Bells and Whistles:
Adding Layers to Your Story

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Whether you write fiction or poetry, there comes a point when you want to move beyond the basics. You pay attention to basic structure, be it plotline or rhythm. You understand how to use point of view. Your grammar is good and you know where to put line breaks or how to set up chapters.

Now what?

If you’re looking for a greater challenge as a writer, why not try adding some “bells and whistles” to your work? Symbolism, atmosphere, characterization, themes and conflict are a few devices that can bring your writing to the next level. This article will define each of those devices and give examples on how you can incorporate them into existing work or how you can create something fresh with these ideas in mind. My primary target is fiction writers, and the language in the article reflects this, but poetry writers and non-fiction writers can also use the information and ideas to enhance their work.

Background Image: Nikolai Vassiliev/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)


Forget what you were taught about white whales and green lights at the ends of docks. Symbolism isn’t a stuffy device meant to turn junk into Meaningful Literature. Symbolism is basically something that has a meaning beyond itself. That’s it. That isn’t too intimidating, is it?

There are two kinds of symbolism: cultural/universal and contextual/authorial.

A universal symbol, or archetype, has an accepted meaning. Examples include rain = cleansing, light = knowledge and circles = infinity. Does that mean that a circle is always meant to invoke infinity? Of course not. Circles may also indicate perfection, wholeness, the cycle of life, et cetera. That’s the trick about universal symbols: the meanings are built right in for you.

If you want to use a symbol to mean something completely new and different, that’s an authorial symbol. The symbol may mean something else in another work or in a universal context but in your story, it’s what you want it to be. Maybe you want a circle to represent a certain character, a time of day or emptiness.

You can approach symbolism two ways: have your symbols in mind from the beginning and incorporate them into your work or finish the work first and go back to see what stands out to you.

Stephen King wrote that after completing a draft of Carrie, he noticed that “there was blood at all three crucial points of the story. …The blood in Carrie seemed more than just splatter to me. It seemed to mean something. That meaning wasn’t consciously created, however. While writing Carrie, I never once stopped to think [about its symbolism].”1

A writing buddy might be able to point symbols out to you if you can’t find any in your work. Here’s a nice list of common symbols and their meanings to get you started.

Symbols are hard workers. Use them to underscore your themes or to speak for you. Don’t be shy about using a symbol. It adds to the bond between reader and writer. You’re not creating work for the reader; you’re adding a layer of enjoyment.

Atmosphere and Tone

You’ve established a setting and a point of view, which means you’ve already set the atmosphere and tone of your story. That’s not to say that the terms are interchangeable but that you have a grasp of this concept already.

The atmosphere is the mood of your story; the tone is how you convey the story to the reader (and your attitude toward the reader as well). Do you want him to be comfortable or a little on edge? Did you start to write something comic and have it evolve into a mystery? Do you want to write romance or erotica? In these cases, the tones are very different and can be established with your first line. The trick is to carry the tone through your work, through changes in characters and plot, so that your work is cohesive.

Atmosphere and tone go hand-in-hand. These concepts work together in your basic structure. They’re not something you can really add on afterward. You can go back in your editing process and tweak and change but you automatically work with atmosphere and tone when you write.

One tip for setting atmosphere as you write is to use music. Listen to music that present an atmosphere like the one you want to convey. If you find London Calling to be relaxing and you want to write a relaxing story, use it. If you’re frightened by disco and want to write a spooky story, borrow some Bee Gees and set the creepy atmosphere while you work. It doesn’t matter what tool you use; what matters is the final product.

