Archive | June 2014

Sixty Seconds II with: Joidianne4eva

Ten answers to ten questions in 20 words or fewer. That’s less time than it takes to burn a match*.

(*Depending on the length of the match and your tolerance for burned fingers, obviously)

Matchlight

Our newest Flash! Friday winner is Joidianne4eva.  Read her winning story here. Note that this is her second win — read her first #SixtySeconds interview (from Nov 2013) here. Then take another minute to get to know her better below.

1) What about the prompt inspired your winning piece?  The haughty look on the queen’s face is what caught my attention first and Aasha sprung from that.

2) Do you outline, or are you more of a discovery writer? I discover; I love listening to my characters as they develop and outlines stifle that a bit.

3) How would you describe your writing style? Free-flowing, LOL. I can either write something or I can’t; there’s no in-between.

4) When did you begin writing fiction? I wrote my first story at seven then promptly buried it.

5) Introduce us to a favorite character in one of your stories. Matthew, he’s from my Dollhouse story. He’s a necromancer who isn’t aware of it yet.

6) What books have influenced your life the most? The Darker Side, edited by John Pelan, was one of the books that really influenced my writing.

7) What are you currently reading?  I’m re-reading Bag of Bones by Stephen King.

8) How do you combat writer’s block? I annoy my betas with my whining until they snap, LOL. Mostly I research what I’m writing about until something sparks.

9) What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?  Don’t let anything hold you back; if you’ve got words, write them. 

10) What do you admire most about dragons?  The fact that they like shiny things. We’ve got that in common.

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Flash Points: Steph Post

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Welcome to Flash Points. As I warned you yesterday, two stories embedded themselves in my brain. I just can’t choooooose! I moaned to my friend Allison Garcia, who answered patiently, “Then do both!” Such a clever girl, that one. So here we go — for the first time ever, a critique of a second marvelous bit of writing from the most recent round of flash. 

Prompt: Queen Victoria political cartoon

Word limit:  140 – 160 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  Never Enoughby Steph Post

No, it’s not enough.

I want all the marbles; I want all the fish in the sea. I want to dance on their graves and yours and mine, too, and throw pennies on the coffins and tear my hair and yowl up at the moon.

It’s not enough, not enough, not enough.

I want glaciers, I want continents, I want tribes. I want the blank spaces on the map, empty maws roaring with secrets, impenetrable, tamed only by my footsteps.

I want effigies. And I want them to burn.

I want languages and revolutions, underground cities and elixirs of immortality.

I want to reign in a comet.

Don’t proffer me your crowns; I want to wear headdresses of stardust. Don’t grovel with your treaties; I want to devour whole galaxies.

Can’t you see? Don’t you know? It’s not enough, not enough.

It will never be enough. For me.

What works

“Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?”

“Because it’s there.” 

–ascribed to George Mallory, mountaineer, 1886 – 1924

“Mine, mine, mine.” 

–every toddler everywhere

This piece has haunted me from first reading. It’s far from a “typical” flash piece; half poem, half story, its rhythms pound in your head and won’t leave you alone, and you find yourself coming back to read it again…. and again….  Walk with me through its dark melodies for a moment, won’t you?

With a prose poem such as this one, it’s hard to know whether to begin with structure or content, so tightly intertwined as they are. Guess I’ll just pick content and dive in, eh?  Like Sarah Cain’s story from yesterday, this piece stands alone; we don’t need to see the prompt or grasp the historical complexities of the Victorian era to follow it. I mention this point again because there’s often the temptation to make the story or twist an inside joke between the writer and the other contest participants. Such a joke is great fun, of course!! but it makes for a very different sort of story in the end.

Content-wise, this piece starts off with what we’ll soon recognize as its refrain, No, it’s not enough. This line is SO clever — I don’t know a single reader bold enough to stop reading there. What’s not enough??? We have to know. It’s a brilliant first sentence, answering an offstage question and introducing one of its own. So great.

But from there the story flings itself into a bit of a jumbled mess, with conflicting images of children’s marble games, fishing, death, grief, and wolves battling for attention. This second sentence is so risky, because as yet it’s not anything we can make sense of. On the surface there’s no unifying factor or common theme. Nor does it seem to be moving in any particular direction. It’s a mess, loud, cacophonous, like letting preschoolers into a room filled with cymbals. I love risk-taking in writing. Gamble big, win big, right? Or if you crash, what a way to go. 🙂 In “Never Enough,” for me the risk pays off. Six discordant images, yes, but they are tightly written and move fast, and before we know it, we’re at the second refrain.

