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It seems almost impossible to think that 20 minutes a day is tough to find for anything, most especially writing. After all, most of us who love writing want nothing more than to write daily, to have a routine and to feel the satisfaction that comes with discipline. And yet, I must admit, that my commitment to writing 20 minutes a day on this blog wavered only after a few days. But why?

Mainly, I must admit I felt slightly exposed publishing my work on a blog. I felt nervous that others could read what I had dashed out in just 20 minutes. I did what I often do when it comes to writing – wish that I were writing – but instead I spent my extra time cooking or cleaning or staring at the television set. I ‘m not talking the legitimate time spent working or doing household chores or being with family or friends. I’m talking about those precious extra minutes spent on activities that clog up my day and keep me from doing the things I’d feel good about accomplishing. Just for the record, I have been writing, but not on here. Still, this is a commitment I want to make because I absolutely know that having a daily discipline like this is one of the very best ways to improve writing. Not to mention that I will have a chronicle of my efforts right in front of me.

Part of my problem centers on feeling vulnerable. I write and then when I post, I feel slightly anxious. What if my writing is awful? What if people reading it are making judgments about my talent or even the level of my intelligence? Yes, it sounds fairly paranoid, but the truth is I believe most people feel this way when others are reading what they’ve written. Even famous writers say this fear of judgment plagues them. So why would I be any different? After all, this is laying myself bare on the page – letting people in to read about my personal perspective on life, even if I decide I’ll only write fiction. And, of course, I’m writing both fiction and memoir here. Such is the nature of art – laying oneself bare – so that others can feel a connection that isn’t layered with subterfuge and fear.

Alas, here I am, again, devoting myself to this discipline. And recognizing that with that commitment, I feel discomfort. This represents getting out of my comfort zone, trying something new, exposing my thoughts and feelings on the page to an audience who may be judgmental. And yet, if I don’t take that risk, then I miss the opportunity to explore who I am. I read the other day in The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt that writing is making an active choice to evolve. (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist). And evolution means taking changes, pushing to the next level, opening oneself up to new experiences and pushing the fear back just long enough to escape from that T-Rex that’s looking for its next meal.

So be it. I’m off again on the adventure. But I will be the last to judge another who claims they just “can’t find that 20 minutes a day to write.” After all, I started with good intentions and quickly fell off the bandwagon myself. But now, I’m hoisting myself back up and on. Here we go. This is my first 20 minutes of writing for this new venture and it’s flawed, but what the heck. As Ray Bradbury says, “Throw up on the page. You can clean it up later.”

Amen.

Day 3 – Prompt: Outside My Front Door

For all of you who haven’t visited me, which is everybody since nobody takes me up on my invitation to visit the lovely, pleasant-weather location where I’ve chosen to reside, our house is on the line between Beverly Hills (Barely Hills, we call our location) and West Hollywood, the gay area of LA, with Dicks Street being literally right across from us and no, I do not believe that was an oversight of the Weho community to name it that.  Okay, a breath…

Just ten minutes ago, (my darling new corgi, Cordelia, now has the habit of rising right around 5 and starts whining for us – that means she and I – to get up), anyway, at 5:50 am, I heard shouting outside.  Doheny Drive is a major thoroughfare connecting Sunset and Santa Monica Blvds. (we are literally a ten minute work from the “Sunset Strip” and yes, that is a shameless ploy to get anyone to come see me…anyway….like I said, I heard shouting outside.  Naturally being the Lookie-Lou that I am, I ran to the window to see what was happening.  It is not out of the question in this area to have late late late night party-goers wander out of the high-rise across the street or down from the clubs on Sunset and end up in a shouting match out on the sidewalk.  Granted almost 6 am, is late for that crowd, but I have many times seen black clad folks walking down Sunset looking a little too perky for such an early hour and have had to conclude that they are perhaps “altered” with the aid of one of several chemical substances.  Okay, back to the shouting.