You can change moods within your story, going from playful to serious for example, but your tone remains the same. Here are two examples of different mood from The Catcher In The Rye:

He started off with about fifty corny jokes, just to show us what a regular guy he was. Very big deal. Then he started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down on his knees and pray to God. He told us we should always pray to God — talk to him and all — wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs.2

Then all of a sudden, I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I did it so nobody could hear me, but I did it. It scared hell out of old Phoebe when I started doing it, and she came over and tried to make me stop, but once you get started, you can’t just stop on a goddamn dime. I was still sitting on the edge of the bed when I did it, and she put her old arm around my neck, and I put my arm around her, too, but I still couldn’t stop for a long time. I thought I was going to choke to death or something. Boy, I scared hell out of poor old Phoebe. The damn window was open and everything, and I could feel her shivering and all, because all she had on was her pajamas. I tried to make her get back in bed, but she wouldn’t go. Finally I stopped. But it certainly took me a long, long time.3

To work on tone, pay particular attention to word choice. For example, which of these best fits your story: find, ascertain, get a hit, locate, score or rustle up? In your prose, is the narrator speaking for you or do you have a different take? It can be difficult for some readers to separate the author from the narrator but in other cases, like in this excerpt from American Psycho, it’s easy:

Scott and Anne insisted that we all order some kind of blackened medium-rare redfish, a Deck Chairs specialty which was, luckily for them, an entree on one of the mock menus that Jean made up for me. If it hadn’t, and if they nevertheless insisted on my ordering it, the odds were pretty good that after dinner tonight I would have broken into Scott and Anne’s studio at around two this morning — after Late Night With David Letterman — and with an ax chopped them to pieces, first making Anne watch Scott bleed to death from gaping chest wounds, and then I would have found a way to get to Exeter where I would pour a bottle of acid all over their son’s slanty-eyed zipperhead face.4

One way to think of tone is to think about how you speak in everyday life. Your resume has a different tone from your weblog. You use a different vocabulary in personal e-mails than in professional e-mails. You speak differently to your child, your mother, your boss and your best friend. These are all changes in tone, incorporating not only a change in your voice but in your vocabulary and in the way you structure sentences. Having a specific audience in mind can help you focus your tone.


Creating characters is one of the most fun aspects of fiction writing.You sit down with a blank piece of paper or computer screen and make up a person from scratch. You determine what they look like, what they think and feel, where they’ve been and what’s happening to them next. You spent a lot of time and effort on creating your main characters. What about the people in the background?

There are two types of characters: flat and round. Flat characters stay the same throughout the story. Round characters change. Ideally your main characters are round. You might ask, “Why would I even include flat characters in my story?” Flat characters serve many purposes and you can use them, along the characterization of your round ones, to add meaning to your fiction.

Flat characters provide a point of reference, like a point on the horizon that you watch while riding in a car or train or a ruler in a photo of a miniature teapot. Effective use of flat characters, including stock characters and stereotypes, can add new dimension to your rounded characters. Do you really need to have a backstory and conflict for the shopkeeper in your third chapter? You don’t need to know much about the people you encounter every day and the same goes for your main characters. Put your energy into the most important people in your story. If a flat character wants to be more than background noise, he’ll let you know. If he screams to be fleshed out, maybe he’s not the minor character you thought he was.

Themes and Conflict

What’s at stake in your story? If you’re not sure of the answer, maybe you should sit down with your story and decide what’s going on. There could be a lack of focus or a lack of urgency. Has your story stagnated? This may be why.

The conflict in your story can take many forms. Let’s use the Harry Potter series as an example. The conflict could be an inner struggle, like Harry’s survivor guilt or his reluctance to become a hero. The conflict could be outward, like Harry’s constant clashes with Lord Voldemort. It could be both, in a single story. I recommend making one conflict a priority. It’s natural to have layers of conflict in your story. In our example, the outer conflict has led to the inner conflict but, in my opinion, it is the inner conflict which J.K. Rowling has given greater emphasis and in which her readers have taken a greater interest. I mean, we all know that (by the nature of the series) good (Harry) will win over evil (Voldemort) but how will Harry resolve his personal issues and to what extent? That’s the mystery and why we keep reading.

Beyond your conflict, there is a theme to your story. Why are you telling it? The first answer might be “it’s fun” or “I had a great idea about…” but there is something you’re saying with this story. What is it? It could be something simple like “love conquers all” or “the ends justify the means.” It could be more complicated, like “what we call ‘fate’ is the result of our actions” or “blind faith can only lead to disaster.”

To decide your theme, write down your statement. Do not ask a question, like “what if…” or “where do we…” Say something firm that you believe. If it’s unpopular or controversial, great. You have the length of your piece to explain what you’re saying, to argue or prove the statement. If it’s unoriginal, who cares? It’s the story that’s original—or not (A Thousand Acres, East of Eden or, yes, the Harry Potter series)—and how you surround your statement is fresh.

