoughts, emotions, and/or actions in the space it usually takes your character, the professor, to give his class (and the reader) the introduction to a primer on the history of the world, you force yourself to figure out the most conservative way to keep the reader informed without losing the story for it.

“Yeah, but I still don’t–”

Don’t be obtuse, and please raise your hand. The reason it’s important to learn how to do this in flash fiction, and short stories in general, is because it has immediate benefits to your writing in other mediums. When you train yourself to pack a sentence full of information without making it the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, you spend less time digressing from the plot and action and more time keeping your reader on the edge of their seat.

To put it in edible terms, a flash piece is a lean slab of beef with all the fat trimmed off, and then more beef trimmed off so you can eat it in one bite. Which, come to think of it, would be a really bad theme for a restaurant, especially if it meant they offered you the flash fiction version of a steak dinner. But, it works really well in trying to decide what you keep in your micronouvelle.

Yes, you there. I see you raising your hand, and that’s great. Go on then, what is it?

“How do I decide what to keep? Or, for that matter, what to write?”

To be fair, that’s two questions.  I was kind of expecting only one, but I can answer both of them together, so you didn’t throw me off too much.

Deciding what you keep depends entirely on what you choose to write. If, for instance, your story is about an apple being eaten, you wouldn’t spend your precious words telling us how it came to be in a position to be eaten. Alternately, if your story is about a man’s quest for food, you might not focus on the actual eating of the apple. When I sit down to write a shorter piece, I usually focus on what I think of as “crystallizing an atmosphere”. This is to say that I decide what I want the reader to feel, and then I craft a story to capture that feeling, emotion, or mood, and anything that doesn’t contribute to that end has no place.

Now, I’ve been chided before for expressing the opinion “if it doesn’t do X, it has no business existing”, but where X could be foreshadowing or establishing patterns of behavior/objects that will later be of relevance, to me it also means anything communicating something meaningful to the reader that relates to the content of the narrative. This could be as simple as a man eating a crayon, provided (and here’s where the kicker lies:) illustrating it benefits the narrative. In the context of short stories and flash fiction, though, this is all the more inflexible as you don’t have the space-luxury (on the page, not in outer– you know what I mean) to paint a picture in both broad strokes and fine detail. You pick one, and stick with it.

There you are again with the hand.

“How do YOU write flash pieces?”

Oh! How sweet of you to ask! I shall tell you in list form.

    1. Pick an Atmosphere

It’s hard to know what kinds of words I’m going to need, or what I’m going to find most inspiring if I don’t have a mood in mind. A single prompt can become any number of stories when envisioned through different emotional filters, so I find picking that mood first makes it easier to jump into the actual writing when it comes time for it.

    1. Pick a Prompt

For me it can be all too easy to fall prey to fancy when you have no true aim at the start of your flash fiction exercise. Your brain wanders, your eyes wander, your pen wobbles and taps against the page, and you’re not really sure what you want to write, so you bounce around ideas, and in the process might come up with something with more possibility than the restrictions of flash would allow. Because of this, I like finding a definitive seed around which the story can grow, like a pearl, because normal seeds are the things that grow, and that’s not what I said the story seed does, so more like a pearl than a plant.

I like to ask someone to provide a word or phrase, and whatever is offered is what I write. I don’t ask for a selection, or rifle through dictionaries until something jumps out at me. The very first thing I get is what I make work. If you don’t have a friend you trust to give you words you’ll want to work with, try opening the dictionary to a random page, or even an online dictionary or equivalent, and use the very first word or entry your mind registers. Personally, I prefer grabbing people off the street and demanding a word or phrase not related to my releasing them.

Whatever your means, don’t balk at whatever word you end up with; consider it a challenge to write outside of your comfort zone, and a chance for literary growth.

    1. Know Your Ending

You may have your starting sentence in mind already, but before you get too enthusiastic about plunging in, figure out your ending. Not knowing the end is a perfectly viable format for writing many things, but this is definitely what leads to more plot bunnies than quick resolutions. For this reason, I always decide what my ending will be before I ever type a word. Because I can check my word count as I go, I use this to keep track of how many words I have left to reach that end, and can give enough context before the conclusion to make sure it doesn’t feel like a slap-dash afterthought, because I ran out of space. This also makes the edit process easier when you run over your limit.

    1. Trim Down to Your Limit

You don’t have to get it all right the second you start typing. As writers we’re going to edit everything, and a flash piece should not be the exception. Use the language you feel is appropriate, get to your goal in as conservative a manner as possible, but don’t curtail your creativity to the limitations of the medium. Go ahead and exceed a little bit, because the act of editing out the excess is an important part of training yourself to edit bigger pieces. You learn to recognize the descriptions that may be nice, but aren’t necessary for the scene. You may find yourself cutting single words, or re-finessing a sentence to say essentially the same thing in less space, and, hopefully, more effectively. This is probably the most helpful aspect of all the tricks used for writing and self-editing, regardless of the genre or medium.

A flash piece is like any other story, and should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, even if the story you’re telling is as short and simple as “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn” [Hemingway]. If you make sure your story contains just these three things (beginning, middle and end, not unworn baby shoes for sale) you’re well on your way to writing good flash fiction. You may find that only one or two of these steps work for you, or maybe none at all, and that’s fine. Just remember that not all methods are universally applicable, and that this is what I find works for me. If I didn’t feel they worked well, I’d print this post, crumple it up, burn it and scatter the ashes in shame for even thinking to write them out in the first place. Mostly, though, you should really give writing flash fiction a try, especially if you’re struggling in other projects.

*****

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adalind Monroe is a talented young upstart from the West, who enjoys stories that incorporate apples, baby shoes, and bunnies, but not at the same time. She doesn’t always drive, but when she does, it’s in a Chevy named Keith. Keith is a girl.

Adalind now hosts her own Flash Fiction Friday here on C.I., so if you found yourself inspired to try the methods above, or you already have some micronouvelles under your belt and wouldn’t mind seeing them shared with the internets at large, send your stories to FlashFictionFriday dot ci at gmail dot com, subject line “FLASH FICTION: <Story Title>”. [OFFICIAL WORDS] All submissions must be written as flash, and may not be snipped from larger pieces. Strict limit of five hundred (500) words. Please include word count in the body of your e-mail, preferably right after the title. Stories must be received by Wednesday to be considered for Friday inclusion. Please include any links to previous works, official pages, personal blogs, biographical material, or pictures of bunnies you may want linked or included at the end of your story to direct traffic back your way, or to make Adalind smile extra hard.

To read more by Adalind, you can subscribe to this’a here bloggery, follow her on Facebook, or check out her stories at Smashwords.com.

Need a prompt?  Try:  Chronicle

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