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.