Conflict and theme work well together. Deciding one can help decide the other, if you’re feeling stuck. For example, you’ve got a situation and a protagonist ready to go and you want to make Statement X. Now, think of what can happen to your character that will push the statement. What’s the worst thing that can happen to your character? Write it. What’s the most outrageous way you can convey your theme? Write it. Who’s the antagonist? Write a scene all about her. Try her point of view. How does using her as a narrator alter your theme? Conflict and theme are great places to play and to expand your writing skills. Don’t be surprised if your theme changes, maybe becoming more focused or turning into the opposite of what you’d intended. That’s part of the joy of writing.

For companion pieces to this article, I recommend Theryn Fleming’s “Recognizing Your Voice,” Mollie Savage’s “The Magical Music of Words” and Amanda Marlowe’s “Textured Descriptions.”

  1. Stephen King, On Writing, p. 199
  2. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye, p. 23
  3. Ibid, p. 233
  4. Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, p. 95

Final Poll Results

Submit to Me! A quick guide to help you avoid annoying editors

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By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

In addition to my editing here at Toasted Cheese, I also recently took on a freelance editing job for an e-book publisher. As a result, I read many query letters, cover letters, and synopses (as well as stories and novels) from first-time writers.

When trying to get published, it’s best to be sure that you don’t do things that annoy, vex, or otherwise irritate the editors you’re hoping will publish your work. I surveyed my fellow editors for their favorite pet peeves, and we came up with these eight things you can do to make sure your story or novel doesn’t get tossed to the bottom of the slush pile:

Background Image: Richard Lemarchand/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

  1. Make sure your submission follows the guidelines

The surest way to make sure your submission doesn’t get read is not to follow the submission guidelines. Most publications have their guidelines readily available, if not online, then in books such as the Writer’s Market. If you don’t want to buy your own copy, make a trip to the nearest bookstore or library and take notes. (Please note—guidelines on a publication’s website supercede information found in a print publication. They’re usually more up-to-date!) Submission guidelines are written for a reason; they’re not just arbitrary rules. We disqualify dozens of submissions each submission period for not adhering to our guidelines.

Read and follow guidelines carefully. And do be sure to actually read the publications to which you’re submitting. Many times, you will find stories and articles available online. If not, head back to that bookstore or library, or order sample copies of the publication.

  1. Adhere to deadlines

If you’re given a deadline, stick to it. Being late will not endear you to any editor. Here at TC, stories submitted to the e-zine after the submission period ends get bumped to the next submission period. We publish quarterly, which means you’ll be waiting a long time for a response. Know the deadlines and plan accordingly.

Other deadlines are a bigger deal. A late contest entry will be disqualified, for example. Missing deadlines for magazines or corporate jobs will likely cost you the job and damage your reputation.

If you’re working with an editor on a novel, missed deadlines will make your editor cranky. No one wants a cranky editor. If you say you’ll have a manuscript to your editor by a certain date, well, it only stands to reason that the manuscript actually reach your editor on or near that date! Quite simply, you need to maintain positive working relationships with the people who want to publish your writing.

  1. Take as much care with your cover letter/query/synopsis as you do with your story

Nothing turns an editor off more than a sloppy, poorly-written cover letter or synopsis. This is the surest way to make sure that your submission doesn’t get read.

Write carefully. Proofread. Edit. Proofread again. Have a friend/spouse/significant other proofread it for you. Don’t be careless with this step; often, it’s the first impression we’ll have of you. Make sure it’s a good one!

It’s also important to note that you shouldn’t skip this step. We want to know who you are, and we want to know why you think our publication is the very best place for your work.

  1. Keep it positive

Theryn Fleming (Beaver) says, “My #1 cover letter peeve is when people say something negative about themselves and/or the publication being submitted to.”

