Flash fiction

If you don't have time to read ...

... you don't have the time (or tools) to write. So sayeth Stephen King in his most excellent memoir and writing guide, On Writing (Pocket Books 1999)  

I began the summer with such grand writing goals and by the middle of August, I was nearly there: I'd written one of two short stories; completed two flash fiction pieces; created a database of literary agents to query and finished my query letter (or at least revised it 684 times); drafted one-, two-, and four-page novel synopses; I blogged and book reviewed. In between were two revisions of my first novel, Refuge of Doves—undertaken after receiving story and copy edits from my editor. I was determined to dance through my writing project list and take a bow on August 31.

 

Draft 2: Novel 2, begins September 1.

 

The second short story wasn’t going to happen. Writing the first story, and then trimming it from a bloated 8,500 words to a civilized 6,000-something, took weeks. That one story and the two flash were about all I had in me. I accepted I couldn't start fresh on another story in the final two weeks of August—a period that included a lovely visit with out-of-state guests, when I stepped away from writing for more than one day in well over a year—and have something worth sending out for submission by the end of summer.

 

Saturday afternoon, after our guests had gone, and I’d emptied the dishwasher and brought up the last load of laundry, I poured myself a glass of Saumur rouge and opened Francesca Marciano’s short story collection, The Other Language (click for my review).

 

The next morning I sat down to write. By Tuesday evening, I’d completed the first draft of a 5,100 word short story. Several revisions later, it lives and breathes at 4,800 words. I’ll give it, and myself, a bit of a rest before a final edit and proofread, but it’s solid. Complete.

~

 

A few weeks ago, I landed in the middle of a discussion with a few writers about routines and patterns, the things we must or cannot do at certain stages of our writing process. I was baffled by the number of writers who stated they read nothing, other than what they might be using for research, while writing new material. Several fiction writers commented they could read no fiction because they feared losing their own writing voice, imitating another writer, or being otherwise influenced by his style. Another commented how she feared comparing her work to other, published authors and losing heart. Still others cited lack of time, energy, interest.

 

I thought my head might explode.

 

If I stop reading, it means I've stopped breathing. Reading brought me to writing; from the first eager devouring of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy at the age of six, I ached to wrap my hands around a pen, smooth open a spiral-bound notebook, and scribble. Something. Anything. The words. All the astonishing words.

 

It had never occurred to me that a writer could be anything other than a helplessly voracious reader. I can’t fathom silencing other writers, or emptying my ears and eyes and brain of beautiful language, of precise structure, of rhythmic flow.

 

But hey. We each have our own processes and systems and conditions by which we work the best. Some need near-silence to hear their own voice. I have never—tap wood—lost my voice in the presence of great writing. Instead, I overflow with inspiration and feel a sense of release and possibility.

 

My ear for music and language turns me on to a writer’s cadence and I find myself playing along in my own sentences, discovering new ways to structure my thoughts. It’s an invisible collaboration with another writer, a jazz riff played in admiration and homage in a quiet room, or in my case, in the front seat of the car, where I get most of my writing done. No wi-fi, you see. There are other voices I need to silence, to hear my own. But as for reading, it’s what sustains me as a writer. As a human being.

 

Grazie cara, Francesca Marciano. Your gorgeous stories, your strong and confident voice, restored me. You made me crave to write. The words gushed out. I had one more story in me this summer, after all.

 

Shedding Light

My Lemonade Stand

The "I finished my novel" honeymoon recedes into memory like the scent of suntan lotion on last year's bikini. The road to publication stretches as far as the eye can see. And damn. That road ain't paved with yellow bricks. The lovely, optimistic and oft-asked, "When's your book coming out?!" is answered with a cheery "Someday, I hope!" while inside my heart stutters. The true answer is, "Well, you see, writing a book and publishing a book? It's the difference between graduating from university and getting a job. The first is never a guarantee of the second. You got the goods, and hopefully the goods are good. But before anyone buys your goods, you must do all the hard work of selling them."

First, generous strangers and writing buddies dissect your pounds of literary flesh.. You revise, then pay a story editor cash money to tear apart your work again. Revise again. Maybe find a few more willing, generous readers. Pay more cash money for copy editing and proofreading. Only then do you release it to the clutches of agents and publishers who, in all likelihood, will send you a rejection six months later.

Meanwhile, you agonize over the traditional vs. self-publishing routes, potentially spinning that roundabout without ever choosing an exit.

