Thursday, July 17, 2014

Home and Somewhat Rested

I have so much to talk about following my trip to Washington DC where I did double-duty, teaching a "Flash Fiction" class at American University's World of Communication summer program for high school students and hanging out with my son, Nick, his beautiful wife, Mysti, and of course, the granddaughter, Emily. Both activities were inspiring, exhausting, illuminating, and fantastic fun with the cherry-on-top (if you'll excuse me a cliche) being a meet-up with Virgie Townsend and the D.C. Binders group on the roof top terrace of the Kennedy Center my last Saturday in the Capital. More about them later.

Part 1

This is my second year of teaching at AU and I first want to compliment all the students for their hard-work and efforts to understand the elements of flash fiction. These, of course, are the same cornerstones that make up fiction in general. Together, with TA Anna Rutenbeck helming production and earning the title of publisher, the students created a beautiful anthology of short prose, The Fishbowl Journal, V. 2, Krakken Edition. So here's to Alex McClellan, Amara Everying, Cortney Rielly, David Hernandez, Delany Collin, Gabrielle Feinsmith, Jeff Reynolds, Juana Capelutto, Mariah Marshall, Marian Schmitz, Matt May, and Max Tiefer!  I hope in the future to buy your work in bookstores (well, yes, and I guess, Amazon), see you at podiums (podia?), on Saturday Night Live, and slamming poetry.  And that goes for you too, Anna, who made my job easily.

The other fun thing was the commute.  While I'm not a fan of long commutes in California, riding the subway every day to work was an experience I enjoyed--most of the time! Even in July. In the heat and humidity.  Even with a shuttle ride still to go at the end.  Time elapsed?  If lucky, one hour.

I had to figure out the passes--Superpass or Superplus, I can't remember.  But I know having two cards even with a lot of money on them is gonna get you in trouble.  You swipe your pass to get into the Metro loading area, and you swipe it going out.  If you don't use the same card, your egress is blocked.  If you go through a gate that is open through no machinations of your own, when you try to exit, you can't get through. You have to talk to "The Man" who stands there glaring as you swipe the wrong and useless card, feed that card into the maw on the post, resist the commuters pushing you through the locked gate as if they're on the sinking Titanic.

Then there are the trains themselves. When you try to crowd into a car with a million people and the heavy-set dude in front of you has glue feet, you have to sacrifice an arm to keep the door open while you holler "Can you please move?"  Luckily, when you do this, no one cares, not even the man with Superglue on the soles of his shoes.  Then when you get on the train with a million people, there's no place to sit andas the car jerks forward, you consider asking Mr. Adhesive-Wingtips if you can borrow his glue.

What I did on the train when I did get a seat:
  • Paid close attention to my fellow travelers, what they wore, what they said, how they slumped, relaxed, or perched on their seats
  • Listened to an interview with Patton Oswalt discussing his book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland recorded at the iTunes store in Brooklyn and downloaded onto my iPod by me for free
  • Listened to Citizen Cope as well as a playlist I'd made of the 2009 American Idol cast (eclectic is my bag)
  • Played Spider Solitaire on my phone
  • Read Len Joy's American Past Time on my Kindle
  • Read student stories on my phone
  • Wrote a draft of a story on my phone about finding black trash bags strewn along the curb, filled with someone's belongings including several bags of books  I had to keep myself from snatching an Eric Larson tome 
  • Talked to an education student--I wish I remembered his name--who had heard me on the shuttle espousing the need to make student write several drafts of a piece--and as the teacher, read them--to give them the full writing experience.  We discussed the importance of practice.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Hey, You AU Flash Fiction First-Timers!!

I'm teaching Flash Fiction class to high school students in American University's Discover the World of Communication and thought this short essay might help to clarify why I love Flash Fiction. This article first appeared at FlashFiction.Net on March 15, 2010

Gay Degani @ FlashFiction.Net: Addicted to Flash

My name is Gay Degani and I’m a flash-a-holic.  I wrote my first flash fiction piece in 2007, and since then, I haven’t been able to turn my back on a single scrap of conversation, writing prompt, provocative first sentence, or saxophone solo.

I’m a sucker for that tingly feeling I get when inspiration hits, but in the old days, I didn’t act on the fragile ones, the ones too slender to develop for 3000-4000 words.  I didn’t know if I had enough time or ability to do them justice.  Then I got hooked on flash.

