Category Archives: How To’s on Writing

A Few Thoughts on Flash Fiction and Nonfiction

I teach a flash fiction and nonfiction class for Story Circle Network. Right now I am teaching flash nonfiction.  Flash is usually a piece that is limited to around 1200 words maximum.

Here are some thoughts on this type of writing.

Flash fiction and flash nonfiction differ clearly in content, but many of the needs are the same given the conciseness of the form.

In an excerpt from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Nathan Leslie in his article, “The “V” Word,” states, “By focusing on language, scene, voice, and character, my students often find themselves writing compelling and effectively ambiguous stories rather than cloyingly serendipitous and artificial ones. By doing so they learn that in flash fiction:

• Accomplishing one clear goal is of utmost importance.

• Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle, and minimalist writing overall, can work wonders—understatement and purposeful ambiguity are vital.

• Every word bears weight.

• Imagery is of the utmost importance.

• Many works of flash fiction can employ a sudden twist, turn, or realization.

• Irony is helpful.

• Beginning in the middle saves precious time and space.

• Length restrictions can bring out great art.

For flash nonfiction, book author and editor of the journal Brevity Dinty W. Moore states in an interview at River Teeth Journal that “The imperatives are the same, but everything is dialed up in a shorter piece. You need to move in and out of scene quickly, you need to introduce language, diction, and rhythm immediately, and you need to establish place, character, and conflict right away – usually in the first sentence. The first paragraph of a brief essay has to do what the first chapter of a memoir does.”

Here’s Dinty’s full interview.


Dinty Moore’s full interview can be found at


Repost: Lessons from John Steinbeck

I have just begun reading John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, a compilation of Steinbeck’s letters to his editor and friend, to whom he addressed a journal entry every day before writing his manuscript pages for his novel.

East of Eden is one of the first books I read years ago that grabbed me and twisted my thinking around. I thought I was reading one story and then halfway through everything shifted and I was reading another much more unexpected one. I will never forget that visceral sensation of being yanked into the world of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. That was the moment I fell in love with literature.

I’ve reread East of Eden in the past years, and now see that it is an imperfect book in many way, heavy on message and clumsy in some of its pacing. And yet, I still love it because it was the first book to demand my attention and make me think, “Oh, wow. This is so different (and better) than I initially thought.”

Now that I’ve written a memoir and have turned that memoir into a novel, I have some sense of how difficult novel-writing is. I am now in the early stages of a second novel and reading Steinbeck’s thoughts as he is working on East of Eden is a gift beyond measure. It is so helpful to read the unguarded words of a writer who is seeking to write the best book of his life.

Two of my favorite quotes so far are:

In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through – not very much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible. There is another kind who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing. Whether fortunate or unfortunate, this has not happened to me. The same blind effort, the straining and puffing go on in me. And always I hope that a little trickles through. This urge dies hard.

I want to write this one as though it were my last book. Maybe I believe that every book should be written that way. I think I mean that. It is the ideal. And I have done just the opposite. I have written each book as an exercise, as practice for the one to come. And this is the one to come. There is nothing beyond this book – nothing follows it.

It must be noted that those “practice books” included Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and The Pearl, to name a few. Also, East of Eden was not Steinbeck’s last book, though he considered it his greatest one.

I will continue to read Journal of a Novel and to “strain and puff” as I work on my writing. I like the idea of approaching this new book as if it were my last. That makes sense to me – no holding back. Now comes the effort and the hope that maybe just a little of what I’m trying to do will “trickle through.”

I best get started.


On Staring Down A Blank Page

I am sitting with a student while she writes so I have a few minutes to write my blog. (She and I will edit her writing once she is finished.) That brings me to the question of what shall I write about tonight? Finding a topic for writing is one of the toughest parts of blogging daily. On a busy day, it’s often no problem since I might have a ready subject to pull from, but sometimes even on those days, I’m not inspired to write about what I’ve done. That’s when I sit and stare at the blank page, which is usually not all that fun.

When I am faced with a blank mind and an empty page, I do what everyone does, I think, “I’m just too tired to do this tonight.” Sometimes, I go back through my past blogs to see if I can find one to repost or I include a recipe from a favorite dish or I do a photo essay with few words. Occasionally, I’ll listen to music and upload YouTube videos to fulfill my 20 minutes a day of writing obligation. It could be argued that I am not actually writing on those days and that is the absolute truth. I tell myself that any blog is better than no blog and, besides, nobody is perfect so reposts, recipes, photos or videos will do just fine. On one level, I am fine with this since these all represent aspects of my personality or interests and my blog is about maintaining a balanced life. Alas, on another level, I have to accept that I am cheating, and that is just the plain truth.

Tonight appears to be the night that I am writing about writer’s block or what I do when I am not feeling inspired. I guess I should add that when faced with this situation, I often simply write about what I see, hear, taste, touch or smell in the room around me. (Taste doesn’t usually apply here, as you may have already determined.) This will serve me well most of the time because just focusing on my immediate surroundings somehow centers my mind and I often stumble upon something that has caught my attention, which will fill up 20 minutes.

On days when I have waited too long to write and I am just worn out, either physically or emotionally, I have to simply throw in the towel and skip writing. I try not to let that happen too often, but sometimes it does just because of how life works. As I said before, nobody’s perfect.

Speaking of perfect, I can’t help but leap right over to perfectionism, which is the killer of all things creative. I have learned that often blog posts that I’ve determined are glaringly imperfect are often the ones that receive a whole host of positive comments and reader “likes,” while others that I think are brilliant fall on deaf ears. I have come to accept that I may have been too busy trying to be brilliant rather than honest. Alas…I live and learn.

My student is now finished. I am going to close.