You despair of ever seeing your name in print again, because you've all but abandoned writing and submitting short form prose for this freaking-fracking what-am-I-doing-with-my-life?-Help-Me-Rhonda novel.

I anticipated this period of waiting, doubting, towel-throwing-in contemplation and immediately started work a second novel. It's given me needed distance from the first and released the pent-up desire to create new material after months spent in revision mode. I'm six weeks and 60,000 words in—and finding the process more graceful the second time around. This writer is more confident, disciplined and determined.

The other day, I did a little something else to keep myself focused on my goals. Somethings else. First, I signed "Writer" to the occupation line on our tax return. Go, me.

Then I did the other something else. I organized my creative life for business. It was my way of saying "Hey, not only is it okay to think that you may, someday, make an income as a writer, you'd be hella smart to start organizing your writer's financial life now."

The IRS says I have to make money from my writing 3 out of 5 years to be considered a professional writer (versus writing as a hobby). But there is more to convincing the Taxman that Julie Christine Johnson, Writer is a legitimate Lemonade Stand.

As a writer residing in Washington state, I am a sole proprietorship and make quarterly estimated tax payments. Or would, if I had, you know, any income. But I'm planning ahead. The IRS wants evidence that I regard myself as a professional. This means attending classes and workshops and participating in conferences to learn, network and pitch my work. A bank account. Computer and office supplies. Detailed receipts... Not a problem. I do details for a living.

The day my Lemonade Stand opened for business, the universe threw me a bone.

Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers

This is the just-published Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, edited by Patricia Flaherty Pagan. It is a collection of thirty-three works of prose by writers from around the world. I'm gobsmacked to be included and honored that my story, Colorado, was one of six read at the Up, Do launch on February 24 in Houston, TX.

I haven't made a practice of flogging my writing for sale here. I don't know why, because it is my party and I can flog if I want to. Maybe it's that I love writing about writing so much, if I used my time here to say, "Buy Me! Buy Me!", I'd feel like a pop-up store in a suburban mall.

But this one is a bit different. Patricia Flaherty Pagan created this anthology to be a voice of protest at the paucity of women writers featured in leading literary journals, as evidenced by The Vida Count, an annual analysis of women's place in the literary arts. More than that, and true to Patricia's ultimate vision, Up, Do is celebration of the power of prose and the glorious voices of women.

In addition, five percent of the book's sales will be donated to the Houston Area Women's Center, B.A.R.C.C. of Boston, Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, and Day One Rape Crisis Services of Rhode Island. Contributions are also planned to the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust and the Wounded Warriors Project.

You, cherished reader, can order a copy from the publisher Spider Road Press or CreateSpace Marketplace or Amazon.com

My copy of Up, Do arrived in the mail the day I ran around town, making my Stand. My Lemonade Stand. My personal Stand that, despite my best efforts to doubt myself, I'll at least go through the motions of believing. Up, Do is a beautiful and important reminder that my words can help heal.

Twenty Words

As I grind through The Novel, with thousands of words behind me and just a few thousand more ahead, I am aching to write short fiction again. There is such challenge and satisfaction in crafting a complete story, with fully formed characters facing obstacles and arriving at some sort of resolution, in fewer than 10,000 or 5,000 or 1,000 words. Excuse the running metaphor, but short fiction is a speed workout that leaves you trembling with endorphins, legs wobbly from those fast-twitch muscle fibers that fired you through quarter-mile repeats instead of the measured slog of a long-distance run. The fast-twitch fibers in my brain were reawakened during the workshop I attended yesterday during the Port Townsend Writer's Conference: Flash nonfiction: Writing Memoir in 750 words or less led by the delightful Sayantani Dasgupta, a writer and a professor in the Department of English at the University of Idaho (Side Note for Grammar Geeks Fewer vs. Less - I'm straddling the fence here. Since we're discussing word count, I'm sticking with fewer than, but I'm open to being persuaded in the direction of less if you can make a compelling "bulk" case. Oh my goodness, I heart Grammar!).