Most of the TC editors agree on this one. Statements such as, “If you don’t like it enough to respond, it won’t be the first time”, “I’ve never been published”, or “You probably won’t like this” tell us you don’t really have faith in your work. “If [the writer] doesn’t believe in her ability, why should I?” says Baker. “Let your story do the talking for you. Better a ho-hum cover with a great submission than a ‘losing already attitude’ and the same submission.”

In most cases, it is not at all necessary to say you haven’t been published before or that this submission is your first. If you don’t have any relevant publishing credits, simply leave this section out of your letter.

(For more, see The short, sweet guide to writing query letters by Baker)

  1. KISS your queries and cover letters

The best advice for queries and cover letters is to keep them simple, only providing the necessary information. You don’t need to tell us your age, occupation, hobbies, or shoe size. We don’t need to know where you went to college, where you grew up, or how long you’ve been writing.

And as for previous publications? We think it’s best to list a few of your most recent or relevant publications. Many editors find long lists of publications tedious and unnecessary.

  1. Write your query/cover letter naturally

I’ve seen a number of queries that follow submission guidelines point by point. I find this tedious and distracting. For example, the publisher I’m working for asks that the query letter include a “marketing hook.” I got this in one of my queries:

“Since I’ve never submitted to an e-publisher before, I’m not sure what you mean by marketing hook. I certainly understand what marketing is but would ask you to clarify that requirement.”

Statements like this will only mark you as an amateur, and a lazy one at that. If you’re not sure about something in the guidelines, do some research or ask for clarification. (P.S.—the place to ask for clarification is not in your query.)

  1. Make it personal

Generally, editors do like to be called by their names. Do a little bit of research to find out who you’re submitting to, instead of using the generic “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Editor”.

There is an exception, though. If the publication has an editorial board, like Toasted Cheese does, don’t address your cover letter to a single editor. This will just make you seem rude. “While you may have done your homework, you didn’t understand it,” adds Beaver.

And finally, please, please, please don’t send us a letter addressed to an editor at a different publication. Don’t send out letters that are obviously mass carbon-copies to dozens of editors. You will forever be branded as amateurish and unprofessional. While it’s fine to use the same basic template for your cover letter, be sure to personalize it for each publication.

  1. Show, don’t tell

I saved my own personal biggest pet peeve for last—authors who tell me in their cover letter or query how wonderful/funny/touching their story or novel is, as in this example:

“How they resolve these issues is at times funny and at others poignant.”

Also, please don’t tell us how much your mother/spouse/next-door-neighbor/dog loved your manuscript. While this may be true, it is entirely irrelevant.

Don’t tell me how good your story is. Show me. A good cover letter should give me enough information to make me want to read on and discover all the things you love about your manuscript.

Some final words of advice

We know how scary submitting your work can be. Don’t let yourself get rejected simply for making these easy-to-fix mistakes. Approach all submissions professionally, be yourself, and above all, make sure your writing sparkles!

Final Poll Results

A Novel in a Month? Am I Crazy?

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By Ana George

I think I first became aware of National Novel Writing Month in 2002. Several people on a community site I frequented at the time seemed to be doing it, and I’d been writing little vignettes and short stories. Chris Baty decided in 1999 that it’d be fun to get a bunch of people to all write 50,000 word novels in a month, and so he declared November to be National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It’s still going, stronger than ever.

I’ve started three of these things, and finished two, in 2003 and 2005.

In my case, going into November the essential ingredients I had on hand are a few characters (but feel free to make up more of them as the need arises), an idea for a plot or at least a situation, clearing one’s schedule as much as possible, and a writing buddy. Note that this list does not include communion with the Muse.

If you wait for the Muse to whisper something in your ear, you’re not going to make it. Lightning strikes are nice, and they can make for some rip-roaring tales, but they’re rare. Just write. Something will happen, often something rather nice, or even wonderful. I found myself sitting down wondering what comes next. Putting myself into the head of one character or another, and watching what happened next. The NaNo thing is really about getting past writer’s blocks, the need to edit everything to death before going on.

Background Image: Lee Penney/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

I found this approach rather incompatible with plot outlines, or writing scenes out of order. The characters have a way of peeking over my shoulder at what’s already been written, and then can’t resist a certain foreknowledge of the plot, which changes how they react. So, for me at least, the discipline of writing the story linearly, in the same order I expect it to be read, was an important survival strategy. Your mileage may vary; I tend to write character-driven fiction. But I found it hard enough to keep track of what all was going on in a linear story, let alone juggling several story threads and trying to remember who knew what in which scenes.