So, I ran to the window and there right in front of Dicks Street (yes, I know I’m back to that lowbrow reference) there lay a man face down on the street, and behind every palm tree (and there are at least six within my sight from my window) were police officers with guns drawn and aimed directly at the man.  The shouting was the man saying words I couldn’t make out but that were surely “Don’t shoot me.”  Sheriffs from Weho and police from BH had both handguns and rifles and there were cop cars parked in odd angles in both directions on Doheny.   I watched as at least 9 deputies cautiously approached the man – there were at least 6 more behind trees with guns poised and ready – and then one of the deputies without a gun reached down and handcuffed the prone man, arms behind his back.

At that point Cordelia was barking to beat the band outside behind our gate and I went out to shush her.

When I returned.  The man was standing up and all guns had been put away.   Officers started to leave – one car after the other – until there was only one car, two officers and the man.

That’s when I noticed the man was now standing un-hand-cuffed and was talking to the officers.

As I watched, the officers handed him a piece of paper and two items from the police car, shook his hand, and then got into their car and drove away.

The man, probably in his early 40’s and dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, then donned a straw hat (one of the items the police gave back to him), and with umbrella in hand (the other item they returned), started ambling down the street, as calm as you can be, as if he hadn’t just been face-down in the middle of an intersection with 15 policemen pointing firearms straight at his head.

Now is this why nobody visits?

A Good Description on How to Craft a Flash Story

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Thursday Flash Craft: Desire & Narrative Structure in Writing the Short Short

By Randall Brown | July 21, 2011 9:32 AM | 0 Comments

[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared at FlashFiction.Net on 7/30/2009]

Narrative-based flash pieces tell a story. The basic structure of such a narrative might go something like this: (1) something creates a very strong desire in the character, a desire which creates the need for (2) some kind of action(s) to fulfill this desire, leading ultimately to (3) a resolution/revelation.

Let’s look at each of these 3-part sections more closely.

I: The Inciting Incident

Usually something occurs to create and/or ratchet up desire. This event—called the separation by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces—forces the character (1) to act in a new way; (2) to confront essential issues; (3) to face challenges; and (4) to bring some resolution to the situation. The sooner this event occurs, the better. The first paragraph isn’t a bad place to start.

The beginning must not only create desire in the character, but it should have a quality that arouses a desire in the reader (the desire, of course, to read on). One way to get a reader immediately interested is to begin the flash with the inciting incident, in the middle of things, right as life is becoming story-worthy and thus narratable.

Example in writing a draft: Jake pressed on the horn and blared through the stop sign. Two more blocks. Jonah’s mouth in the rearview mirror, like a beached carp. Jake had read the ingredients for the water ice twice, asked three times if they ever used the ice cream scoop for the water ice. And still milk found its way to Jonah’s blood, puffing him up, taking breaths, and Jake already heard the tight strain in Alice’s voice as she repeated her crummy accusations over the cell phone. “You want him sick, Jake. That’s the only explanation. Four times, now. All with you and no one else.”

 

Remember that the initial event should have something about it that forces the character to confront the true nature of the world and/or the self and/or his desire and/or an essential truth and/or a pressing issue of our times or all times. In other words, I think stories work best when we get the sense that not ANY EVENT would suffice. There’s something about this event, as if the gods specifically designed the event and sent it to this character to challenge the character in a profound, pressing way.

Questions to ask of the opening in terms of narrative structure and desire:

  1. Does it generate a desire in the character: Now this character wants what?

 

  1. Does it separate the character from the previous world, as seen by the character’s sentiments, beliefs, understandings, attitudes, behaviors, perceptions, insights, and the like?

 

  1. Does the opening force action upon the character?

 

  1. Will the character be forced to confront his/her most essential fears and desires?

In short, because of that incident creating separation, the character wants something. The more urgent the desire and the more life-changing the consequences, the higher the stakes. High stakes are good. You want a character who has gone “all-in.”

