World Fantasy 2019

by Matthew Lowes

At the mass book signing with Christina Lay and Stephen T. Vessels

I had a great time at the World Fantasy convention with ShadowSpinners Press and some fellow authors in the Labyrinth of Souls fiction series. Can’t say I saw much of LA, since I did not leave the Airport Marriott for three days, but the weather was nice, the conference was great, and the company was outstanding. It is truly a wonderful experience to be in the midst of so many creative and inspiring writers and artists.

The crowds gather in LA Airport Marriott

The ShadowSpinners table had a lively showing in the book room, and I had a great time answers questions about Dungeon Solitaire and the Labyrinth of Souls. I signed a few books, did a reading with fellow authors Christina Lay and Stephen T. Vessels, and managed to get to a few talks and panels. I was particularly interested to learn a bit more about audiobook production and particularly taken with the beautiful art of Reiko Murakami.

The ShadowSpinners table and chief editor Christina Lay

With another successful appearance, we are planning to make an even bigger showing next year in Salt Lake. We’ll have more books, more authors, and more games. Hope to see you there!

Art print by Reiko Murakami (available on her website)

 

When Throwing Yourself Off A Cliff Stops Working

by Christina Lay

I’ve confessed before that I am the type of writer who works without an outline. The term is Panster, as in “by the seat of your pants”. That’s not entirely apt.  When I start writing a book, I have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. I have a character in a setting with a problem. I know what they want and what’s standing in the way of getting it. I might have a love interest, an antagonist, or a really screwed up family already waiting in the wings. In other words, I’m not flying blind. Chances are, I’ve visualized several scenes in my head. The protagonist’s voice is firmly established. I’m ready to roll.

 

Where the seat of the pants part comes in is the fact that I have nothing written down except a few ideas, snatches of dialogue, and character notes. I have not worked out how the plot is going to progress. I haven’t solved any transitions or tangled plot issues, because I don’t even know what they are yet.  So the first draft is an exciting ride, a test of imaginary agility, and without fail, a mess of epic proportions. But what can I say? That’s how my creativity stays sparked.

And it works, usually. Using this method, I’ve completed about 15 novels and novellas. In recent years, I’ve been able to complete two novellas in a year. However, I recently had the experience of spending over a year writing the first draft of one novella, which turned into a novel along the way (that was part of the problem, but not the only one). Mid-way through, I became well and truly stuck. This is nothing new. It happens with every novel, usually several times, and somehow I wail and claw my way through it.  But this time was different. None of my usual tricks seemed to work.

My first trick is quite clever: I write things down.  Yes, I actually open ye olde spiral notebook to a fresh page and compose a bare bones outline, chapter by chapter, going over where I’ve been, projecting outward to where I’m going, and trying to see where exactly I went wrong. If I’m lucky, this works the first time and I can see where I pushed ahead with an idea because it was shiny and not because it had anything to do with character motivation or a natural sequence of events.

With a particularly tough nut of a plot problem, I might have to re-do this outline more than once, seeking out transition problems between chapters, seeing where I get bored (guaranteeing the reader will too), looking at the fork in the road where the entire juggernaut trundled off in the wrong direction.

In most cases, I don’t do much backtracking or heavy duty rewriting until I reach the end of the first draft. “Fix it in the rewrite” is a mantra that carries me through many a dark day. But sometimes the quagmire becomes too deep, the plot too murky, to keep going. I hate this. I have a deep aversion to stopping, losing momentum, becoming distracted. This time, I had to admit I’d done the outline analysis trick several times. I had to stop. Walk away. Get a fresh perspective. Take another running leap at the thing and fail get again.

One might wonder why the book didn’t become a drawer novel at this point. After all, I’ve got several in the queue, all better and shinier and much, much easier to write (surely). But this book is the fourth in a series. A fourth promised long ago. A deadline crossed and vanished over the horizon. I’ve even had readers query about it, for crying out loud. Plus, I really want to finish the damn book.

So my second trick of taking a little break and letting my subconscious percolate without my interference didn’t work either. Months went by with very little activity at the keyboard. I approached the novel again with my new outlines. Failed. Started to think I’ve forgotten how to novel altogether. That I’d reached the end of my creative juice. That the first 15 novels were a fluke.  That I suffered brain damage while under anesthesia. I was getting desperate. But not desperate enough to write a real outline. That’s just crazy talk.