That said, I found I’d left enough threads untied that I could figure out who-done-it at the end, and, during the long Thanksgiving weekend, pull out a rather interesting tale. Then, in both cases, I had to go back and plant the gun (metaphorical) in the drawer in chapter 3, so it’d be available when someone needed it to straighten out my tangle of plot lines.

It’s a good thing try to wrap up the tale at just over 50,000 words, because the steam tends to decrease dramatically once one has met the quota. If you’re planning on “finishing it later,” I’ll warrant you never quite get back to it. Everybody who writes 50,000 words in November and verifies this on the site is a “winner” (and you even get a PDF plaque to prove it).

Having a writing buddy is a Great Thing. Somebody who’ll wake up each morning, read what you’ve written, perhaps make a comment or two, but most of all be disappointed if there isn’t anything there to read. If they’re also writing a NaNo, all the better, but you probably don’t have time to read along in more than one or two other novels if you’re writing one of your own. I’m not sure if this is a unique thing for NaNo writing or not; I’ve never really had a writing buddy as such for ordinary writing. Don’t expect in-depth critiques, either giving or receiving. I think the most useful comment I got in the middle of things was “Hey, it was Christmas and now it’s Spring Break already.”

Let’s run some numbers. The goal is 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. This is 1,667 words per day. I type 30 about words per minute, so I can write 1800 words per hour, which means I should plan on at least an hour a day, day in, day out, no exceptions. In practice, it takes me a bit longer if I’m also making up the story as I type. I think I spent around 50 hours on each of my two successful NaNos.

Of course, when there are rules, there is the urge to bend them. If the only thing you’re being graded on is word count, you tend to use 10 words where one would do. And to save and run a word-count after ever sentence or two. These are bad habits, but you’ll develop them anyway.

Sometimes a plot line or a stack of prose just goes bad. When you have a deadline, you sometimes have to just go on, or throw out a chapter or two, in hopes of patching the hole in the edit, later.

It’s a good idea to keep track of everything you invent. The first time the neighbor shows up, you make up a name for him. The second time, he already has a name, and you should have it recorded somewhere so you can find it. There are a number of software tools that help with this kind of bookkeeping. Tastes vary, and finding a tool that works well for you can be frustrating, or as simple as a web search. I used a TiddlyWiki, which is a one-person, local version of a wiki, the software underlying, for example, the Wikipedia. I wish I’d kept track of more information in it.

The NaNoWriMo website has a number of aids as well. There are forums where you can ask things like how fast smoke signals propagate, and whether the ancient Chinese did anything with gunpowder. You can also register your daily progress and monitor that of your friends. Competition is a good thing. There’s also a NaNoWriMo forum on Toasted Cheese, where you can make fun of your favorite editors for failing to write a novel.

The point of the exercise, really, is just to get a draft of a story written down. To convince you that you are, in fact, capable of writing a long story. You can edit later (yes, Virginia, there’s also a NaNoEdMo in March).

And what’s become of my two draft novels? One’s still sitting in the drawer where it went at the end of the month. The other’s still got some ideas swirling around, for ways to make the plot clearer, better motivate the action, and explain the relationships between the characters. Perhaps one day I’ll dare to submit it to an agent or a publisher. The handful of people who’ve seen them seem to like them, so perhaps there’s something worth saving. It’s a long strange ride, but I now know that I can put together a story that’s pretty coherent over 200 pages or more.

Final Poll Results

Summer Camp: The West Virginia Writers’ Workshop

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By Jim Walke (jaywalke)

Writing can be a lonely job. It takes place in basements and attics during the gray months, on dining room tables littered with bills or breezy park benches with only bare trees to witness the verbal assaults. Warm weather returns and some writers emerge from their dens. They grimace at the sunlight, stretch, and begin their yearly migration to a summer escape. This year, I joined the herd. The question was: Where to go?