 

Example of thought processes of draft writing (continued from the previous example of a draft): So what does this inciting event—this fourth time his son has had a life-threatening reaction during the father’s “watch”—force the father to confront? Perhaps the father must confront, finally, what he has always sensed: that deep down his wife does not believe in him and will leave him (with their son) if he cannot convince her that she is wrong. He wants to prove her wrong, will do anything to show her that he is not this man she thinks he is, that the sickness in the family does not lie within him.

 

II: The Need for Action

Now, the character has a pressing need for some kind of action(s) to fulfill this desire. Safe and comfortable in a world where we know the orders, patterns, and laws, we remain attached to our personal identities. Only by taking away that world—by separating the Self from the beliefs that define it—does the Self find itself in a position to be challenged. In simplest terms, here’s where you throw obstacles at your character that deny the character the chance to have his/her desire satisfied.

“Whenever intention is denied,” Robert Tobias argues in 20 Master Plots, “the effect is tension” (19). For characters, the tasks asked of them in narratives should provide the greatest challenge imaginable. The writer must transform the world into one specifically designed both to thwart the character’s intentions and to create a need for the very action the character seems most incapable of making. In simplest terms, the agoraphobe is forced to confront the outside; the mourning father, the image of his dead wife; Sarah Palin, a geography test. And so on.

Example of thought processes of draft writing (continued): Now that we have the set-up for this father-making-son-sick story, the challenge is to come up with the action. What would you have this father do? What will be the result of this action? How will this action be both unexpected to the reader and challenging to the father’s belief systems? What will this make both the father and reader confront? How deep and pressing an issue is this for the father and reader? The question here is clear: What will you have him do?

In short, this middle section involves the thwarting of the protagonist’s intentions. Each ordeal should require the protagonist to look deeper for the power to overcome these obstacles. Each task asks the protagonist if he can destroy the person he was and become the person he is to be. Can the ego put itself to death? Sacrifice—the decision of the ego to cut itself off for the betterment of the Self, the choice of the protagonist to venture forth beyond what is known for the recovery of a sacred revelation—lies at the heart of this section.

Example of thought processes of draft writing (continued): So you have the father act. His action fails at first, but the father learns something with each subsequent action. In flash, you need to decide if you’ll focus on the penultimate action or a number of actions, each one leading to a different understanding, building to that final one.

The flash could focus on the father’s setting up a sting operation to catch the truth of who or what is making his son sick? He could set up a camera. He could take the son somewhere and interrogate him mercilessly. He could try to trick the son into revealing what he knows. He could suspect his wife and create a plan to catch her in the act.

Let’s say he places a glass of milk next to his son’s lunch and hides in the pantry. His wife discovers him hunkered there, spying. Does she join him? Does she get angry? What would (1) surprise a reader and (2) force him deeper into the issue? Let’s say she joins him, and they watch as the son reaches for the milk to drink it himself. He rushes out; she’s paralyzed. Why would their son do such a thing? What sickness lies in their parenting that would make him resort to making himself sick?

And then more questions arise. Should the flash begin with the father setting up the milk, hiding in the closet? Is that more interesting? Is that first part needed? Is the issue different than what I previously thought? Does this go to some aspect of parenting? Hmmm. Maybe it’s better to just write it and think less?

[Flash has such potential—to go against expectation, to find an alternative to the drawn-out scene of melodrama, to discover in brevity a blinding, bright truth. Its power lies in its ability to burst into a life at the most important, profound time. When does the profundity visit this family? I’m thinking it’s in that closet, in the son’s reach for the milk, in the subsequent exploration of what that reach means, where such a desire originates.]

III: Revelation

The story builds to a resolution and/or revelation. The ultimate goal of the character’s journey is the gaining of a higher knowledge that remained, before, beyond the character’s grasp. Each story requires a character to see something deeper within himself and/or the world, some embedded truth that must be brought into the light.