Here’s why.  All those tiny epiphanies are perfect for flash fiction.  Since flash is short, usually under 1000 words, I know I’ll be able to get my words into a document before the wisp of an idea disappears.  I don’t worry about going off on tangents because I’m focusing on a single moment in a character’s life.  I’m not intimidated because no matter how bad it is, it’s only going to be 300 words, 500 words, a thousand words worth of bad.  And because it’s concise, I can usually write from beginning to end before real life interferes.  And if it does, it’s easy to get back into the story.

It’s this promise of “do-ability” that first drew me to flash fiction, but before I continue, let me say the following are not rules, but steps I take to develop my own fiction.  Because of the short nature of flash, I’ve learned to see the elements needed to write a story—content, structure, and language—as individual components and this has helped me to tackle complex pieces with confidence.

I commit (when I am disciplined) to a minimum of three drafts, each draft with a different focus. 

The first draft is about content.  I am writing for characters, events, voice, mood, tone, and whatever else comes out of my initial inspiration.  This is a right brain activity, me letting the “muse” guide me with little thought of structure or language. 

The second draft is about structure.  I have rough, inconsistent content with holes in the logic so next I need to find the purpose in the story.  This allows me to figure out the order of the story beats.  A beat is the character in conflict, taking action.  This is what moves a story forward .  This is the “how” to the story—how it will unfold from first sentence to last.  

Randall Brown gives a brief description of what “structure” entails in his post at Flash Fiction Chronicles “Who Cares?”: The Nuts & Bolts of Making Narrative Matter:

Something happens (precipitating incident) to create a desire, and that desire creates a need for action that is thwarted by this and that and this and that until, finally, there’s resolution.

At the center of a good story is the impact of  the resolution.  This is what my character learns from the action of the story.  If there isn’t an “aha” moment in the rough draft, I need to look at what my character wants and what stands in her way, what action she takes and what outcome follows.  It is the result of this “journey” that creates the “aha” moment, the emotional core where universal truth is revealed. 

This truth does not need to be earth-shattering.  It can be quiet self-awareness such as “I didn’t know I could be so mean,” or “I didn’t realize I mattered to my uncle.” Flash fiction allows for bigger truths too, but I never know what it is until I look and “see.”

Once I’ve applied this left brain activity, I have a story with content and structure. It’s beginning to make sense, even though I may want to shift things for more impact. 

The third draft is for language. I look at each sentence, the visual images, specific nouns, and vigorous verbs.  Many of these sentences work.  I’ve written them while creating content.  I’ve edited them while working on structure, and I’m always striving to write the best sentences I can, every time.  However, even if many of them are functional, there is always more they can do.

I start by reading my piece aloud to get a sense of rhythm.  Each story has, depending on subject matter and my viewpoint, its own rhythm. This rhythm and the story’s tone should be consistent throughout.  Reading aloud also helps me to find unnecessary words. 

Unnecessary words exist in repetitions.  Because flash is limited by word count, usually there’s rarely a need to repeat information.  Since flash is short, I assume the reader will retain what I’ve written.  But if I feel a reference to a previous action is needed, I word it so something additional is revealed.  Dual purposing words is always a goal.

Unnecessary words can be found in most first-draft sentences.  When I create content, my main focus is the idea, not how I convey that idea.  Therefore, I find words in first drafts I do not want in my final. 

Most people sprinkle their writing with words such as “just,” “so,” “pretty,” “well,” “only” and these words can add to the voice of a piece, but often they add nothing. Elimination also of the words “then” and “that” can make sentences fresher. I have to watch out for “old” and “little.”  Amazing how often they pop up.

Another thing I look out for—especially in flash—are prepositional phrases.  Most of these can be converted to adjectives and make writing more dynamic. These edits are more easily caught because at this stage I am concentrating on language. 

Content, structure, and language occur during all drafts of a story, but by focusing on one aspect in each of my first drafts, I have a clearer picture of what I’m doing.  If I get stuck, reverting to this process gets me unstuck.

So yes, I’m a flash-a-holic because flash fiction has given me a straightforward method to approach each story and a deeper understanding of how fiction works, but even more, it has allowed me to capture inspirations for stories that might have otherwise slipped away.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fighting Writer's BACK...

One of the many things most writers have in common—besides juggling time, getting blocked, finding a publisher—are the aches and pains that come from sitting at a computer for hours. Here's some help from my friend and trainer, Estelle Underwood, certified personal trainer, owner of Bodyworks for Total Health in South Pasadena, California, and creator of the BodyWorksBand!  This article is reprinted from The Huffington Post with permission from the author.