I am preparing myself for the emptiness I will feel when The Novel is complete. Not finished, mind you - months of revisions and multiple drafts undulate like an ocean before me; I'm already a little queasy at the thought - but the characters will have done their work and will either walk away forever or lie down to rest until their time comes 'round again. I'm braced for the "Now, what do I do?" feeling that will hit about the time the year turns away from autumn and hunches its head to the oncoming winter. So, I let my mind wander away from the Languedoc just a bit and feel around for new ideas. I return to jotting down those snippets of my life or overheard bits of others' that become fodder for new tales to tell. My autumn/winter goal, to break up the tedium of editing editing editing, will be to complete several pieces - from flash to shorts and whatever is between.

In short fiction, each word carries great significance. This is true of all writing, of course, but there is the luxury of development and backstory in long form prose. Flash fiction in particular is a kissing cousin to poetry. Each word pops, stings, zings, shocks, compels, evokes, hearkens. There is a rhythm - a poetic flow - but also a tightness to the structure that makes it a complete art form, distinct, difficult and powerful.

To get us thinking about the power of words, Ms. Desgupta presented this writing prompt during yesterday's workshop:

What if you were only allowed to use twenty words for the rest of your life? List these twenty words. How will you write a story of your life so far and of your vision of the future by weaving in and out of these twenty words?

In my tendency to overanalyze even the simplest of exercises, I wanted to make certain my words could convey multiple feelings, needs, desires, and experiences. These four came immediately to mind:

  • earth
  • fire
  • water
  • air

Then I thought of the things I do that make up the who I am:

  • write
  • run
  • read
  • wander

What I value most spilled out:

  • marriage
  • health
  • peace
  • present

Random things I cannot live without:

  • coffee
  • wine
  • vision (another one of those multiple meaning words, but suffice to say I'm epically near-sighted)
  • home

Words I would not want to give up, even though I could convey their meaning by pointing my finger:

  • I
  • You

And it struck me that I included these two words:

  • Fear
  • Fuck (this one appeared on several lists; I think we all need one good curse in our arsenal. This covers so much ground in four letters: perfection)

But I didn't include Love. I reckon love is implicit in words 1 -18. 19 & 20, too, really.

Can I write the story of my life using only twenty words? I think I just did.

Which twenty words would tell the story of your life?

How many of my 20 words can you find in this photo? Chinese Gardens, Ft. Worden State Park © 2013 Julie Christine

Keep It Short

Every Friday, from 3:00 - 6:00 p.m., Seattle's non-profit community writing center, Richard Hugo House, sponsors a flash fiction workshop on Twitter. Hugo House sends out a one-word theme and writers submit 140-character stories. Wait. Since each tweet must contain the identifier #FridayFiction, the flash fiction writer has 126 characters to create a world (better count that for me. I write, I don't math). Most Fridays I toss a tweet into the #FridayFiction ring. It's a lark, a puzzle, a chance to stretch my brain and play as I wind down from the work week. It occurred to me recently that these tweets might actually serve as sources for inspiration, that a sentence could become a story. But who saves their tweets? It took an hour or so of scrolling and searching, copying and pasting, to retrace my #FridayFiction tweets back to July 2011, when Hugo House began their weekly flash fiction fest.

My inspiration was borne of desperation. I have written in fits and starts for the past several weeks- since prior to my trip to France - and I have embarked upon a two-month course of study for a wine qualification that will have me holed up with highlighters, textbooks and flash cards until I sit for the exam on May 6. Add in a personal essay as the penultimate assignment for my writing program due in April, and there goes my story writing.

Or not. I turn to the intense and satisfying art of flash fiction, defined loosely as a complete story told in 1,000 words or fewer. Shorter, however, does not mean easier. In a flash fiction story, you take the same elements found in longer-form fiction - setting, character, plot - and build a concise, tight, lean narrative. Each word must have impact. Each phrase must move the story to its conclusion - not necessarily to a resolution - but to a natural and compelling end. I compare it to a sprint workout. You run flat-out - the bursts are short, the mileage is minimal -  but it's a kick-ass workout that leaves you wrecked AND pumped.

I'm playing around with approaches: I culled a flash fiction piece from a longer story, slicing and dicing away at my words (2578) until I reached the 800-word maximum allowed by the magazine to which I am submitting the story. That hurt -- that murdering of my darlings -- but I loved the result. I have another 715-word piece I wrote from one of the #FridayFiction tweets below that I'm polishing for hopeful publication.

Here they are, those silly tweets, in random order. In parentheses are the themes Hugo House set forth to guide our #FridayFiction stories. I've included those themes I could identify. Otherwise, it's anybody's guess the one word that inspired my tweet (I also included some random haiku/twiku because I didn't want to lose them in the Twitterverse...).