The best endings linger. They haunt. They end the story as it should be ended, as if each word led us to this inevitable moment, yet they surprise us in some way. I rarely know how a story will end. I think my discovering the story and its path as I write helps make the ending work. Put yourself in the character’s place, forced to make decisions, never certain about where that choice will lead.

Example of thought processes during draft writing (continued): So, out of the closet, the father, Jake, bursts and knocks the glass away. Jake figures out the son has been making himself sick because it’s the way the son can see the love his father has for him, a love the father keeps hidden deep within himself. Why? What is the father afraid of? These questions Jake is forced to confront through the subsequent actions. Is the mother even needed in this story? Maybe not. Maybe it’s about Jake and his son.

And how to end this story. I have this sentence: His son, when no one was looking, would risk a self-induced suffocation to find his father’s love—and Jake felt that same desperation in his own stilted breaths. He reached for his son the way his son reached for the milk, waiting for his breath to be stolen away.

Narrative and the corresponding structure leads one to an important question: Why this way? If indeed this is the One Way to enact the ritual of storytelling for the gods, what does its three-part structure reveal about those gods? About the purpose of stories? About our own humanity? Perhaps the gods act as metaphors for our own inner forces, those desires and powers whose essence and origin always remain beyond our grasp. How does one attempt to explain the unexplainable? To know what cannot be known? To see completely what can only be glimpsed?

What I hope you might take from this Thursday Flash Craft entry is the following:

    1. There is a basic narrative structure that can be learned.

 

    1. There are specific questions a writer can ask at any time to figure out both where to go next and what to revise.

 

    1. A writer should be conscious of the desire of both the character(s) and the reader(s) in choosing what happens.

 

    1. Such a structure focuses on what Karen Armstrong in her A Short History of Myth refers to as “interior crises” (11). Such stories have an important purpose for us readers: to “give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life”; to force us to “change our minds and hearts”; to give “us new hope; to compel “us to live more fully”; to “transform us.”

 

IV: An Example

Let’s look at a flash piece that’s got it going on—Brady Udall’s “The Wig.”

Why is the story taking place? Why is this moment narratable? Why this moment and not some other? The dramatic imperative—the reason for this story being told now—arrives in the form of a wig entering the morning/mourning of a father and son dealing with the recent death of the mom. The single most powerful desire for someone who has lost a loved one is for to have that person back. And that’s what this father gets. There she is—sitting in the chair with her “sleep-mussled hair.” Here’s the event that demands an action, the “irritation” that turns quiescence into narration. The desire for the reader is to figure out why the son/wig troubles him so. And then, when we get it, we wonder what will he do? The irritation forces a confrontation that is both outside—he must deal with his son and his wig—and inside, the feelings he has about his wife’s death. The wig in the garbage—where dead things are found—keeps its deathly smell, giving the ending its complexity. She’s there and not there in the son.

V: Summary

And so it goes—the unstable incident + character’s desire leads to a confrontation with inside/outside implications and the ensuing CONFLICT leads to a resolution of some sorts. The dramatic imperative ensures a high-stakes story with a hard-earned resolution at the end. Simple. Yeah, right.

For Further Reading

Other flashes to consider (if you so desire). Try to figure out the narrative structure, the surface, bare-bones progression from here to there, and the deeper, more complex exploration of pressing issues.

Outer Space” by Tom Saunders

Morning News” by Jerome Stern

Angel” by Mary Miller * be forewarned: strong sexual content

The Way It Is Scripted, The Way It Goes” by Rusty Barnes * be forewarned: strong and graphic adult content

 

Day Two – Prompt: A Blanket

Mary pulled the blanket tight around her shoulders, its softness brushing her cheek as she leaned down to check on the baby sleeping peacefully in her cradle.  How could she ever divorce George now that this child had been born?  She would have to give him partial custody and that would mean being separated from this adorable child, this miracle, this gift straight from heaven after so many years of trying to have another baby after Jacob.