As it happens, while I suffered through the winter of my Worst Novel Ever, my cohort here at ShadowSpinners, Eric Witchey, wrote this blog. In it, he points out a simple fact: just because something worked once, or multiple times, is no guarantee it will work again. Ironically, the example he uses is hang gliding, literally throwing yourself off a cliff. How annoying, but also such an apt description of my current predicament. I couldn’t figure out why doing the same thing I’d always done before wasn’t working.

I made some changes and tried a third trick. I abandoned the spiral notebook and the linear outline for 3 x 5 cards. On it, I wrote each key scene and the major plot point it represented.

I abandoned my desk, and spreads the cards out on my living room floor.

I sat and stared at them.

The cat chewed off the corners and rearranged them under the coffee table.

Cats are terrible editors: don’t listen to them!

 

I stirred them around and identified the scenes that were shiny, but not helpful. The scenes that had been grafted in from another novel idea, because shiny. The scene that just didn’t fit in with the flow. The one coincidence too many. The disposable scene. The gap that made no sense.

And the one thing that I had to do, absolutely had to do, was start rewriting from the very beginning, even though I’d come so close to finishing the first draft. There was no point in going forward because the entire thing had to be reworked.  At first I tried to preserve my words (precious, precious words!), but those words (so many words) were holding me to plot points that just didn’t work. So I murdered my darlings and buried them in a folder called “cut bits”. (This is a game we writers play: pretending that someday we’ll salvage those wonderful, wonderful words).

At last, I broke out of the quagmire and began to progress, ever so slowly, through the rewrite.

Here’s a fourth trick, one that I wish for all writers to have the wherewithal to do every now and again, whether they are stuck or not.  Go on a retreat.  There is nothing quite like solid hours—I’m talking eight hours a day for several days—to push through to The End. I only recently went on a four day retreat and one year after I began it, I finished the first draft (cue fireworks). For tips on how to have a successful retreat, read Lisa Alber’s blog here.

Now in this case, the first draft consists of several mini-drafts, but I reached The End, the plot seems to hold together, and now I can go back and begin to clean it up.

So the point is, when things get tough, and I mean really tough, the answer is not to quit, but to be willing to do things differently and admit you don’t have all the answers just because you’ve attended five thousand hours of writing workshops and read 872 books on the craft of writing.

The mind is a funny thing, and so is creativity, and so is storytelling. Get a different perspective. Change your methodology. Write in a different place. Start over. Let your cat decide (but not really). There are so many different ways to get past a roadblock. The only way to guarantee you won’t get around it is to stop trying.

The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself

by Christina Lay

I have a confession to make. I’ve completed 15 novels and novellas; some of them are even published. This does not include an indeterminate number of drawer novels, those hideous beasties who lurk forever in a state of suspended animation waiting for my fickle brain to become interested in them again. But they are important too, because they represent hundreds of hours of learning the hard way.

I’ve done a lot of hard-way learning. One would think that at this point I would have mastered the art of noveling—or as some people call it, “writing”—but the process of bringing a novel into the world is an ever-evolving, ever-elusive endeavor, and there is no end point, no graduation ceremony after which you will forever breeze through the process of writing like a mature, unruffled professional. No, writing is an exciting ride, a roller coaster of surprises, a minefield of potential failures, a vale of tears.

Recently, I did another dance with The Wall. You know. The one that stops you. This one stopped me for longer than usual. During this Winter of My Worst Novel Ever, I penned the following ripoff of the famous 12 Steps of Alcoholism Anonymous. May they come to your aid during your next Worst Novel Ever.

The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself and Finishing the Damn Novel

  1. Admitted we were powerless over the plot, and that our novel had become unmanageable
  2. Came to believe that a really good book on craft could restore us to sanity
  3. Made a decision to turn our plot and our characters over to the care of a workshop or writing group, and to try and utilize their critiques as we understood them
  4. Made a searching and analytical inventory of our novel
  5. Admitted to our muse, to ourselves, and to our writing group the exact nature of our screw-ups
  6. Were entirely ready to ruthlessly cut these defects of plot
  7. Humbly asked our writing group to help us
  8. Made a list of all the places we had gone wrong, and became willing to remove all of our adverbs
  9. Made direct cuts wherever possible, except when to do so would injure the story or character development
  10. Continued to take an honest inventory and when we went wrong, promptly corrected our course
  11. Sought through writing groups and workshops to improve our storytelling abilities as we understood them, gathering the knowledge of how to write and the caffeine to carry those ideas to fruition
  12. Having had an awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others by participating in a writing group, leading workshops, writing articles, and by using what we learned in all our writing affairs

 

Paper Clip by John Burridge

Today on ShadowSpinners we welcome John Burridge, who brings us a tale of mystery, inspiration, and not-so-ordinary objects.

