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?

 

It’s Alive!

This week’s post is a little different than usual, because I finally get to announce the release of ShadowSpinners: A Collection of Dark Tales.  What started out as a flickering idea in this writer’s fevered imagination is now an actual physical thing! (We’ll save arguments regarding wether or not an ebook is an actual thing for later.)  For yes, we do have a print version, and it is truly a lovely thing to hold and fondle.  With the invaluable aid of ebook wizard Pamela Herber and print formatting genius Matt Lowes, ShadowSpinners can now offer up some of the fiction we’ve been ranting about for the past two years.  Thank you also to Cheryl Owen-Wilson for the gorgeous artwork.

frontCover1666x2517

I am profoundly grateful to be part of such an amazing group of writers.This has most definitely been a labor of love and I hope our enthusiasm for the project will warm your soul even as our stories chill your spine.

And now, so you’ll know what I’m raving about, here’s my introduction to the collection:

The tag line for the ShadowSpinners blog is “when nice people write bad things.” The writers whose works are included in this collection are nice people, mostly, in the daylight. But get us alone with our characters and bad things tend to happen. We’ve all written stories that have scared the wits out of friends and have earned us the question, often asked with a nervous chuckle, “Where on earth do you get these ideas?”

That is indeed an excellent question. Several of us have addressed it on the blog, (here, here and here) but while pondering how to introduce this rather eclectic collection, it came to me once again. Why do nice people write bad things? And what exactly makes a tale dark, anyway?

Within this volume you’ll find a broad compendium of styles, ranging from humorous to thoughtful to outright horrific. Yet there is a common thread, a dark undertow that explores the mysterious depths of the human psyche. The description “dark” can mean so many things, but in this volume the sense of something obscured, veiled by shadow, underlies each story, whether we are hearing the whispers of ghosts over the phone line, pondering the weight of a hollow existence, saving young souls from Satan or battling terrifying alien forces in the void of space.

Often, the darkness, the ghost, resides in our own minds. And when faced with an outside force of evil, an equal and opposing force may arise from within. Whether our characters will meet evil with evil or with an overcoming, triumphant strength is the question at the heart of many of these stories.

If you’re the sort of reader who likes to know what to expect, this might not be the volume for you. However, if you enjoy a rousing good yarn populated by fascinating characters in challenging situations, prepare to enjoy yourself.

The print version on Amazon

The eBook on Amazon

Making Waves with Particles, by Eric M. Witchey

Image

Making Waves with Particles,
by Eric M. Witchey

(Image source: Damkier Media Group via iStockPhoto)

Story meaning is both a wave and a particle.

The classic double slit physics experiment works quite well when applied to stories. In fact, slits aren’t even necessary for the experiment. All a writer needs is a pair of eyes, or even just one eye, or even braille. For this little thought experiment, think of the eyes, eye, or fingertips as one slit. When a story passes through that slit, the particle scatter patterns emerge.

Take a look at this text. Here is an ‘A.’ Here is a ‘B.’ Notice that the text you are reading is really just a long string of little black squiggles on a white background. One squiggle after another, the little squiggles appear. Readers scan the squiggles. Every now and then, a little extra white separates one group of squiggles from another group of squiggles, and the reader recognizes that a word has ended and a new one has begun. The squiggles make word patterns, and the word patterns appear in rows, lines.

Lines group together. Paragraphs appear. Scenes appear. Chapters appear. All the little particles line up in rows one after another until they have marched one particle at a time from the first letter of the first page to the last period of the last line on the last page.

Letters, words, lines, paragraphs, etc. are the scattering of the particles on a backdrop. The reader’s eye, eyes, or fingertips pick up each little squiggle and combines it with the next to create words. The reader picks up each word and pulls the meaning from it and combines that meaning with the next. One after another, the reader picks up individual meanings and combines them with other meanings. Patterns emerge.

Notice that in the last paragraph, the description of the reader’s experience included an interesting shift from recognition of the little squiggles to the pulling of meaning from the emerging patterns.