Don't Just Sit There - Take a Stand

by Estelle Underwood
We've all heard too many times that a sedentary lifestyle is hazardous to our health. Many of us who take the risks of this type of lifestyle seriously have incorporated a weekly, if not daily, exercise routine into our busy schedules. So we've got it covered, right? Wrong. Even if you engage in a routine workout program on a daily basis, but you sit for the greater part of the day, you are at risk.
I know, I'm always showing up with "good news," bursting your bubble about all your good health habits. But as you'll see, I do have good news, and it is crucial that you continue your regular workout routine. However, there is more that you can do to facilitate disease prevention and increase the quality of your life. First, let's understand the problem.

In large part due to technological advances and the Internet, we have become far more sedentary than generations before us. We live electronically -- that is, we pay bills, shop and many of us even do our jobs online. We have remote controls for everything -- televisions, garage doors, video games. Think of how many forms of entertainment you engage in that allow you to sit without ever standing up, which lead you to become physically inactive. Add to that the fact that we now use social media to visit with our families and friends, and you can just begin to see that we in large part live our lives sitting down -- not standing up. So all these advancements that we enjoy, making our lives easier, are in fact making us sick and potentially shortening our lifespan. Not desirable.
The problem is that as human beings, our bodies are designed to stand upright and to move. That's why we have bone joints -- you know, those areas of your body that seem to lock up and ache every morning when you try to get out of bed! They are meant to move. When we sit for prolonged periods of time, we put ourselves at risk for developing poor posture, knee pain, herniated discs and other back and neck problems. These are very common problems -- ones that I see in my fitness studio on a regular basis. I have a client who is a writer, working from home at her computer for much of the day. Last year she developed an extremely painful sciatica problem for which she is still undergoing physical therapy. Though she was facing the possibility of surgery, her condition has greatly improved as she has been routinely doing exercises to re-strengthen the muscles that became weak and could no longer support her spine after years of sitting. Most important, she is now setting a timer to go off at least every 20-30 minutes to remind her to get up from her chair -- a simple solution that could have spared her a lot of pain and medical expense had she done it sooner.
Biomechanical problems are not the only risk of sitting. According to Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri, prolonged sitting tends to slow down your metabolic system. Processes that break down metabolic sugars and fats in the blood are disrupted, wreaking havoc with our cholesterol levels. This is not news. We know that if we are sedentary for long periods of time, our muscles cease to move and circulation slows down, causing a decrease in the consumption of calories. The result is weight gain and an increase in body fat, which set us up for developing serious diseases. Dr. Hamilton tells us that the rates of cardiovascular heart disease, diabetes and obesity are doubled or sometimes even tripled in people who sit a lot. I don't know about you, but these statistics frighten me!
In case all these health risks are not enough to get you out of your chair, consider this. In 2011, USA Today reported that more than 90,000 new cancer cases a year in the United States might be due to physical inactivity and prolonged periods of sitting. So now we can add cancer to that list of risks. This is getting really scary, don't you think? The good news is that we do have some control over this situation -- and the solutions are simpler than you might think.
Recently I was reading an article in the January-February 2012 issue of the AARP Bulletin, entitled "Sitting: Hazardous to Your Health." (By the way, you don't have to be THAT old to subscribe to AARP!) The article quoted Dr. Alpa Patel, senior epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society, as saying that "if you reduce sitting by five minutes an hour, at the end of a long day, you've shaved an hour of your total sitting time."
More research done by Neville Owen, Ph.D. of Australia's Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, suggests that the longer you sit, the higher your risk, but this risk can be significantly lowered by simply taking breaks from sitting for even one minute at a time. One minute at a time! That's not a lot. And all you actually have to do is stand up. That's right, even just standing up every 15 to 20 minutes will possibly decrease your risk of getting a life-threatening disease. And another benefit to standing is improvement of your HDL or good cholesterol levels. According to our friend Dr. Hamilton, people who sat too long reduced their good cholesterol levels by 22 percent! If that isn't incentive enough, I know this one will get your attention. Standing actually helps shrink your waistline. Dr. Hamilton reports that the average person can burn an extra 60 calories an hour just by standing! Sounds good to me.
Recently I heard about a woman who had a work desk built over her treadmill! This enables her to stand up and even walk slowly while she's on her computer, talking on the phone, etc. That may seem extreme, but it's one creative way of dealing with this problem. If you're not ready for that, think about getting a stability ball chair to replace your desk chair. I'm sitting on one now as I write this article. This is what we call "active sitting." My core muscles are forced to work to keep me on the ball. It also keeps me in alignment -- and I've got to tell you, it's much more comfortable than any desk chair I've ever had. By the way, in case you're wondering, I have stood up numerous times during the course of this writing.
Other suggestions I might make are to keep your printer in a different room than where your computer is so that you have to stand up to go get your document. Drink lots of water while you're working (which you should be doing anyway, right?) so that you have to go use the restroom frequently. Like my client with the sciatica problem, get yourself a timer and set it for every 15 to 20 minutes to remind you to stand up. The point is to arrange your life so that you shorten the periods of time in which you are sitting.
Hopefully, this information has captured your attention. You now have knowledge and tools to be proactive in the prevention of disease and discomfort. So continue on with those daily exercise routines, but remember that's not enough. "Stand up" and fight for good health, quality of life and longevity! You deserve nothing less.
For more by Estelle Underwood, click here.
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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