I linger outside the supermarket where I sometimes write.  The hot sky is the color of ash, as if someone has smeared the remains of a BBQ pit across heaven.  The breeze makes it seem like the grey smudge above hides rain, but the forecast is for heat and an insulating inversion.  I’m tempted to make this a drinking night–the day’s been frustrating–but I opt to try to write instead.  A cold blast of air-conditioning hits my face as I walk inside.  

I stalk through the aisles, try to find something that will inspire me to write, purchase some healthy-ish snacks, then head upstairs.  The table I normally write at in the supermarket’s mezzanine is occupied by an older lady with the props of homelessness:  an over-burdened cart, which might have been an IV rack in a past life, its thick grey wheels signaling that it’s possibly from a hospital or nursing home, with full, plastic rival-market shopping bags hanging from it.

I cast about the mezzanine and end up at another table; like all the others, it’s a cool, dark, and highly polished sheet of marble or artisanal concrete, flecked with mica glinting like stars.

I set up my tablet, plug in headphones against the inevitable wailing children, cell-phone-using psychiatry patients, and estranged roommates.  I type–hoping that this time the words will flow like a spring in an oasis; like the aurora borealis at midnight; like a pod of dolphins dancing among the waves; like lover’s kisses along the nape, around the hollow of the neck, and over those places loved best.

Instead, I write ten or so lines of bad Oscar Wilde pastiche and maybe three lines about the Prince of Lyres standing over splinters of his instrument in front of the still locked gates of the underworld.  Gee, thanks, subconscious.  Tell me something I don’t already know.

Then the children, their mothers, the cell-phone users, and irked roommates parade by my foreign workspace–each one stomping the floor in just the right place to make my borrowed workspace tremble.  This would never happen at my regular table, which is not on the path to the market’s restrooms.

The old woman–pushing her cart before her–joins the parade, makes for the elevator, and exits the mezzanine.

By this time, I’m thinking this isn’t going to be a good writing night and I should just go meet up with my ex-critique group for a drink–but, it’s still early, and, actually, I should be saving my money.  A math tutoring session at the next table over decides me that if I’m going to not-write doggerel, I may as well do it in a better setting.  Besides, an attendant with antiseptic spray and cleaning rag has swooped over the vacated tables.  I scoop up snacks, pack, tablet, and keyboard, and I walk–headphones still on–to my regular spot.

I get to the table and there in the dark-sky-and-mica-star center of it is a paperclip.  Which slaps me back in time.  Weeks ago last June, at an elder-stateswoman-writer’s memorial, someone told a story about paperclips.  A few days before the writer died, the story-teller (an atheist) and the writer were joking around about supposed afterlives and randomly came up with the word “paperclip” as the message the writer would send as proof if she found herself in heaven.  The day after, the story-teller, in a moment of synchronicity, inexplicably found two paperclips–which he presented to the memorial gathering–linked, in his pocket.

I pick up this singleton paperclip.  It’s steel or some other silvery metal, with little grooves worked into the loops for extra gripping friction.

What meaning does one assign a paperclip–which may have been left behind by an elderly and possibly homeless woman when she left, pushing her belongings and errands out into the hot evening with a setting sun hidden by smoke and ash?

Paperclips hold pages together–paper planes which touch but do not connect.  Maybe the paperclip says, “Hold together;” but hold what?  There’s nothing currently in it more substantial than thought.

I rotate the paperclip in my fingers.  It’s not perfectly flat.  The inner loop of metal is pulled up slightly from the outer loop.  At one point it held together something–a manuscript? a prescription and receipt? a photo and resume?–but holding whatever together has warped it.

I put it down next to my keyboard and stare at it as I type.

Is the shade of a great writer leaving me a paperclip as a sign of encouragement?  Or, is it a reward for sitting with butt in chair and fingers on keyboard instead of slouching against a tavern table with a margarita in my hand?  Or, is it a challenge–write the story this empty paperclip will have to hold together?  Or, is it a message–the writer connects meanings to the actions in the text?  Yeah, right.  “Don’t lose the day job,” would be a more likely message, and I imagine she’d have better uses for manifesting paperclips, like leaving them for her family or people she’d known much longer than our two years’ acquaintance.  Or her agent.