The second slit is the mind’s eye, the eye behind the eye, which is a calm pond into which the particulate words fall like pebbles. Each pebble creates a ripple. The ripples expand and interact. A ripple peak meets a trough, and they cancel into a moment of calm water. Two peaks meet, and they create a new peak that is higher and stronger than either one alone. These rippling interactions of meanings add to or subtract from the power of the reader’s experience. Each ripple has amplitude and frequency. The driving power of the ripple is emotion, and the power of the emotions cancels and amplifies.

A yellow dog playing with a boy is a happy thing to read. A yellow dog dying is a sad thing to read. Alone, each has power in and of itself. Combined with a story’s many other ripples, all of which combine to amplify or cancel, the second image becomes the tear-jerking end to Old Yeller.

Perfect, particulate words and events are not enough. Emotion captured in an individual line, a conflict set, or a single page is not enough. Awareness, intuitively or consciously, of how the particle patterns and wave patterns are related and how the wave patterns interact allows a writer to create the contrasts and amplifications that keep the reader’s mind and emotions focused on the story that emerges from the page. The emotional power of an ending depends on how the ripples created by the first word of the story are amplified or cancelled when combined with subsequent ripples.

For your consideration, examine the following short story for the patterns of particles and for the complimentary and contrasting wave interactions. Please, if you see the particle/waves duality and the power of the interactions between waves, leave a comment and let me know. I hope you enjoy the experience.

The following story was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Prose Award and was first published in The Best New Fiction of 2012. All typos and variations from the published version are my fault and not the fault of the editors. Also, Dr. Hansey is a real doctor. He was my doctor. Use of his name is my bow in his direction. Without him, I would still be sealed in my own metaphorical car in the sun. Namaste, Dr. Hansey.

 

Reunion

Eric M. Witchey

 

The sealed car is heating up under August sun. Gordon lets the sweat roll down from his stubble hairline, along his neck, and under the collar of his linen cabana shirt. It reminds him that he’s on an outing like a normal person.

A family reunion. Lots of people go to them. Now, he does, too.

He tells himself family reunions are happy things. When he was a kid, he remembers them being happy things. He especially remembers galvanized steel tubs filled with water and ice nests cradling huge, sweet watermelons.

For some reason, the memory of one family reunion includes a fixation on a nearby swimming pool he and the other kids weren’t allowed to go to. The chlorine smell of the water, sounds of splashing kids, and squeals of joy and laughter tortured them in heavy August heat.

He supposes the pool, like many memories in his life, is burned into his mind because he couldn’t have it.

Like Sussette.

She still dominates his thoughts, but his meds helped disconnect his actions from those thoughts. He’d finally gotten to the point where he could leave her alone. He’d even deleted her old number from his cell phone. With Dr. Hansey’s help, he’d almost deleted her new one twice. That day would come pretty soon, he was sure.

But the meds hadn’t made it so he could get out of the car, so he watches his family reunion from inside the protective, purifying oven of glass and steel.

Kids run back and forth across the park lawns. Some play soccer. Some play chasing games. There are so many kids. Chaos on the hoof, and he can’t imagine any good will come of it. They’ll crash into things, spill things, break things. If he gets out, they’ll bump him. One might even touch his skin.

The sweat on his neck chills and makes him shudder. That’s what he tells himself.

He’d been a kid. He remembers it whether he wants to or not.

It’s just crazy to sit in the car because he can’t stand the thought of them bouncing around like agitated molecules. They touch everything. They scream and squeal.

He must have been like that. Must have been.

What if he had gotten together with Sussette? They would’ve had kids. She wanted them. She desperately wanted them. He wanted her. He would have agreed to anything to have her.

The restraining order was pointless, really. She had no idea how much power she had over him and how little power he had over her. If she’d asked, he’d have followed her from two feet or fifty yards. He’d have done anything for her, but she hadn’t seen that.

A Frisbee hits the side of the car. The plastic on metal thud startles him. He ducks and sucks in a lung full of hot, vinyl-tainted air. When he realizes he’s okay, he lifts his head enough to peer across the seat and out the passenger side window.

A laughing eightish-year-old boy runs to the car, sees him through the window, and mouths the word, “Sorry.” Then he snags the disk, spins, and lets it fly back toward the field of loose molecules.

Gordon checks the door locks. None of the kids are near him now. He’s safe, and he does a breathing exercise to relax a little, then he thinks back to what it was like when he was a kid.

