Saturday, August 30, 2014

Those Reversals Add up!

Reprinted from Flash Fiction Chronicles, October 27, 2010
Your story is flat. You don’t know what’s wrong. You like your characters and you like the milieu, but the piece as a whole–it kinda sucks and you’ve run out of ideas.  What can you do to get you back in the mood?  Take a look at reversals.  Do you have any?  Even one?
One of the components of many strong stories are reversals of action; that is, taking the events from positive to negative and back to positive through each scene or the other way around.  In other words, reversing what is happening from good to bad or bad to good.
This back and forth is a basic rule–actually, I don’t want to use the word “rule” because some people go screaming into the night when it comes to  “rules”–so I’ll say instead, reversals have been a basic “consideration” in storytelling since  humans could communicate.
“Ugh, I go to find deer. I have good plan, but deer not on plain. I disappointed and thought coming home, but I see a monster and think, big monster, big food.  At first I was afraid, but monster on ground sleeping.  I sneak up with my trusty spear to kill him. Something inside pound pound. But I brave.  His seeing part was closed.  I raised spear.  Took one step, and his seeing part opened.  He growled.   I turned to run, I slipped. The monster struggled to stand up. His feet came close to my legs.  I tried to crawl away. Came to a tree.  Thought I would climb tree. I would be safe.  But as I climb tree, something thick and heavy brushed me away.  I fell hard on the rocks.  The tree  had another monster, only bigger. I picked up rock. And so forth….”
Each bolded word suggests a reversal from positive to negative to positive.   This action pulls the reader through the scene, creating suspense.  The tribe sitting around the proverbial campfire doesn’t want to hear,  “I went out and killed a monster with a rock. Eat up.”
So the main character has a good idea, but his plan is reversed to a negative when he finds the "plain" empty.  Then he sees more game, bigger game. Life has taken a positive turn. But bad news, he doubts he can bring the beast down.
Reversals give movement to a story.  As you can see, I’m not discussing here big reversals that are the standard to movies, but rather small reversals with each scene.  The unfolding of the action--going from positive to negative and back to positive--takes the reader through the story visually and brings individuality to the scene.  No two writers paying close attention to their text and their own experience and imagination are going to create the exact same series of actions.
I owe my awareness of this pattern of reversals most specifically to Robert McKee’s Story.   As he explains it, this is not formula, but rather  a tool to use to help the author to create a strong story that keeps the reader reading.  This is not to say that the reversals need to be supercharged trains bearing down on superheroes.  The reversals can be slight and still work terrifically. Or they can have more heft.
McKee discusses larger reversals in his book also and these are worth understanding too because they taking the reader from one scene-segment to the other, one act to the next,  pushing the story through to the end, but these may be more the concern of the longer short story, the novella, and the novel.
Today’s short stories , especially flash, often keep action at a minimum, the surprise subtle, only one reversal, but there is some sense of change or experience that speaks to the reader.  Many authors are writing more traditional stories too. Whatever a writer’s style, learning about reversals and how they work can be useful.  Reversals add tension and help the reader glimpse the author’s unique world.  It is through reversals  as well as detail in character, setting, and attitude that make each story unique.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Interview with Sam Snoek-Brown about his Historical Novel: “Hagridden”

Coming this fall from Columbus Press, Sam Snoek Brown’s historical novel, Hagridden, explores the impact of the American Civil War on the bayou country of South Louisiana.  This taut drama, written in the style of contemporary literary fiction, is about two women and their struggle for survival.  In a world of chaos, they are threatened by nature’s harshest elements as well as man’s darkest impulses, and frightened by rumors of a ferocious “wolf-like creature” called a rougarou. 

Gay-You have a “mash-up” of the mystical, the historical, and the literary in your novel – something Louisianan James Lee Burke does so well in most of his books. Can we start off by you talking a little about the genesis of your historical novel, Hagridden?

Sam-It actually has three geneses: I was always a bit of a Civil War nerd, just for the history of it. When I was in grade school, I read Civil War history voraciously, and when I was 11, my grandparents took me on a summer tour of battlefields and monuments throughout the South, but the idea to write this novel came about when I was in grad school at the University of North Texas. Because I’d written my master’s thesis on southern fiction, I got tapped to introduce Tim Gautreax as a visiting writer on campus.  He's s a Southern fiction author from Louisiana, whose most recent novel at the time, The Clearing, was steeped in the swamp. I had only read his short fiction at the time, but I had his novel on my mind while watching those samurai films, so that connection is what triggered my own memories of the bayou.