I write all this while staring at the paperclip.  It’s getting late.  Maybe tonight I’ll dream about paperclips.  Maybe I’ll make a shirt that says, “My writer friend went to heaven and all I got was this paperclip.”  Maybe I’ll write a fantasy story about a magician who makes a talisman of paperclips linked together into a necklace:  every paperclip a star, every star a soul, every soul a story.

***

John Burridge writes short stories in the high fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary urban fantasy genres.  His work explores familial relationships, choice, and identity.  A native Oregonian, John lives with his husband, son, and two requisite cats (one fluffy and grey, the other sleek and black).

John is an alumni of the Eugene Wordos, a professional writer’s critique group.  He was an active member from 2001 to 2017, and he chaired or co-chaired their meetings from 2003 onward.

His first professional sale was to Writers of the Future.  Since then, he has garnered a few other sales and many, many rejection slips.  You can read more about him and his publishing history at https://johnburridge.blogspot.com/p/bio-writing-credits.html.

What Did You Win, Eric?

 

Littlest Death: An Afterlife Fantasy (a.k.a., Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel):
Winner: Independent Publishers Awards Silver Medal for Fantasy.
Winner: International Book Awards for Visionary Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Fantasy Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Best New Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Cross-Genre Fiction

What Did You Win, Eric?
by Eric Witchey

Last time I posted in this blog space, I talked about award sickness because one of my novels had just won the Silver Medal for Fantasy Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Since then, that same novel has won First Honors in the Visionary Fiction category from the International Book Awards. It also won finalist (top five) positions in several other categories, including Fantasy Fiction. At the same time, another novel of mine won First Honors in the Fantasy Fiction category from the International Book Awards. Yet another book won a Finalist position for both cover design and short fiction. The books are, respectively, Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel from ShadowSpinners Press, Bull’s Labyrinth from IFD Publishing, and Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure from IFD Publishing.

Note: Thanks are in order here for Alan M. Clark for his cover designs for both Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure and Bull’s Labyrinth.

Has my good problem, Award Sickness, gotten worse? Yes. Yes, it has. Thank you for asking. On top of that, I now have another good problem. I now have conversations that go sort of like this:

“Congratulations! What kind of stuff did you win?”

“Uh. Um.” Eric looks down and shuffles his feet.

“Really,” they say. “Cash, like the Pulitzer or the Nobel?”

“Uh. No. It’s not like that.” Eric waves his hands as if to push the assailant away and avoid embarrassment.

“Well, what then?”

“Stickers?” It sounds so tiny and pointless to Eric, so he adds, “I won some really cool stickers to put on my books. And a certificate!”

“That’s it?”

“A silver medal on a ribbon. I won that, too.” He doesn’t want to say he could wear that heavy bit of kitsch around his neck if he wanted to shout to the world that he is the worst kind of self-impressed language geek.

This kind of conversation confuses non-writers who often think recognition of excellence means income or fame. Having won quite a few awards for my writing, I can say with some confidence that awards rarely translate into income or fame. Sometimes, but rarely. This absence of fame and fortune even confuses some writers, so it’s time to come clean on the whole award thing.

Here’s what I won.

On a purely material level, I won stickers, a medal, and several certificates.

On a marketing level, I won the right to have Littlest Death presented to an international audience at the New York Book Expo and at the Library Book Expo in New York. Also on a marketing level, Littlest Death press releases went out to 800 various media, blog, and vlog outlets for consideration for exposure. Oh, and I can put stickers on the covers that appear as part of the presentation and advertising on places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and GoodReads.

Yay! Of course, I have no idea what that means in terms of sales. I won’t know for months, and possibly years, to come.

From my personal perspective, I won validation for the Afterlife Fantasy genre, which is embodied by Littlest Death. I had been thinking about writing an Afterlife Fantasy for some time, but I probably would never have done it because it would not have fit into any existing marketing category served by the octopus imprints of the big five publishers. A book like Littlest Death would have made the rounds of the imprints for several years. I’d have received the usual “loved this but not quite right for us” rejection letters. Instead, it came out from a small press that isn’t quite so risk averse.

Most important from my perspective, I won validation for the creative process that resulted in Littlest Death.