The first thing he remembers is that he could fly. It’s always the first thing he remembers. He had to be naked, and the day had to be sunny, too. He remembers the warm sun on his skin felt good, like ripe watermelon on the vine tastes — a sweet, spreading liquid rightness flowing into every shadowy nook and cranny of his body and mind. He used to lie down in a field of clover and close his eyes. While his eyes were closed, when the rightness filled him full and replaced every heaviness in him, he would stand up and fly. It wasn’t a super power sort of flying––that fast, driving flying that tore at the air and pushed it aside. It was more of a leaning into the breeze, hands slightly out from his sides and palms forward. He leaned and let the cool air touch his chest, belly, and arms––let it gently lift him from the earth like a kite with no string.

By turning his hands and leaning, he could slide along the waves of wind and rise and fall and move forward or let the wind push him back.

In the heat of the car, he closes his eyes and tries to find that feeling of freedom, of rising above all the ugly stuff that had become his life.

All he finds is orange heat behind closed lids.

All he feels is the drip of sweat on his neck and off the tip of his nose. He can’t even find the smell of the clover or make the heat of the car into the delicious warmth of sun on his bare skin.

“Gordon!” The voice is his mother.

She found him flying in the clover field. Her anger, fear, and shame made her scream, grab, and drag him to the house. She sprayed him with cold water from the hose they used to water the dogs.

“Is that you? Come on out here. Let me look at you!”

It’s not his mother. It’s a man’s voice.

Someone pulls on the car door handle. They tap on the glass. “Gordon!”

He keeps his eyes closed, willing them to believe he’s sleeping, trying to push them away from the car with his thoughts.

He has learned to visualize what he wanted to happen in his life, and he wants that voice to take its body back to the pavilion where barbeque is cooking and adults chat and trade lies and laughter.

The knocking on the window gets harder. “Gordon! Are you all right? Gordon! It’s Andy! Gordon!”

Andy. Of course, it’s Andy’s voice. His cousin. They had played together at these things.

Ball?

Yes––until Andy hit him in the head with a bat.

And running and jumping games.

He remembered Andy pushing him down a flight of three concrete steps.

Now, adult Andy yells at him to leave the protection of his metal shell. If he did, he’d have to walk across the grass. The bouncing, laughing molecules might touch him.

Grown up Andy probably has kids. Maybe the Frisbee boy is Andy’s kid.

Gordon keeps his eyes shut. Andy calls for him a couple more times, then the visualization works and Andy goes away.

Gordon is about to open his eyes when he hears people coming. Many voices. Excited voices. Talking, almost yelling voices. Andy’s is mixed in with them.

“. . . locked in, and I couldn’t get him . . .”

“. . . a hundred and fifty in there. We have to . . .”

“. . . get Zach. Quick, get Doctor Zach . . .”

Too many voices. Too much noise. Even the adults have become loose molecules. The sun has heated them all into agitated Brownian chaos and craziness. He should drive away. He wasn’t ever going to get out of the car. He knows that now. It was pointless to drive the two hundred miles to this stupid park thinking he’d gotten well enough to somehow join his family and act normal.

He opens his eyes just in time to see an arm swinging toward the passenger window. In a slow motion of terror, he sees that the hand on that arm holds a tool of some kind––a red plastic handle with a metal point sticking out of it. The metal hits the window. A spider web of fractures appears, radiating outward to all the edges of the window. The whole thing bows inward, and every tiny fragment of glass frees itself from all the others and explodes inward toward him, showering him in the fragments of his own sheltering window. Cool wind chases the glass with the smell of chlorine and mowed grass.

Then the door is open. Hands reach in. Too many hands. Andy’s hands. Other people’s hands. A pair of child’s hands.

He pushes himself away from them, kicking and pressing his back to the driver’s side door.

Grasping hands find the master lock switch on the key fob dangling from the ignition. The lock on the door behind him pops.

His door opens. He’s out, dragged onto the hot asphalt, surrounded, and held down. It’s a nightmare, the opposite of flying.

He screams and struggles to get up.

“Heat stroke,” a voice says.

“Hysterical,” another says.

They all say things, make noises, talk at him. He can’t hear them all, not all of them, not all at once.

He fights, but they hold him.