If you'd like to provide me some needed motivation, pick a tweet, tell me why you chose it and I'll write you a flash fiction story. Promise. 

Mostly #FridayFiction tweets with a few haiku and Word of the Day posts mixed in:

  • Shreds of “War and Peace” drifted across the yard. A note, pinned with an Exacto knife, read “Tolstoy: Drops dripped. Me: Drip dropped.” (Battles) 3:21 PM - 15 Jul 11
  • As he leapt from the balcony, his tail abristle, Stu realized he’d miscounted. Yesterday's tumble through the dryer was Life #9 (Danger) 3:01 PM - 26 Aug 11
  • Eliza was murdered on Monday. No one, however, thought to tell her. She made it, barely rumpled, to Wednesday morning Rotary. 1/13/12 3:08 PM
  • A gleaming thread of saliva met a velvety strand of ganache, twirling down to pool on the cover of his Weight Watchers cookbook.  (Promises) 3:04 PM - 22 Jul 11
  • With a tentacle, Galay caressed the marble column sinking into a swamp and flicked a scan antennae across the stone. Locus: West Wing (The Future) 5:26 PM - 8 Jul 11
  • November wind poured through the gaping mouths of skeletons half-buried in trench mud. "Germany has surrendered," they howled. (Victory) 5:57 PM - 2 Mar 12

Fog horns sound at dawn/Blueberry pancakes sweeten/Raindrops on Sunday

  • A mile-high red cloud from deep in the Outback erased vineyards, choked hope. The farmer wiped his face and said goodbye. 7:02 PM - 9 Sep 11
  • Lipstick-red paint smeared his bumper. The wounded Prius glowered in the rain. There was no one around. He considered his options. 3:41 PM - 16 Sep 11
  • The Burgundy poured forth like an October gloaming. Inhaling the aroma of secret forests and autumn roses, she fell in love. (Fall) 3:18 PM - 23 Sep 11
  • "They won't last the winter." The pog towered above de Montfort; Montségur was lost in the fog. "God will starve the heretics."(Resistance) 5:14 PM - 7 Oct 11
  • Unprepared for open water and flailing bodies, she shook in fear. Her lungs clenched. Her bowels roiled. The air horn sounded. 3:03 PM - 11 Nov 11
  • I saved your last voicemail, playing it over and over. One day I mistakenly pressed "7" instead of "9". You were gone forever. (Grief) 1/27/12 5:26 PM

February comes/Spring's amanuensis writes/with Winter's cold ink

  • She’d pressed a Post-It to the bathroom mirror: “You can keep the Sigur Rós.” His reflection couldn’t help but smile. 11/18/11 4:53 PM
  • With a term paper due in two hours, she scrolled through web entries for Othello. "Jackpot." Her fingers pressed 'Control, C'. 12/2/11 3:57 PM
  • "Grift?" drawled the politician otherwise known as 'The Chameleon.' "Oh no, your Honor, that was a donation to our agency." 12/16/11 4:39 PM
  • Her limerence propelled her backstage. She skirted security, found his dressing room door and turned the handle.  5:11 AM - 13 Feb 12
  • He stood in her Odense kitchen, thick with the sweet camphor of cardamom.They held hands across a shaft of sun. Then he woke. 1/6/12 6:02 PM

Corpses of snowmen/Into Winter's green grass melt/Memories of storms 1/26/12 5:14 AM

  • The trapped jury recoiled from the reek of his lunch hour Manhattans as he belched out his pot-valiant closing argument. 2/9/12 8:38 AM
  • Snow bound my body like plaster; even my eyelids were shut fast. Inside the avalanche, the sound of my breath was deafening. (Survive) 5:27 PM - 16 Mar 12
  • The agent stamped the Permanent Resident visa glued to the end page of my passport. "Welcome to New Zealand." My heart soared. 12/30/11 4:58 PM
  • His broad strokes obliterated the masterpiece. The art thief then smoothed the palimpsest as Vermeer shrieked from his grave. (Goodbye) 6:03 PM - 9 Mar 12
  • They watched as the couple descended the Spanish Steps, hand in hand, as ancient as Rome. Matteo turned away; his wife sighed. 2/10/12 4:56 PM

Blinds drawn, dark silence/I wonder, rain or dry ground/Pre-dawn mystery 6:31 AM - 29 Oct 11