When I teach, I often say that craft tools should be based on the underlying linguistic and cognitive principles that govern the reader’s internalization of emotion from story. The test of a principle-based tool is pretty simple. It must be all of the following:

  1. Useful as a descriptive tool for finished, text-based story.
  2. Useful as an analysis tool and solution predictor for revision of text-based story.
  3. Useful as a design tool for the production of text-based story.

To that end, I have spent about 25 years obsessively characterizing and recording tools that fit the above criteria into a personal catalog. I use these tools constantly, and I teach them to others. However, prior to writing Littlest Death, there were a few tools in my box that I believed fit the criteria but that I had never actually tested on the design level. I had only used them as diagnostic and revision tools.

I used the opportunity to write my Afterlife Fantasy to test the design power of the untested tools. Specifically, the tools I often used in revision and description but had not really applied during story design were:

  • Irreconcilable Self as a control for character psychological and sociological development.
  • Vertical Story Analysis as a design tool to support manifestation of Dramatic Premise (Lajos Egri) and Character Arc prior to composition.

I’m not going to explain these tools here. Sorry. It would take too long. I’m just saying that these tools have been in my box for a while, and I have used them to revise many stories that went on to sell. In fact, I used them to revise Bull’s Labyrinth, which won the International Book Award for Fantasy Fiction. I also used them to revise some, but not all by any means, of the stories in Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure. I had just never used them up front before initial composition, so I felt a little bit like a fraud when I taught them because I had only proven to myself that they worked on two of the three levels of proof for “tool” that I require.

Once Littlest Death went into print and I started getting emails from people who cried tears of joy while reading, I felt pretty good about having demonstrated the tools’ usefulness in design. Once Littlest Death won two awards and several finalist slots in competition against many thousands of other novels, I started thinking it might be worth considering a few more such experiments in design.

What did I win?

I won validation of knowledge, confidence in that knowledge, and the confidence that sharing that knowledge with others will be useful to them.

Patiently Pondering Puddles in Pursuit of Poetry

by Christina Lay

The other morning as I pulled out of my driveway on the way to work, I found myself waiting for a little kid who, squirrel-like, was meandering around in the street right behind my car. I watched him out of my rear view mirror until he was finally far enough away I could continue. Only then did I see what he was doing.  He was going puddle to puddle and jumping in each one, then standing there, transfixed. Maybe field testing his galoshes, or measuring the depths in scientific pursuit, or imagining what it felt like to be a tadpole. Probably delaying arriving at school, much like I delay arriving at work every day.

As I drove away, I flashed back to myself at that age—about seven-ish, I’d guess—and a rainy day on my way home from school. I had to cross a big playing field and that day, the field was more pond than grass. Oblivious to everything else, I wandered back and forth, jumping in puddles, watching the ripples, most likely feeling how cold rain water and wool socks aren’t a good mix and basically having a jolly good time until I heard a car horn beeping. My mom, in a valiant effort to save me from getting soaked in the torrential rains, had driven the five blocks from our house to the end of the field to give me a ride. And there she sat, watching her crazy kid go puddle jumping.

Not much has changed, I’m happy to report. I’m still much more a first-grader in galoshes wandering through the world in questing admiration than a sensible adult who actually arrives at work on time.  But what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with writing?

Not a hell of a lot, except for the fact that it’s April (or was when I started writing this), which means torrential spring rains and poetry. April is National Poetry Month and my first thought as I drove away watching that crazy kid standing in the gutter was that he was seeking out little moments of poetry. A scrap of haiku.

Puddles in the path

How can I not jump when

School, the big nap, waits?

So I’m not a poet. But poetry has always informed my writing and when I want to go deeper into a character’s emotion, or the quality of a setting, or the truth behind a relationship, it’s the quiet moments that I seek out. The feel of rain soaking into socks. The reflection of a hazy sun in a puddle.  The things not said.

I’ve been attending the symphony a lot lately, and one thing I’ve been learning is how to appreciate the silences. The purposeful pause, the breath held. With all those instruments clamoring away to create a glorious noise, the moment of silence can be an extremely powerful thing.  As can a reflection in a puddle.

I am naturally a curmudgeon and the louder things get, the faster, brighter, ruder, and more brutal movies, books and music seem to become, the more I resist. The more I want to be the kid in galoshes, oblivious to all but the simple wonders. Like waiting for a hummingbird’s buzz or the trickle of a stream, it takes more effort these days to hear the silence and notice what is not moving, what is not flashing, blinking, or shouting for our attention.