The morning of his reading, I was working on my introduction while watching old samurai movies, and I realized that for all the Japanese movies converted to Westerns, there weren’t any samurai films turned into what Tom Franklin calls “a Southern.” Since so many samurai films are set in the recurring Japanese civil wars, I knew I needed to write a US Civil War story that played with those themes of isolation and bitterness and survival. And demons, which is where I got the idea to include the rougarou.

Gay-”Rougarou?”  Please explain what or who that is.   

Sam-A rougarou is a bayou werewolf, a part of Cajun folklore. (The name is a Cajun slurring of the French for werewolf, “loup garou.”) For generations, it was a fearsome creature, but these days it’s mostly a children’s bedtime story, a scare tactic akin to the boogeyman to get unruly children to behave. In my novel, it’s a legitimate superstition as well as a useful ploy that some characters use to manipulate other characters. But there is a real rougarou in the story!

For the book, I took colorful, historical Civil War troops like the zouaves and the courageous Louisiana Tigers and went several steps further, inventing a fictional regiment of rogue Confederates who call themselves the “Rougarou Corps” and would wear the skins of dogs into battle to terrify their enemies. There is at least one of these fearsome, possibly insane men in the novel.

Gay-How did you research this aspect of your story?

Sam-I read a handful of cryptozoology books as a kid -- silly children’s stories about the Moth Man and the Lake Champlain monster -- so when I was drafting Hagridden and thinking about some supernatural creature I could work into the novel, I had some dim memory of a swamp werewolf, and that’s where the idea came from. It took some looking to confirm the name and the basic folklore. For a long time I could only find thin, passing references on websites or the occasional vague blog post about kids growing up with the stories, but when I went to the Louisiana bayou last year on a research trip, I was able to access some folklore collections in local libraries and I discovered a wealth of detail, including where the rougarous come from and how to defeat them. Of course, there are a lot of conflicting stories, which I work into my novel as characters manipulate each other, but the old stories are amazing.

Gay-Researching the folklore, you actually took a trip “down the bayou.” I’m curious where you were since I’m from Houma, about 50 miles southeast of New Orleans.  What were your impressions? And also, how did being in the setting for your novel inspire you?

Sam-It felt nostalgic, in a way. The novel is mostly set in what is today Cameron Parish, near what used to be Leesburg (and today is the town of Cameron), and I set it there because I have family down there. My mother was born in Deridder and her parents are buried up in Rosepine. I have many fond memories of visiting my aunt and uncle down in Johnson Bayou, exploring the marsh, and riding my uncle’s horses on the prairie. It was never quite home for me – I grew up in Texas – but going back for the research trip felt like a kind of homecoming.

It was interesting to see it anew, though, through adult eyes and with a mind toward the novel. I didn’t realize when I wrote the first draft, but I’d accidentally set the novel near what is today the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, so I spent a lot of time there, listening to the reeds and watching the gators. I also spoke to a botanical expert at the Cameron Prairie Wildlife Refuge about plants as well as local history.

There isn’t much living history left after all the hurricanes. Folks I spoke to in stores and on the streets in Cameron told me as much, and you could see it in the still-rubbled building foundations and the rusting cars washed into the marsh. I spent a whole afternoon exploring the ruins of a Cameron church destroyed in a hurricane a few years back. That’s also why I spent a lot of time exploring cemeteries – a favorite pastime anyway!

To experience Cajun folklore and culture, I mostly drove a bit east, into Lafayette, where I toured a few Acadian historical villages and museums and spoke to local experts. I actually thought of heading out as far as Houma, because I read some interesting stories about it in my historical research, but even Lafayette was a bit outside the geography of the novel, so I stuck to the southwest. Maybe I should head there to research another novel!

Gay-Louisiana is such a rich setting. Portions of my prequel to What Came Before will be set there. Tell us how you researched the Civil War.  I’m sure the material available to you was huge.  How did you pick and choose what to read and what to take notes on?