The bottom line when facing a blank page is to write something even it you think it’s terrible. The physical writing of the words (or adding those reposts, photos, recipes, etc) will let your brain know that you are going to spend 20 minutes on this writing activity no matter what, so it (your brain) might as well stop protesting. That is where discipline comes from, when you have trained your brain to shut up and you get on with the work, no matter what.

On that note, I’ll say good night.

I hope you’ve had a fine day.

I’ll be checking in with you again tomorrow.

writer's block

Day 2: Story Circle Network Writing Conference

Today I went to classes on poetry, marketing, the value of place in writing and developing a writing voice. There were so many great options that it was hard to decide which classes to pick. I was very pleased with my four choices: the presenters were excellent in each and I came away with information that I can put into immediate practice. To me that is the very definition of a worthwhile workshop.

We also heard the May Sarton Award Winners read excerpts from their books during lunch. I was deeply impressed by the quality of the writing, which was absolutely beautiful.

This evening I hosted a table at dinner for anyone interested in or already participating in the online class program. We had a lively group with lots of laughter and good conversation. The food was good too!

This was another outstanding day at the conference. These women are so genuine, dedicated and talented. It’s a real treat to be among them.

Here are pictures of the various workshops I attended and our table at dinner:

Jan Seale, Texas Poet Laureate, 2012

Writing in Sorrow/Writing in Strength

Jan Seale

Debra Winegarten

Putting Your Book on Amazon is Not a Marketing Plan: Creative Ways to Market Your Book and Find New Audience


Dawn Wink and Susan Tweit

Place as Character


Lisa Dale Norton

                                                           It’s All about Voice:                                                                       Writing Memoir That Readers Will Love, Buy, and Recommend


Online Classes Table at Dinner

online table

Online Essay Class: Why You Should Take It

Hello to my women friends,

I am offering an online essay class that begins tomorrow through Story Circle Network, an organization that celebrates women’s writing. The price is right: $160 if you are a Story Circle Network member; $200 if you are not. This is for 5 weeks of lessons, with a chance to learn about and write a different type of essay every week. You get personal editing from yours truly and constructive feedback from your fellow students.

We will be using Dinty W. Moore’s book, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. Dinty is a professor of Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University and his book is easy to read and gives great examples of different types of personal essays, such as memoir, contemplative, travel, food, nature, spiritual and humorous.

But why should you take this class? The primary reason is that it will give you a chance to write short pieces (nothing over 1200 words) about your life. It will give you a opportunity to put on paper experiences that you’ve always wanted to share, but just didn’t know how to communicate in a way that felt “right.” Dinty’s book helps take the fear out of writing and instead puts in the fun. Also, I am dedicated to helping my students feel safe in my classes so you will know that the atmosphere is encouraging and the feedback constructive. I have no desire to extinguish anyone’s creative flame.

So, if you’ve been leaning towards writing your thoughts down and need some guidance on how to do that in a coherent way, then this is your chance. No time like the present to jump in and get started.

Here’s the link to Story Circle Network. Tomorrow we begin. Come join us!

Here is the link to become a member of Story Circle Network:



A Great Essay by Phillip Lopate

This is a wonderful piece written by Phillip Lopate, who is one of the premier essayist in the United States. It is very informative to anyone who writes memoir because Lopate encourages the writer to not only include scenes which showcase the child’s perspective of the world (or the less mature perspective), but also to include personal commentary from the more “mature” narrator to help the reader understand the writer’s analysis of that personal story. This is in direct contrast to many writing teachers who err on the side of complete “Show, Don’t Tell,” without any inclusion of narrative to explore what the story means to the writer.

Here is Lopate’s essay. It’s long, but well worth the time to read it if you are interested in the personal essay and/or memoir form.

Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story
The Fourth Genre, Spring 2005

By Phillip Lopate

In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self. This second perspective, the author’s retrospective employment of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past, is not merely an obligation but a privilege, an opportunity. In any autobiographical narrative, whether memoir or personal essay, the heart of the matter often shines through those passages where the writer analyzes the meaning of his or her experience. The quality of thinking, the depth of insight and the willingness to wrest as much understanding as the writer is humanly capable of arriving at—these are guarantees to the reader that a particular author’s sensibility is trustworthy and simpatico. With me, it goes further: I have always been deeply attracted to just those passages where the writing takes an analytical, interpretative turn, and which seem to me the dessert, the reward of prose.

Here’s the link to the rest of the essay:


A Welcome Discovery Related to Writing

Today I worked on my novel. I have discovered an excellent way to get this done during the week when I often have trouble finding time for my writing. I have a writing friend – one of my former students who has since graduated from college with a writing degree – who comes every week to see me. Over the past few weeks, he and I have decided upon a new approach to our time together. In the past, we would read what we had worked on during the week and get a critique from the other. Now, we have decided instead to actually write while we’re together, saving just a little time at the end for a quick critique and a bit of encouragement.

To say this is a brilliant idea is an understatement. We are both thrilled to have this time reserved solely for writing. He arrives and we spend five minutes catching up on the week, then we spend the next 1 1/2 hours writing. The only sounds in the room are the tapping of computer keys (my friend) and the scribbling of a pen on paper (me).

The important thing is that we both know that no matter what else happens during the week to crowd up our schedules, this time we share is devoted to writing.

Why has it taken me this long to come up with this plan? Who knows, but I am just happy I have stumbled upon it at last.

At this rate, I will have a completed novel in about a year and a half. That is assuming I do nothing but write during this time. I believe I’ll write more, of course, as the story gains momentum.

My only word for this discovery is hooray.

Sleep well, my friends. I plan to do the same. We’ll be talking again tomorrow.