If your characters are in the middle of a screaming argument, a sudden silence might be much more powerful than a string of obscenities. If your character is racing to battle, the sensation of rain soaking into his boots might give us a better glimpse into his heart and mind than the thunder of cannons and the vision of body parts flying.  If Cinderella is arriving at the ball, having her notice a dandelion sprouting through the cracks in the brickwork might prove more telling than an extended description of the palace.

And then everything can explode. Or not.

As entertainers, we do tend to focus on the grand and exciting moments. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t forget the importance of the threads that hold the crazy quilt of reality together. When the ordinary and divine meet, and we look up from the page, and say “oh”. When we as artists achieve the goal of expressing the inexpressible and using words to say what is beyond words.  That’s poetry, and we could all use a little more of it.

The Essential Ingredient of Story

by Christina Lay

Story:

An invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot. – Merriam-Webster

A plot or storyline. Or an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment. – Oxford Dictionary

A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale. A lie or fabrication. – Dictionary.com

Story is the full sequence of events in a work of fiction as we imagine them to have taken place, in the order in which they would have occurred in life (as opposed to plot). -The Balance

A description of how something happened – Idoceonline.com

What makes a story a story? I’m sure we all have a fairly good idea of what ingredients are needed to turn a collection of words into a story. I know I do, and when I was recently given the opportunity to judge a flash fiction short story contest, I didn’t hesitate to cull about half the submissions on the grounds of “this isn’t a story”, which then got me to thinking about why.

No doubt, it’s much harder to craft a complete story in 400 words or less than in say, 3,000, but it is possible. It’s even possible to craft a story in six words. This classic example is often attributed to Hemmingway:

For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never worn.

Why is this a story? This string of words has action (something being advertised for sale), a character or possibly more (infant and mother, maybe parents), and a conflict/problem (never worn implies a miscarriage or early death).

Clearly, much is left to the reader’s imagination and certain ingredients that you might consider essential to story are left out. Some definitions of story include setting as a required element. There’s none here. Some also describe a story as requiring a plot. Not so much.

So really, when you boil story down to its bare essentials, what do you really need? Jerry Oltion, a successful and prolific writer of science fiction stories, came up with the concept of the “foot stool” story, in which he boils down story to “a character in a situation with a problem”. The challenge is to weed out all the unnecessary elements and write a straight forward story using only those three “legs”, or ingredients.

Going back to those flash fiction pieces that didn’t meet the basic requirements, what was really missing? Certainly they all had a situation, or setting. Most had a character or two. Few had “a problem”. Most of them described a series of events. But in the end, what really kept them from being a story in my opinion was that, although some things happened, there was no indication that anything had changed. Suzy might have walked to the market and bought a tomato, but her state of mind never altered. She wanted a tomato, she got it. The End. No obstacles stood in the way of her getting a tomato and her lack of a tomato caused no particular hardship. She didn’t lose her wallet on the way. She didn’t live in Alaska and find herself taxed with making a Caprese Salad for her exacting in-laws only to find there were no decent vegetables to be had. Nope. Just a nice walk to the market to buy a nice tomato with ample funds for no apparent reason.

This, I believe, is the crux of story. Not only does a thing, or a bunch of things happen, but someone or something changes. The essential ingredient is change; an emotional shift, in both the character and the reader.

Many of the rejected flash fiction pieces struck me as prose poems. Not that a prose poem can’t also be a story, but in this case, the intention (or unintended result) of the writer’s efforts was more of a mood piece, a description of a place or a time. Partially due to the nature of the contest, the pieces tended to invoke one emotion –nostalgia—and that one emotion didn’t change, develop, or grow. Some of the pieces were quite lovely, but static, like a pastoral landscape. This does not make for compelling fiction.

The six word story example is dramatic. The reader goes from a neutral situation, For Sale, to maybe warm fuzzies or fondness or even revulsion (it happens) at the idea of Baby. Then, with Never Worn, there is a shift, an emotional impact. We know nothing of this baby and its parents, but chances are, empathy is invoked.

One of the most important things I ask myself now as I embark on telling any story is how will my character change? What affect will this event or series of events have on them or possibly the people around them? Why? These crucial questions then can lead to many more story-building leads, like why is this happening now? Is it inevitable? What choices and obstacles will my character face as they resist or embrace the change?

If I can’t answer the first basic question –how will my character change—I then have a question for myself. Why am I writing this? Is this a story, or a poem, or something else entirely?