Sam-The book is set during the Civil War, but it’s really about war’s impact on those left behind, those who are supposed to be outside the war, but are impacted by it anyway. Most of my initial research was about the region and the time period and the characters. I read a lot about how Acadians traditionally built their homes, about what sorts of clothes ordinary people wore, about the weather patterns and hurricane records from back then. At the time, I was living overseas and had to do all my research online, so I relied on NOAA statistics, photodocumentaries of Acadian reconstruction projects at Louisiana universities, costumier websites and so forth. It was all touch-and-go research, just enough to fill in some details as I was furiously hammering out the first draft.

However, as the research got more intense and more important to the story, I finally emailed the librarians at the Cameron Parish Public Library, who turned me on to the research of southeast Texas historian WT Block, much of whose work is available online. That was a gold mine, and his work led me to digitally archived newspaper accounts and, most importantly, editorials. That got me looking for a digital archive of Harper’s Weekly, which was probably the most important national record of the Civil War as it happened, and I finally found that archive on the Sons of the South website. In Harper’s Weekly, I found the kinds of everyday details that would be crucial to my characters’ lives – mail-order pistols, advertisements for dresses and shoes, best-seller lists of popular books, and so on.

When I got back to the States and started revising the novel and fleshing out the characters’ lives, I hit the libraries and read a lot of personal diaries from the war era – of soldiers in the field, of women back at home, of politicians, and also of farmers, slaves, and merchants. Of course I read up on rougarou folklore and because a couple of the characters had been in the war, I finally got around to reading up on the few battles that did take place in Louisiana and along the Texas border.

Still, on my research trip to Louisiana, I read up mostly on the climate and the culture and the folklore. Throughout the research process, the only things I was interested in were things that would feed into the story. Story always came first, and the research was only ever in service of that. I made sure to take what I was reading to the page as soon as possible. If I found something interesting or something useful, I’d grab it and put it in the story and get back to the writing, because the writing was the important thing.

Want to know more about Sam?

Samuel Snoek-Brown has a doctorate in creative writing from the University of North Texas and his work has appeared in dozens of print and online literary magazines. When he’s not teaching college English or writing fiction, he works for Jersey Devil Press and judges fiction contests.

Samuel has been shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition, twice for short fiction and once for novella; he has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is a finalist in the 2013 storySouth Million Writers Award. He received a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship for his novel Hagridden. Learn more about Samuel Snoek-Brown on his website,

Monday, August 11, 2014

Writing Process: The Tiki Palms/Have Suitcase Will Travel Blog Tour

A wonderful writer named April Bradley recently asked Susan Tepper and me to join a literary blog tour about the writing process, and we happily agreed. Because Susan doesn’t have a blog, I suggested she and I have a conversation and post here at Words in Place. First, meet April Bradley below and go here to read about her writing process:

April Bradley is a native of Goodlettsville, Tennessee, and lives with her family on the Connecticut shoreline near New Haven. She is a feminist philosopher and an American Southern writer. Her work has appeared or will appear in Thrice Fiction, Narratively and other publications. April serves as an Assistant Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine. You can find her online at

And now the discussion between Susan Tepper and me.

1). What are you working on?

Susan Tepper-I’m working on four large scale projects. The first is a quick revision of a new novel that a publisher has asked to see. It’s the quintessential road novel, with crazy characters and zany plot. Second is a poetry collection based on a tiny room in my house that I converted to my writing space. Third is a 3-act play I co-wrote with Dennis Mahagin over the winter. We have a NYC acting troupe interested, and it may mount in the fall in NY. Fourth is a short prose poem collection called Dear Petrov. The very first of the collection was just published in Apocrypha and Abstractions. Six other pieces from Dear Petrov have been accepted and are coming out soon in various journals.

I also write two regular columns: UNCOV/rd at Flash Fiction Chronicles (author/book interviews) and a yakety-yak column called Let’s Talk at Black Heart Magazine where I get to vent my spleen about the good, the bad, and the ugly in our writing world.

Gay Degani-I just finished my very last story for Pure Slush’s 2014 project which is a print anthology with twelve volumes (one for each month of the year) involving thirty-one authors and a total of 365 stories. Each author writes a story for a specific day of the month – mine is always on the 19th – and the stories for each author are linked. My cycle is about a group of neighbors who survive a ferocious windstorm in January and how the year unfolds for them. I’m also working on a collection of my short stories, rewriting, editing and polishing, hoping to find an publisher sometime later this year. 