“Get back!” Someone yells. “Everybody, get back! Give him air. Give him room.” The someone makes them pull away.

One man, a man with curly red hair and a trimmed beard, kneels next to him. Blue sky surrounds the man’s face. He is a bearded balloon floating in the blue sky. “Gordon?”

Gordon manages a nod.

“I’m Zach, your second cousin. Do you know me?”

He shakes his head.

“It’s been a long time.”

He nods.

“Do you know where you are?”

He manages one word. “Reunion.”

“That’s right. You’re at your family reunion. Do you think you can you drink some water?”

Gordon looks around at the loose circle of towering, momentarily frozen, molecules. Andy’s there. It’s Andy, for sure, taller and fatter, but still Andy with his dark eyes and narrow lips. Five children of various ages stand around his legs. Gordon closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to see them.

“Stay with me,” Zach says.

Gordon opens his eyes. “Hebephobia,” he says, “and OCD.”

“Shit,” Zach says. “Get back! You kids, get back! Go play! Now!”

“Is it contagious?” Andy steps back a few paces.

Gordon closes his eyes against the horrors of his family reunion and tells himself he’s home in his basement lying in the dark on the hard concrete floor. Mowed lawn and sweat smells combined with the hot asphalt against his back makes it hard to believe himself.

“Just keep the kids away, Andy. Get them to the pavilion. You go with them.”

“Is it contagious?” Andy sounds scared.

Somewhere inside, the Gordon lying crying and bleeding at the bottom of three concrete steps catches his breath and smiles.

“Go!” Zach says. A few seconds later, he says, “You can open your eyes if you want to.”

Gordon does. He and Zach are alone.

“Can you sit up?” The second cousin doctor helps him sit. “So, is this some sort of therapy for you?”

“I thought I could do it.”

“You’re here.”

“But I couldn’t get out of the car.”

“You’re out, now.” Doctor Zach tries to be a normal person and chuckle. It sounds flat and wrong. Zach pats him on the back.

“I have to leave,” Gordon says.

“I’ll explain it to them.”

Gordon looks at the pavilion full of people, at Andy standing there with a kid under each arm, talking excitedly with a gray-haired woman and a couple of younger men. The younger men keep looking Gordon’s way.

“Do you think,” Gordon says, “you could wait to tell them?”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“No. That’s not it.”

“Why?”

“Just wait. Let Andy’s germs worry him.”

“I’m not sure––”

“Just for one day.”

Zach turns and looks at the pavilion, too. When he turns back, he’s smiling, and the smile looks real. “I’ve known Andy a long time. I think I can do that.”

Gordon nods and lets Zach help him to his car.

When he gets home, Gordon strips, goes out into his privacy-fenced back yard, and lies down in a patch of clover. He closes his eyes and lets the summer sun make his skin delicious. After a while, the delicious starts to sink in deeper and deeper until he’s sure it feels just right, just like he remembers. He stands. Eyes closed and arms at his sides, he leans into the breeze and rises into the embrace of summer winds.

 

 

Writers Just Wanna Have Fun

By Cynthia Ray

Dorothy Parker quote

A writer died and was given the option of going to heaven or hell, and was shown each place. As the writer descended into the fiery pits of hell, she saw row upon row of writers chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they were repeatedly whipped with thorny lashes.

“Oh no,” said the writer. “Let me see heaven now.”

A few moments later, as she ascended into heaven, she saw rows of writers, chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they, too, were whipped with thorny lashes.

“Wait a minute,” said the writer. “This is just as bad as hell!”

“Oh no, it’s not,” replied an unseen voice. “Here, your work gets published.”

Aw, c’mon. Is writing really that bad?  YES. It is probably one of the most difficult things you will ever do.  Seriously, is writing that bad?  NO.  It is probably one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.

Obviously, we writers have a hard time telling heaven from hell.  An author friend of mine, Michael Maciel, says “One thing I’ve learned about writing is that you can’t wait until you’re in the mood. Writing is less about feeling and timing than it is about sheer force of will.”

Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound like much fun either. Force of will? We want to write. It’s what we were born for, so why do we have to FORCE ourselves to sit down in front of the computer and start tapping keys? Or, in the case of the Luddites among us, pick up pen and paper.