It’s not enough, not enough, not enough.

The refrain would, you’d think, bring the story to an abrupt stop. But because it follows chaos, its rhythm and repetition feel gentle, soothing. We haven’t made sense of the piece yet, but we’re back on familiar ground, back to that original question, What’s not enough?? and we have to read on. And here’s where Steph’s structure work really shines, because she uses structure itself, the poetic refrain, to create and continue the story’s tension. Tension is crucial; who wants to read a flat, aimless bunch of words? As readers we want to go somewhere, or feel something, or think something, or experience something new. Steph has artfully offered us a mouthful already: a pressing question framing disturbing images. I have to keep reading.

The question is answered in the center section, which is where we find the story’s heart.

I want glaciers, I want continents, I want tribes. I want the blank spaces on the map, empty maws roaring with secrets, impenetrable, tamed only by my footsteps.

In this respect “Never Enough” eases into a traditional flash fiction format (intro, body, conclusion), and it offers us some breathing room by stepping away from the impassioned fury of the opening to explain what’s going on. References to wanting continents, tribes, and blank spaces on the map speak of a hunger we recognize: Manifest Destiny, as it were, or the universal ravenous, imperial cry. Ahhhh, we say. Now we know who’s talking. It’s a greedy emperor, right? Except it’s not.

Don’t proffer me your crowns; I want to wear headdresses of stardust. Don’t grovel with your treaties; I want to devour whole galaxies.

Okay, what???? Is this like Genghis Khan in space? Steph does not allow us to fly too quickly through the story as we do through so many others, whathappenswhathappenswhathappens. Shhhh, she says. Slow down. Step back. Read it again. Her pace is tightly controlled, intentional.

The body of the piece, we notice, forms its own arrogant frame. “I want” repeats four times, greedily echoing the introduction. It reads like a list of demands, the demands of a conqueror. 

I want effigies. And I want them to burn. 

Don’t grovel with your treaties

The reader is the conquered. Our capitulation is assumed. Now that’s arrogance painted in garish, un-ignorable colors. 

From the second, internal I want refrain, Steph then returns to the opening refrain.

Can’t you see? Don’t you know? It’s not enough, not enough.

It will never be enough. For me.

It’s not the cry of a single emperor; it’s the anthem of all emperors. It’s Victoria, Napoleon, Genghis, Alexander, Montezuma, a thousand names besides these, lost to time but chanting in unison: I want more. Whatever I have, isn’t enough. And this may be what I love best about this piece:

It will never be enough. 

The emperors’ lust for power cannot be satiated. “Never Enough” is not a song of victory; it’s a dirge. Not triumph: despair. Steph isn’t just telling the story of a ruler’s rise to power; she has added depth by proposing that one thing (global domination) isn’t, in the end, what it seems. What we see is not what we get. 

There’s so much going on in this piece. I’ve touched on structure and content, but as a prose poem, we have the added element of sound, which I didn’t get to but deserves a post of its own. This story is unique. It’s risky. It’s beautiful, haunting. It’s terrible and tragic, angry, thirsty, and desperate. This story is the sort that devours your soul and doesn’t let you be.

You can’t read a piece like this just once. Or twice. You have to keep reading it, and even then

 It will never be enough. For me.

Thank you, Steph, for sharing this extraordinary piece of work. 

What do you think?

As I’ve said, this piece is different. Risky. Have you ever written a risky piece? What did you risk, and how did it work out for you? Would you do it again? What risks have you seen other writers take, that you admire?

Flash Points: Sarah Cain

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Welcome to Flash Points. Today’s post resurrects an old (ish) romp in which a story from the previous week’s competition is devoured for its deliciousness, bite by bite. In other words, we look at it up close and personal to help us in our pursuit of what makes great flash. Hungry? Let’s eat! 

Prompt: Queen Victoria political cartoon

Word limit:  140 – 160 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  For Queen and Countryby Sarah Cain

“A great victory, my Queen.”