And lastly, I’m about to embark on writing the prequel to my suspense novel, What Came Before, which was serialized online in March – seventy 1000-word chapters in all – and is now available in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook formats.

But Susan, I don’t know how you have so much going on at once. What’s your day like? How much time do you spend actually in your writing space?

Susan-That’s a lot on your plate, too, and I’m excited to hear there will be a prequel to your novel which really absorbed me. I got intensely involved in Abbie’s life and dilemma. You really know how to make dramatic tension when you write a novel, and many people do not. I have seen the books of famous writers come out with no dramatic tension. They can almost put you to sleep. I think your screenwriting background is an invaluable tool for creating exciting fiction that moves.

As for how I do as much as I do, I write compulsively. When I’m not doing a task, or seeing a friend, or some such thing, I write. Day and night. So you do get a lot of product this way. It’s never a task for me to sit down and write. I don’t understand the concept of writers block. It would be like a dancer unable to do a step, which I can’t imagine either.

Gay-I’m so glad you found Abbie compelling. The original book contained the text I’m using as a source for the prequel. I’d told the story from three viewpoints, but over the years, and after many workshops and conferences, I axed the story of the past. I look forward to unraveling that in the prequel.

I don’t believe in writer’s block, but I believe in writers’ distraction. That’s my key problem. I have an active life and with my husband retired, we always have things to do and places to go. I also have to guard against my own need to do other creative things, like bead, paint, draw, take photos, and, of course, read. Every day for me is a full day, and I have to make sure I preserve time for the writing. Hence, late nights at the computer happen more often than not.

2). How does your work differ from the work of others in the same area/genre? (April Bradley added this observation to the question: Genre is such a confining word, isn’t it?)

Gay-Do you agree with April’s comment, Susan, that “genre is such a confining word?” Certainly it is for me. All the time I was writing my novel, I struggled to explain what it was about, how to label it, especially in regard to genre. It’s been called a family saga/suspense and a literary suspense and a mystery as well as being considered character-driven rather than plot driven. Kirkus nailed me for not following the thriller formula. Well, I didn’t know it was a thriller. I’ve never called it that.

I use Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood as my guides. They both do “genre” in the very strict definition of the word, but they expand and deepen and make genre so much for than such a label implies. That would be the aim of what I write. Not saying I achieve what they achieve, but rather that’s what I strive to do.

Susan-Gay, I think Kirkus is way off the mark. First of all, it is just one person who works at Kirkus who made this decision about your novel. I found the book incredibly suspenseful, and about 50/50 character/plot driven. I found the characters and plot to be interwoven very skillfully. Honestly, that Kirkus comment confused me. If I had written your book, and that comment was directed at me, I would bury it. I think people read well or terribly.

Each short chapter ended on a question mark: What is coming next? To my mind, that is quite suspenseful. Maybe they wanted blood and gore. I have basically learned to trust my own instincts over the years. Writing is art, and art is totally subjective. Some people criticize Picasso! He was the forerunner in Modern Art! An example of why I take criticism very lightly.

Gay-Thank you for that, Susan. So, how do you think your work differs from others working in your “genre?” Do you even write in a genre? You do poetry, memoir, fiction? What makes your work uniquely you?

Susan-Honest to god, I have no idea. I just write whatever wants to come out at any given moment. I don’t control what I write, or how. I don’t write memoir. Don’t like the form, in most cases, it’s someone moaning over their life. I write fiction, poetry, plays, essays, interviews. Whatever strikes me in the moment. I believe in giving yourself over to any art form. It’s the only way to make the work uniquely your own vision come to life.

3.) Why do you write what you do?

Gay-The “ why” of “what I write” is, at first blush, very simple. I keep an eye on what’s going on around me. You know those little Babybels that come wrapped in red wax? My family and I like to shape animals out of cheese wax. I wanted to write a story about that because it gave me a little tingle when I thought about them. Another example of observation turning into story came this summer, riding the DC subway, watching the people, feeling the jerk of the train. I now have a science-fiction piece to work on because of that tingle. My ideas come to me like that. I write a draft of the idea or a mash-up of notes, and then the work starts: how do I make this have meaning? At second blush, when I get to the meaning part, a pet peeve, a belief, a disappointment, something I’ve experienced bubbles up and that’s when I have a story.