KIRKUS Gives Me Very Little Love

My Kirkus review for What Came Before is in and though I seriously considered not publishing it (when you pay $400 dollars for a review, they kindly let you opt-out of having it available to the reading public), I owe it to myself and others to share it.  Doesn't everyone get lousy reviews?

I remember some old black-and-white movie in which a director, the producers, and actors gather in a restaurant (Sardi's?) waiting for the newspaper reviews after the debut of their play.  All About Eve comes to mind, but maybe not.

Anyway, reviews, it is posited, can make or break a play, a movie, a book. As creative people, we think we need them and we think what we've done may be good enough for a good review, but not every piece of work will appeal to everyone. The question is, should a review hurt our chances of success?

I don't think so.  I hope not.

How many times have I read in the Los Angeles Times that this movie or that movie is a transcendental experience or a piece of garbage, and after seeing said movie wonder, what the hell?  To use a cliche (a writing flaw my anonymous critic accuses me of), beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I just read the other day that curriculum honchos in schools in England have dropped Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird from required reading lists. The Huffington Post has tried to make us writers feel better by publishing in 2012 "Bad Reviews of Great Authors."  Here are a couple of examples:

"Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte
"There is not in the entire dramatis persona, a single character which is not utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible."

Atlas, 1848

"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
"no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that... Only Gatsby himself genuinely lives and breathes. The rest are mere marionettes—oftenastonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive."

- H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1925

"Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov
"Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worth any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive."

LET ME BE CLEAR!  I am in no way claiming my little book is anything like the books we commonly love and admire.  However, what I am saying is that although there are some valid points to my critic's analysis (occasional cliches, clues too easy, lacking "gravitas"), it seems to me that he/she hasn't given me much credit for the things some of my readers believe I did accomplish.  "Unsatisfying" I think is the word that struck me as NOT the common experience.

There are a couple hints in the review that perhaps it has some merit, but none proffered without a "but," an "although," "that said," or "nevertheless," making it difficult to use the good bits without feeling as if I'm cheating.

So here's the link to the KIRKUS REVIEW.  Although reading it may discourage a read or two, but if you want to give What Came Before a chance--and hopefully see for yourself if you like it--it's still online FREE online, all seventy chapters at EVERY DAY NOVELS.

And yes, if you agree or disagree with the review, Kirkus allows for comments.

You can also purchase it for KINDLE or in a gift edition hardback at or  Trade paperback is coming soon. Other ebook options at Tomely.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

In Jayne's World, we have to write...

Jayne Martin offers up a challenge this morning to get us writing after the long weekend.  (There was a weekend?)  

Per Jayne:
The challenge:  Write a story (beginning, middle and end) that hints at a larger story, but is complete within itself, in 25 words or less.  The most famous piece of hint fiction was written by Hemingway:
            For sale:  Baby Shoes.  Never worn.
Hint Fiction demands reader involvement.  “Why were the baby shoes never worn?” we’re left to contemplate.   It hints at much more, yet is complete in and of itself. 
Write your story on your own blog, then come back here and link up your post.  Be sure and visit everyone else’s offering and support your fellow writers with a comment.  If you don’t have a blog, you may leave your story in my comment section below.  Write and post as many as you want.   Link-up will be active through June 1st.  
Have fun!
Want to know more about hint fiction?   Visit Robert Swartwood's Hint Fiction website by clicking here. 
Here's mine:

Second Thought

Smelly toes, phlegmy cough, blanket hog. Where's dinner? he mumbles, shuffling in.  Eyes meet. He strokes my cheek. Memories swirl. Arsenic in my pocket weighs.