Writing a story is a lot like having a baby. The story gestates inside of you until it just has to come out. You look forward to cuddling that baby in your arms, but you sure as hell don’t look forward to enduring hours of painful contractions.

Writing this blog is like that for me. I dont worry about it until about two weeks before it is due; then  I begin to chew on topics, rejecting one after another, until there are one or two left that resonate with me. A few days before the deadline, I wake up on fire,  thinking “I have to write the blog, I have to write the blog. I have to write the blog.”  I pick a totally differnt topic and begin.

When I get halfway through, I dump the draft into the trash in disgust and start over.  Later, I am recovering that first draft from the trash and merging it with another idea. Reject. Re-write. Re-consider. And so it goes, until the 24 hour deadline looms over my head like a Kansas thundercloud.  Here is where my muse with the gun comes in.

Muse with a gun

At last, I press save and the freshly pressed blog is ready to post.   I feel a sense of elation. It’s done! Complete! Fini!  Or is it?

For me, setting a time to write everyday and sticking to it no matter what keeps me going. Like Michael says, you just sit down and write whether you feel like it or not.  It sets a pattern and provides a space in which it is easier to create. It might even turn out to be fun… you never know.  And it doesn’t have to be a lot of time. One of my writing heroes is a woman who wrote a novel during her lunch hours, and got it published.

When people ask us about writing, let’s say it’s easy.   Riiiiiiiiight.

Chainsaw

Cartoons printed with persmission from Jim Hines       http://www.jimchines.com/tag/comic/ 

When Should I Write?

When Should I Write?

by Eric M. Witchey

At a recent conference, I mentioned a number of brain-based techniques I use for production. Several people asked me the perennial question, “When should I write?” I wish I had the answer to that question. I wish it were an easy answer. What I know is that there are two kinds of people… Since there are two kinds of people, there are also two kinds of writers. I know careful, thoughtful writers and intuitive, insightful writers. Of course, I also know that any time I talk about two kinds of anything, I’m getting it wrong and tossing out an entire world of insights that might be useful.

Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, works from an exclusively cognitive or intuitive position. The most hard-core researching, obsessive, analytic writer still has moments where “it came to me that….” The most touchy-feely, woo-woo, let the muse flow through them, channeling characters writer also has moments when they look at their own prose and make conscious decisions about how to revise based on experience or principle. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

The cold, hard facts are that no two people are exactly alike and no two stories require exactly the same mix of cognitive and intuitive attention. This morning, I wrote a short story in less than an hour. Last week, I wrote a short story of the same length (only 1500 words). It took me twelve hours, including a lot of research, analysis, and revision. Writing fiction always requires a mix of analytic and intuitive skills.

Have you ever notice that doctors tend to miss the fact that all bodies are built differently? Each of us has different thresholds for pain, sensitivity to light, fears, and anxieties. Did you ever wonder how anybody gets good healthcare since all treatments are designed to provide relief and improvement to the average patient as determined in clinical trials?

Doctors are lucky. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to trust them to know what they’re doing. Readers will not tolerate a story based on statistical averages. Each of us is different, and each of us must modify our writing processes and practices to fit our own body, mind, and lifestyle. If we don’t, our work will not be tolerated by our readers.

Certainly, we can modify our lifestyles to support our writing habits, but that’s a life management class. In this blog entry, I want to make sure of two things. First, I want to make sure that writers empower the person who knows their psychology and physiology best. I want them to put that person is in charge of how and when they write. So, you, and only you, must evaluate your performance and make adjustments as needed.

While we can engage in cognitive and intuitive workouts to build both sets of skills and improve the communication between the parts of the brain that engage during the different modes of work, we each still have to bow to our own, personal work styles, experience, and developmental quirks. Since no two of us are the same, nobody can really tell us exactly how the mix should work for any one of us. The only person that can make that determination for a writer is that writer.

Is analytic work easier for you in the morning, the evening, or the afternoon? Whatever your answer, that’s when you should do it. Is intuitive work easier for you in the morning, evening, or afternoon? Whatever your answer, that’s when you should do it.

We can take some guidance from study statistics that report physiological averages.