So Susan, why do you write what you write?

Susan-Well, Gay, I also get stimulated by what’s around me. That’s why I’m always offline when I’m travelling. I want my mind to sweep new landscapes and pick up the beauty and the garbage. I always come back from travelling with at least one story that started to cook in my cells on the trip. When I took Amtrak recently, I looked out the window the whole time, and saw things that started a new story I’m working on.

Gay-So you write what you write because something stimulates you, some outside force?

Susan-Basically, yes. And inner forces too. Though I don’t think it can really be boiled down, why someone expresses in a certain art form, in a certain way. For instance: Why did Van Gogh paint in his style during the same historical period as the other Impressionists whose paintings were so different from Van Gogh’s? I don’t think art or the execution of art can be summed up in a particular way. It is part and parcel of the artist (or writer), their genetics, their history, and how they experience the world, their desires, hopes and fears. Art is a complex mix.

Excellent answer Susan. We just do what works for us and if we can, with or without knowing it, we push around some boundaries.

4). How does your writing process work?

Gay-We’ve answered this somewhat in the previous questions, but I’ll add one more thing. I’ve learned that a writer must have faith in his or her own process and if it’s not working, then he or she needs to figure out why.

If writing is painful or difficult all the time, then perhaps it’s time to approach the task from a different direction. If you feel like writing is worse than going through a root canal and you always outline, then stop outlining and go free-range. See where it takes you.

If you are always speeding your way through draft only to end up with a mess, then outline it. Ask the magic questions: What does my main character want? What stands in her way? What does she do to overcome the obstacle? And the most powerful question, what is she/he afraid of?

The idea for my novel’s theme came from me asking that question when I got a couple chapters in and the story wasn’t going anywhere. What was Abbie’s afraid of? Then I turned it around a little and asked, what am I afraid of?

The answer was what if something happened to my sister – heaven forbid – and I would have to raise her kids? Let me qualify, I love her and her three children, but she’s twelve years younger than I am so her kids were still kids when my kids were off to college. I would have done it, but that doesn’t mean that scenario didn’t frighten me, so that’s the scenario I brought into my story and suddenly it felt right.

Susan, how does your writing process work or if you feel you’ve answered this, can you talk a little about how you go about solving a story problem when it pops up?

Susan-Gay, I found your comments here fascinating. Yours is a good way to tackle a plot or character obstacle in the course of working, especially working a long piece such as your novel. For me, writing is all about disconnection from the earth planet and connection to an inner source. When I first started to write twenty years ago, and sat at my word processor, I would literally feel the pressures of life lift off my head and shoulders. A sense of lightness and well-being entered my writing state. I don’t think anyone can “become” a writer. Or any type of artist. You are called to it. If it isn’t an act of sheer love and inspiration, if it feels like “work” in any way, then let it go. Do something else.

This notion of writing being “work” is foreign to my existence. Writing for me is all play, all escape. Does that mean I have/had a terrible life? No. I’ve had, like most people, times of great happiness and times of great sadness. But that is apart from what I’m trying to get across here. All this stuff about writers suffering – I don’t get it. I never suffer through any story or even a sad poem. It’s a release, a finding-out of other worlds and existences for me. It’s the ultimate existential journey. And I’ve been a journey-woman from the first time my mom packed us three kids into the car to go see our Dad who was working out west. We drove across country, a 12-year-old, 10-year-old, and a toddler driven by a mom in her thirties. It may have unleashed my desire to keep going, in every which way. I don’t know. But I know for sure that writing for me is pure love.

Next week, follow blog tours of Dennis Mahagin, Alex Thornber, Grant Jarrett, Len Joy, and Andrew Stancek to meet these five fabulous writers at their own blogs (linked below) and learn about their writing processes.