Join the fun.  Write your own, visit her site, and "link up:" HERE

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Coach Your Story Like Your Name is Erik Spoelstra

This article is reprinted from Flash Fiction Chronicles. It appeared during the NBA play-offs in 2012. I don't remember which game it was--maybe game 5?--II wanted to post it again since we just may have another Heat v. Thunder play-off.

What a terrific game.  I just hope the Thunder can come back so the series goes to seven.  Nothing like great basketball to get me thinking about teamwork and how it applies to writing. The writer is the coach.  The team: each member is a story element and they must work together to WIN.   (Indulge me here.  Everything seems like a metaphor for writing to me!)
Think about it.  The coach is the one who teaches, guides, plans, shapes, and has a heart attack when all the teaching, guiding, planning, shaping doesn’t work.  The team has potential, it may even have talent, but if left to their own devices, the members might play well, might even be brilliant, but going all the way, reaching for that trophy?
The big man might not let the others play because he never gives up the ball.  The point guard might try to get everyone to pay attention, to work the ball around to the player with the best “look,” but maybe there’s a bumping battle for position in the key and the player misses the pass.   You’ve heard it before from the master himself, Michael Jordan,  ”Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”  And whose job is it to bring teamwork and intelligence to the court?  The coach.
So how does that apply to writing?  You guessed it, the author is the coach.  He or she is the person in charge, the one who makes the tough decisions, who inspires, motivates, and keeps everything on track.  The starting team includes structure, language, content, theme, and characters with dialogue, setting, clarity, metaphor, and imagery coming off the bench.
The coach puts his first team on the court.  The best players, but he has to switch them out when something isn’t working and he has a strong bench to do so.  Maybe for one story, language is the focus–the element that never lets the author down,  for another, structure, but no matter what strategy the coach decides will work, he has to count on all the elements to do their part.
I love Blake Griffin.  Watched him in the NCAA championships and there was something about him that stood out (damn good basketball) and I remembered him, so when he ended up on the Clippers, I was excited.  We went to a couple games and the Clippers suddenly had enough  talent that we dared to hope they would be contenders, but they didn’t always play as a team.  Whoever had the ball tended to shoot.  There was little working around the floor and while Chris Paul and Blake Griffin might be two of the most talented players in basketball, they could not bring it in the end without the rest of the team.
The same is true in putting together a story.  An author might be brilliant with words, stringing them together like easy lay-ups, but a story needs more than pretty words.  It has to have meaning.  It has to stir something in the reader.  Occasionally, of course, an imagery-rich story might be enough, something there beneath the lines that works for many readers, but we’re talking about the long haul here, making it to the finals, to the championship. Sharp original language is like having a superb big man.  You might win over fans for a few stories, but at some point, the  author needs to send in the rest of the team.
Language, structure, and content need to work together and still have room for the other elements to play their part in order for a writer to produce championship work.  Writing is like coaching.  You can’t just put your best two players in the game and hope they can bring home the  NBA Trophy while you cheer them on.   You need to coach everyone on the team.  You need to get each one to contribute the best version of their skills to the play.
If you saw the game last night, important plays were made by bench-warmers Nick Collison for the Thunder and Norris Cole for the Heat.  And what about Mario Chalmers?  We expect to be cheering Dwyane Wade and LeBron, but Bosh?  And while Russell Westbrook scored a valiant 32 points, the Thunder lost because yes, late in the game, his team ran out of gas.
So enough of this.  You get the point. We writers need to consider how all the elements of a story can contribute to the overall story and while one or the other may dominate, it is the contributions from the bench that will often carry the day.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Podcast Interview-Robert Swartwood Asks Me About WCB

Robert Swartwood, the USA Today bestselling author of The Serial Killer's Wife, The Calling, and Man of Wax asks some good questions about What Came Before including how serialization of the novel came about.  The podcast is available at his website HERE.

Robert’s  work has appeared in The Los Angeles ReviewThe Daily Beast,  Postscripts,  ChiZine, Space and TimeWigleaf, and PANK. He created the term “hint fiction” and is the editor of Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer. He lives with his wife in Pennsylvania.