Thanks to his negotiations, they had added another shining jewel to their empire: a country of millions. When he presented the Queen with the treaty, she had been pleased, though she had kept her countenance grave in line with the occasion.

“We shall be fair and just rulers,” she had said, “as we have throughout the centuries.”

He had bowed. Throughout the centuries the kings and queens of the realm had boiled people or devised other gruesome means of dealing with those who displeased the crown. Only the royals could afford such ignorance and arrogance.

Later he stared at the cartoon from the local paper and recognized himself: the object of scorn, the power-seeker, the eternal Jew, with the fair and innocent Queen. He crumpled the paper in his fist.

Let the little people believe what they would.

Whatever he did was for his country, even when his country despised him for it.

What works

This week two stories lodged themselves in my brain and would NOT let go, no matter how I writhed. So stay tuned for a FIRST TIME EVER second edition of Flash Points tomorrow! But first up: join me in lovingly picking apart For Queen and Country by two-time Flash! Friday champ Sarah Cain.

I wanted to begin with background discussion of Benjamin Disraeli, the Suez Canal, Endymion, and his important labor reforms, and then relate a few of his tellingly colorful quotations (“How does one handle the Queen?” –“First of all, remember she is a woman.”)–until suddenly I realized FP would end up a biography (of this extraordinary and powerful politician!) instead of a literary critique. And while knowing something of Disraeli may add texture to this story, it isn’t needed. Ultimately, the best flash fiction story stands on its own, which Sarah’s piece here does perfectly. You don’t need to see the prompt cartoon. You don’t need names, dates, or politics to understand her deft work. In fact, notice how she doesn’t include names at all — this character study could belong to any politician and his queen, in any world, at any time.

And this piece is, in the end, a character study. The story is masterfully unveiled, bit by bit, driven not by plot but by character. I often wax on about what elements can make a story stand out, and this is certainly a biggie: Sarah has approached the prompt uniquely, crafting not a story of events but the story of a man’s character. This dynamic allows her great flexibility in the story’s telling, as she is not bound by sequence or, really, even time itself.

In fact, take a look with me for a second at her fluid movements through time: the grammar of the first half places it in the distant/explanatory past:

When he presented the Queen with the treaty, she had been pleased.

Next Sarah shifts from the scene in the removed past to a place outside of time, an internal exposition on the eternal behaviors of rulers.

Throughout the centuries the kings and queens of the realm had boiled people or devised other gruesome means of dealing with those who displeased the crown.

Such a transition connects the first scene to the second scene, the man’s confrontation with the cartoon’s mockery; but it also gives us further insight into the man and how he sees himself. More on that in a second. The third section of this story is marked clearly:

Later he stared at the cartoon from the local paper and recognized himself

This timestamp brings us to the closer past and the protagonist’s present. It is a beautifully structured story, with two halves hinging on a climax of bitter exposition.

The other strong element that really works in this piece is its internal tension. All stories need it in some shape or another: we need a reason to keep reading. Conflict, after all, is not the sole property of car chases. Instead of a whodunnit (much as I love those! Holmes forever!), we follow the politician’s mental journey. Watch this:

Thanks to his negotiations He gives himself full credit for the triumph

their empire He sees himself as the empire’s co-owner

When he presented the Queen with the treaty, she had been pleased, though she had kept her countenance grave in line with the occasion. He believes he truly understands the queen.

He had bowed… Only the royals could afford such ignorance and arrogance. He sees himself as cunning and wise, superior to the rulers and a major player in history

Let the little people believe what they would.  He sees himself as superior to non-rulers too.

Whatever he did was for his country, even when his country despised him for it. He knows better than the entire nation.

This progression of arrogance makes me giddy. Such obscene confidence! The tension builds from the very beginning: arrogance over a single maneuver; arrogance over a single ruler; arrogance over all rulers; arrogance over all people; arrogance over all nations. LOOK AT THAT!!!! Do you see what Sarah did?? It’s still movement – it’s still conflict – but it’s accomplished in perspective, in thought, rather than physical action. This is sophisticated development, and it’s magnificent.

Amazing work, Sarah. Like Jess pointed out in her judge’s notes yesterday, the best writing is unselfconscious, the kind which does so much while making us feel it was easy. You’ve got so much going on here, perhaps only our suspicious eyes can catch a true glimpse. Thank you!