Poor boy.  That son who was never meant to be: the child who never walked or talked or ate like normal people do, but rather lived those eight grueling years with a feeding tube and in diapers and who wailed all night long, as if he was begging God to take him to a world where he could run down hills on his own two feet and eat mounds of food – fried chicken and potato salad and apple pie and ice cream, and sing with a voice so pure and clear that the angels flew over to join him.  And then he got his wish after a long and torturous last few months, as his lungs filled with fluid and eventually sent him back to where he’d come – to the God who somehow had seen fit so many years later to grace Mary and George with this perfect little one now asleep in her cradle – her mouth lazily pursed and sucking as she dreamed of her mother’s breast in her sleep.

Mary sighed.  Why after all they’d been through was George now so angry, as if this child had triggered all of his pent-up feelings over Jacob – his birth, his life, and his death – and made him a brooding man with eyes that burned with pain?  A man, almost impossible to live with.

Almost was the word that sent Mary back to bed, slipping under the covers to feel her husband’s warmth.  Almost meant another day was possible, and then another and another.  They would make it through this.  There was no other option.  She would not be separated for even a day from this beloved child.  And despite his rage – his grief – because of it, she knew full well, neither would George.

Day One – Prompt: The sound of a fan in the room

The fan is whirring and it’s already a little stuffy. It’s 5:50 am. Not a good sign for the upcoming day where temperatures are supposed to soar into the high 90’s. I am not happy. I have to deal with a problem that I’d rather not face: a friend who is drinking too much. And why, you ask? Why do I have to deal with that? Because this habit of over-drinking is building a wall between us – a wall that is cold and high, with no hand or toe holds for scaling. And how, you ask? How will I deal with this problem? The only way I know how: going over to her house and having a sit-down. A “You need to get yourself to AA today” talk that will most likely do nothing more than have her jump up and demand I leave so she can run into the other room and make herself that drink that will calm her nerves, soothe her soul, be her friend in a way that I now can not. Because real live friends require time and attention and conversation and opening yourself up to misunderstandings and hurt. But friends, unlike that bottle of hers, also give back with all the above, plus something more important: love. So why do it, you ask, if she won’t be receptive? And the answer is this. I can’t pretend everything is all right anymore. I won’t pretend. Because that’s not what friends do. And she’ll know that I know her life is going to hell. A rung on a ladder may be all today is. A hot day to go see a friend and say, “I care enough to say what I see.” Maybe that ladder will help scale that wall over time, one rung at a time. But that will not be up to me.

20 Minutes of Flash a Day

I’ve decided that I’m going to devote this blog to flash fiction and memoir, two of my favorite types of writing. The goal will be for me to write 20 minutes a day in either fiction or memoir and post it on here. As a writing teacher I have seen how consistent timed writing can hone writing skills in a fairly short time. I will use whatever prompts I find: an object in the room, a line from a song, a piece of conversation I’ve overheard, a color, picture, or sound. The goal is to write for 20 minutes using that prompt and, after a quick read-through to correct any glaring mistakes, I will post. I know from my experience with timed writing that over a few weeks, I’ll have several pieces that will be worthy of fleshing out to create more fully rounded stories. Still, my goal will be to keep them to no longer than 1000-1200 words, the limit for flash fiction and memoir. I will post those stories once they are done, as well. Beginning today, this site will serve as the outward and visible sign of a timed writing discipline. So with my timer in front of me, let’s get going.

Welcome to My Blog

Writing.  What can I say? This topic takes up most of my time as a writer, writing teacher, and editor.  I love everything related to writing – the physical act of handwriting or typing, the pleasant calm of reading, the pure fun of sharing writing with others.

Hence this blog.  A way for me to get my thoughts on the screen, post what I have already written, as well as share what I find interesting related to this topic.

I assume the form will emerge as I proceed.

For now, welcome.

Len.

Flash Fiction, Memoir and Essay

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