Dennis Mahagin is a poet and writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the collection, Grand Mal, published in 2012 by Rebel Satori Press, as well as Longshot and Ghazal, available in 2014 from Mojave River Press. Dennis’s poems and stories appear in magazines such as Everyday Genius, Evergreen Review, elimae, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Underground Voices, and Smokelong Quarterly.  Read Dennis' BLOG or friend him at Twitter:

Alex Thornber is a writer and bookseller from Southampton, England. He has had stories published in places like Metazen, Wilderness House Literary Review and Specter Magazine. He recently finished a collection of stories (Blame it on the Dust) and a novella (When We Realised We Were Broken). He sporadically blogs at and tweets under @nucosi

Grant Jarrett lives in New York City, where he earns his living as a writer, editor, and musician. His work during the past eight years has included magazine articles, ghostwriting for Pocket Books, video scripts for Epic and BMG, a monthly column in FOW (a major financial industries publication), and a short story in Eclectica Magazine. His first novel, "Ways of Leaving" won the Best New Fiction category of the 2014 International Book Awards.

Len Joy lives in Evanston, Illinois. His short fiction has appeared in FWRICTION: Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Johnny America, Specter Magazine, Washington Pastime, Hobart, Annalemma, and Pindeldyboz. He is a competitive age-group triathlete. In June 2012 he completed his first (and probably only) Ironman at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Andrew Stancek grew up in Bratislava and saw tanks rolling through its streets. He now writes, dreams and entertains Muses in southwestern Ontario. His work has appeared in Tin House online, Every Day Fiction, fwriction, Necessary Fiction, and Pure Slush. He’s been a winner in the Flash Fiction Chronicles and Gemini Fiction Magazine contests and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The novel and short story collections are nearing completion.

Susan Tepper is the author of a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries (Pure Slush Books, 2013). Her other books include From the Umberplatzen, Deer & Other Stories, What May Have Been (co-author Gary Percesepe), and the poetry chapbook Blue Edge. Tepper is a named-finalist in story/South Million Writers Award for 2014, and was a runner-up in The Glass Woman Prize. She has received nine Pushcart nominations and one for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Her interview column “UNCOV/rd” and her chat column “Let’s Talk” both run monthly at Flash Fiction Chronicles and Black Heart Magazine (respectively). FIZZ, her reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, has been sporadically ongoing for about seven years (possibly longer).

Gay Degani has had fiction published online and in print including her short collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder of EDF's Flash Fiction Chronicles, and an editor at Smokelong Quarterly. She’s had three stories nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. Her novel, What Came Before, is now available for Kindle, in ebook formats at Tomely, and in print (hardcover and trade paperback) at Barnes & Noble online, and at She is working on another collection of short stories and the prequel to her suspense novel.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sue William Silverman and Pat Boone: Memoirist Explains It All

One look at Sue William Silverman’s website assures you that this is a woman who does not flinch, not from the past, not from the present, and certainly not from the future.  With three memoirs and one book on the craft of writing memoir, Sue, a professional speaker as well as a writing teacher, has a lot to say and has kindly agreed to chat with me.

Gay Degani: Your memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, vividly evokes the wholesome touchstones of the 50s and 60s of the last century, including Pat Boone, “American Bandstand,” the movie, State Fair, even though your personal reality was quite different. A famous picture of the Boone family on a bicycle, mentioned in your book, seems to embody the innocence of that time.  Can you talk a little about what the picture meant to you and why?

Sue William Silverman: The photo was in Life Magazine and, yes, it is of Pat Boone on a tandem bicycle with his wife and four daughters. I loved that photo and stared at it seemingly for hours. It represented several things. For one, here was a family, all together and smiling, perfectly balanced on a tandem bicycle: it captured the essence of this family that must, likewise, be perfect balanced.

So to me growing up in an incestuous family – one completely out of alignment, unbalanced – I wanted, more than anything, to be Pat Boone’s fifth daughter on the bicycle. And if I were on the bicycle, then I could ride far away from my own family and belong to Pat Boone’s family.
At the same time, it was a still photograph. Here was Pat Boone and his daughters captured in a moment of time. As long as I kept watching the photograph, Pat Boone would never leave me. It was as if I believed if I continued to stare at the photo, I was, in essence, with him.

You know, as a kid, there is a lot of magical thinking going on, so this was my fantasy/belief: If only Pat Boone would adopt me, if only I could have a seat on that tandem bicycle, I’d be safe. Or, by the same token, I would be safe as long as I focused on that photograph!