The averages say that intuitive work is easiest in the first 90 minutes after we wake up. If you need that time to write but fill 90 minutes with a shower, making breakfast, making coffee and reading the paper, you’ve lost that optimum time forever that day. If that’s your creative time, you need to ask yourself what you can do to take advantage of your best creative brain state right after sleeping. You may even ask yourself when (and if) you can take naps during the day in order to restart that brain state.

The averages say that our cognitive skills are strongest in early and late afternoon. Mine simply are not. I’m stupid as hell in the afternoon (except when I’m teaching because then I’m hyped on adrenaline and caffeine). Should you be doing your plot analysis at 2pm? Should you be doing your editing after 1pm? I can’t answer for other writers. I can only say that experimentation will help them decide what will work best for them.

The averages say that our repetitive task skills are least interfered with by other influences in the evening. Uh, that might be a great time for spell checking, eh?

I can’t answer the question, “When should I write?” I can tell people when I write and why. My personal physiology and schedule work something like this on a perfect fiction writing day:

  • AM 6:00 to 9:30: Protein (one egg), vitamins, speed writing warm-up (imagination exercise and technique practice). I then engage in composition for current projects.
  • 9:30: meditation. Email check and respond. Shower
  • 10:00: small snack. Often, it’s a handful of nuts.
  • 10:10-12:00: Some composition. Some revision.
  • PM 12:00-12:30: Lunch (protein). I eat light and avoid carbs at lunch unless I plan to stop working. If I snack, I snack on jerky or nuts because protein allows me to stay alert. Carbohydrates put me to sleep. Different people respond differently.
  • 12:30-2:30: Email check and respond. Revisions.
  • 2:30: Nap or Exercise if I can. The time for this varies throughout the year based on my needs.
  • 3:00-5 or 6: Revisions and/or technical writing/course development/article writing.
  • 5 or 6: Relax, prep dinner, eat.
  • 6:00 to bedtime: Household activities, reading, movies.
  • 10:30 or 11:00: sleep.

I manage my writing to match the fact that my brain is at its most creative early in the day. Even after a nap, I don’t get a full reset of my creative powers. The later in the day it gets, the more I move toward revision and analysis type tasks. Good food and a good night’s sleep are a critical part of my time management. Naps and meditation are part of my productivity process. Loading my brain with writerly thoughts and happy thoughts before bed is important to me. I often skim through silly web sites like I Can Has Cheezburger just before sleep. Exercise is important, even if it’s only a walk to the post office, and only injury keeps me from it. I know these things about myself, so I plan my day based on my experiences with my own mind and body. Only you can know yourself well enough to plan your writing day.

Remember that I said I wanted to make sure of two thing? The second thing is that I want to make sure that you, my dear writer friend, take time to seriously answer the question, “When should I write?”

On Writing Romance

Heart and Soul

Heart and Soul

An original painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

When I think of romantic stories filled with eternal love I’ve always equated them with dashing men and perfectly coifed women, and as their story ends or the movie fades to black, I see them silhouetted in a passionate kiss against a brilliant sunset.  It’s February, a month where unless you never leave your home, you are inundated with these concepts.  It’s a time of year when people everywhere profess said undying love, in the form of large heart shaped boxes of chocolate, sentimental cards and massive bouquets of flowers.  Stores also feature every romantic movie or book ever written.  Which leads me to…have you ever written, or tried to write a romance? I’m talking a heart thumping, Harlequin, type of story.

I’ve tried to write such a romantic story.  I can hear a chorus of instructors in the many writing courses I’ve taken over the years. “Your assignment is to write a romantic story; not a sexually laden story. I want a tale filled with love. I want to hear violins playing; I want to not only smell roses, I want to see them strewn about. You have one hour, now get started.”  Well maybe they didn’t put it quite in those words, but it was implied. Yes, very much implied and I tried, I really have tried. I visualize a Fabio male character and add in an Angelina Jolie type female. They court or date, for a brief period of time, they have the major obstacles to overcome, finally their over-the-top passion for one another solves said issues and at that point the violins are cued and across the bottom page in frilly font I should be placing, “And They Lived Happily Ever After”. Right? Well, as I said I’ve tried and not just with the beautiful people.  I’ve attempted it with pimply-faced youth and average, slightly over-weight, non movie star types as well. But here is what ALWAYS happens in my attempts to write a Harlequin romance, type story.

I kill one of them. Yep, one of them always has to die. Until recently, this was most upsetting to me. My trash bin is filled with dead lovers.

Please note, I said until recently. Because just as I was berating myself for yet another deceased heroine at the hands of her knight in shining armor no less (accidentally of course), I had one of those “aha” moments.  I, in that fleeting moment, stumbled upon a most astonishing fact.  In most of my favorite love stories, someone dies.  Yes, I’m going to say it; think, “Love Story” with Ryan O’Neil and Ali MacGraw, or the classic Romeo and Juliet or how about a more current story, Downton Abbey?  We rejoiced when Lady Mary and Matthew finally overcame all their roadblocks; they were blissfully happy; new baby and all.  Then with the stroke of a writer’s pen, Mathew is gone. I could’ve written that; I have written it!  Thus, my “aha” moment, it’s so very freeing when we as writers, can overcome any preconceived notion we have about a particular genre, is it not?  Most of my fiction is considered “Southern Gothic”.  Hard to think about love when, a voodoo doll wearing your face, is being poked and prodded.  But I now realize that does not have to automatically exclude me from the romance of the month club. Yes, a most liberating realization.

So here I am once again, at this fluttering heart time of year, contemplating writing a romance.  But this time I’m not fretting or preparing my trash can for yet another failed attempt. No this year, if one of my lovers has to take a leap off the cliff, which always overlooks Lovers’ Lane, so be it.  Yes, this year I’m going to take my couple on an obstacle filled odyssey where their love will be tested, yet it will prevail. They may not prevail, but their eternal love will and who knows, maybe with this newly found freedom I feel in writing a romance, just maybe, it will all end with the flowery script, “And They Lived Happily Ever After”. But just in case, I’ll make sure I cue the violin and have plenty of flowers. Love is eternal after all, even if one of them doesn’t survive the Lovers’ Lane leap.

In Praise of Short Fiction

by Cynthia Coate Ray

Now that the rainy season is upon us, I look forward to downloading new novels from my favorite authors (like fellow Shadowspinners Eric Witchey, Liz Engstrom and Christina Lay among others) and laying around all day just reading and sipping hot chocolate.

But you won’t find any novels with my name on them here, or any long unfinished manuscripts in my files.  Short fiction is my passion.  The challenge of crafting a compelling story within the confines of 1000 to 8000 words spins my gears.   It’s also because I enjoy actually finishing something.
Short stories lend themselves to experimentation, and if it fails, I’ve learned something, but the time invested is not so much that I regret it.  A novel could go on for years, but I can finish a short story in 24 hours.  One day I woke up and wrote a 500-word story in an hour but that is the exception; most of the time it takes me from one to six weeks to finish and polish a good story.

The short story renaissance is evidenced by the multitudinous venues, both in print and on line for short fiction, from microfiction to novellas.   Short fiction lends itself to creative venues as well.  For example, Lectores Coffee Company solicits original manuscripts and poems for display on their coffee bags.  Short stories are accessible; you can sign up to receive a beautifully crafted 1000 word story delivered to your inbox every morning from Daily Science Fiction to enjoy before you go to work, or on your lunch break.  You can download many excellent, but inexpensive short stories from Amazon and others, for example Shadow Spinner Matt Lowes, ‘The Music of Timothy Shean’.

Perhaps people crave short fiction because, like me, they enjoy finishing something. Perhaps they appreciate, as I do, the perfection of a well-done story, where all the feeling, the conflict, the satisfying ending is there like a small present to be unwrapped.

Here are links to a few of my published short stories.

The Truth about Love and Revenge:  This story started out as an idea for a novel set in modern times and ended up as a short fantasy story.  It was first published in Fringe Magazine and reprinted here in Sourcerous Signals

Crab Feast:  This is the story that I woke up and wrote in an hour, as part of a writing exercise I do every morning.  Wake up and just write what comes out.  It appears here in Dark Bits, an anthology of 52 flash fiction horror stories.

Passage:  I wrote this story in 24 hours one of Liz Engstrom’s Fantasy writing workshops.  It is about dragons, and appears in this anthology dedicated to the memory of Anne McCaffery; In Memory of Dragons.