And they looked like that all-American, white Anglo-Saxon family. I believed they could save me from my scary family that happened to be Jewish.

GD: This is so personal, what made you decide to write memoirs rather than fiction? 

SWS: Actually, I tried writing my story as fiction. I began as a fiction writer and have written something like five or six novels (bad novels, thankfully unpublished) before I switched to memoir. Frankly, back when I began to write seriously, in the mid-1980s, no one was even talking about memoir. No writing programs taught it: you majored in either fiction or poetry.

So, as I say, I tried telling my story in novel after novel. In other words, on some level, all of these novels were more or less about incest – but I disguised my true story as much as possible. Yet it just didn’t work. The voice in the novels – all of them – sounded emotionally inauthentic.

Then, about ten years or so later, when I was finally in therapy, my therapist suggested I try writing my story as nonfiction. At first, I just blew off his suggestion. I was convinced I had nothing to say about myself. Besides, who would want to read a book about me? That was what I believed.

But then my parents died. My therapist said, “Maybe now you’ll feel safe enough to write about yourself.” Initially, just to humor my therapist, I agreed, thinking I’d maybe write one or two pages and that would be that. What happened, though, is that, within a three-month period, about 300 manuscript pages just fell out of me. That was pretty much my first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. From there, I’ve written two more memoirs and one craft book on how to write memoir.

GD: It sounds to me as if all those novels were rough drafts of your memoir, preparing you for something that you could do and you could do so well.  Do you have a writing process that's evolved from switching from fiction to non-fiction?  How is writing one different from writing the other?

SWS: Yes, exactly! On many levels those novels were rough drafts, preparing me for the time when I would have the courage and insight to write my first memoir. And spending ten or so years writing novels was certainly not a waste of time! I was, after all, learning how to sustain a narrative, form an arc or plot, write dialogue, set scenes, develop character. Obviously, in a memoir, the protagonist is myself, not a fictional character, but a memoirist still needs to develop herself on the page, make herself believable.

From my perspective, the biggest difference between memoir and novel (besides the fact that one is fiction and the other is nonfiction) is the need for reflection. Writing a memoir is, at its heart, a journey into the heart and soul of the narrator. A lot of introspection is needed. A protagonist in a novel, especially one that’s written in the first-person POV, can be introspective, but it isn’t necessary. A memoir, on the other hand, needs to be more than a “surface” plot of “first this happened, and then this next thing happened.” A memoir, at its core, relies on two plots or arcs: one that does give a “surface” rendering of events: the “what happened.” But it also needs an interior plot or arc that shows the narrator’s internal, emotional journey.

GD: I love your observation: “Writing a memoir is, at its heart, a journey into the heart and soul of the narrator.” Your writing has taken you on a journey into your own heart and soul.  What's next for you?  What other paths are you going to dare to go down?

SWS: I’m currently working on memoir #4 – which kind of shocks even me – just thinking about it. Well, ok, this might sound kind of grim, but it’s about (more or less) my fear of death – written, ironically, from the viewpoint of a lifelong hypochondriac.

But the structure will, hopefully, save it from being too grim in that it’s written as if I’m on a never-ending road trip, careening down Route 17 in New Jersey (I went to high school in NJ), which is a tacky, industrial-strength highway. The tone of the book is both fantastical and realistic in that it’s a kind of true and faux “journey,” obviously very ironic, to circumvent death: both the real thing as well as all the little deaths, like loss, that plague us on a daily basis.

Well, that’s what I think it’s about right now. But I’m in the early stages. My current draft is in shambles, and, for all I know, the book may turn out to be something else altogether. We’ll see….

GD: Thanks, Sue, for talking with me about your wonderful, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, which contains a series of essays about how being Jewish made you feel left out of mainstream American and how Pat Boone, a mid-20th century icon sustained you through your girlhood and has become interwoven into your life even today. 

To find out more about Sue, read her bio below. Also be sure to visit her website at

Author Bio:Sue William Silverman’s new memoir is The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew (University of Nebraska Press). Her two other memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton), which is also a Lifetime TV movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (University of Georgia Press), which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. Her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir (UGA Press), and her poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon (Orchises). As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on various national television programs such as “The View,” “Anderson Cooper – 360,” “CNN-Headline News,” as well as the Discovery Channel.  She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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.