A quick web search and perusal of a popular writing magazine gave me a hundred possibilities scattered across the country and the world. Read the fine print to be sure you are getting what you want. Of course, all generalizations are wrong (including this one), but there a few guidelines. University-sponsored events will focus on literary fiction and poetry, while those backed by a journal will deal with works it would likely publish. Genre conferences are available and while some believe they are full of romance, to others they are a mystery. There are writing retreats—bucolic escapes that provide time alone to focus on your work, which are usually self-directed. If your daily writing life is made up of stolen minutes between meetings and/or loads of laundry, you may want to try a retreat. Personally, I’d had enough navel-gazing to last until autumn and I was looking for classes, workshops, and readings. Then I had to narrow the focus further: choosing craft over publishing, accessibility over mega-stars. It is entirely possible to attend a huge conference where your favorite best-selling author reads and your dream agent haunts the bar. Getting to talk to them, however, may be another story.

Background Image: Mike McBride/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I hit Morgantown on a day late in July to attend the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop (WVWW), a conference held on the campus of West Virginia University. The humidity slapped me like a wet towel as soon as I open the car door. Morgantown, like most of occupied West Virginia, is built in a steep river valley and the three available acres of flat land were developed long ago. I tried to count the steps up to the dorm where conference attendees were housed, but I lost track (and briefly, consciousness) at 117. I dropped a quarter on the way up and it rolled to Cincinnati.

After checking in to my blessedly air-conditioned dorm room, I headed off to the first item on the agenda: a welcome lunch. Fifty writers sat around tables, eyeing the buffet. We were welcomed by the Director of the workshop, James Harms, a dead ringer for Harry Anderson of “Night Court” fame. Professor Harms also doubles as the head of the Creative Writing program at WVU. Emboldened by his resemblance to a TV judge, I cornered him for a few questions and he laid out the bare facts. The Workshop seems to ebb and flow with the economy, but has grown steadily to its current level. The pull is regional: Ohio, West Virginia and a few souls from the Mid-Atlantic States. The main draws seem to be the price (underwritten by WVU), and the fact that it only runs for a long weekend. Those two factors definitely affected my decision. A few of the conferences I considered would have required a home equity loan for financing, and a note from the Centers for Disease Control to explain my sick time away from work. The WVWW is aimed at beginning to mid-level writers, but several published professionals return year after year for the camaraderie. For its investment the University gets a recruiting bump for undergrad and MFA programs, and Morgantown gets the cachet of being a place where poets and writers gather.

The afternoon set the pattern for the next three days: a reading from a faculty member, in this case Mark Brazaitis, the winner of the both the Iowa Short Fiction award and the George Garrett Fiction Prize. Then a craft class, followed by the title event: the workshops. Brazaitis was my workshop leader, and I was sweating. I’d read his stuff before attending, and he’s good. My last workshop was many moons ago in college. I have a thick skin, but I was more concerned about saying something stupid than getting shot full of arrows myself. We’d received the fiction submissions in advance, and they covered the gamut of genre and ability. Mark laid out the ground rules for the workshop, which were straightforward. The author read a page or so to refresh memories, someone else summarized the entire piece, Mark would ask a few pointed questions, then we were off—chiming in and attempting to balance negative comments with positives. The class was kept small: ten participants.

The time flew by as we discussed the work in front of us. I should have realized that the quality of the discussion would be strong. Writers who leave their homes and use personal funds and vacation time to improve their craft are already driven to succeed. They may not be household names yet, but they are careful readers with insight into the writing process, and therefore excellent workshop members. I got more good commentary in a half-hour than I could shake a stick at, and took home ten sets of their personal notes on my work. As an added bonus, I didn’t say anything stupid.

Dinner was followed by more readings, then socializing. There was imbibing. On we went: sleep, classes, workshop, readings. Rinse and repeat. The classes covered submitting work to journals, starting and maintaining a writing group and how-tos on writing nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews. If you’ve ever wanted to ask editors questions point-blank about the submission process, this is a place to do it. One of them handed out cover letters received (sanitized of names) as examples of what not to do. I was pleased not to find any that I recognized. Apparently, borderline psychotic handwritten notes on a cocktail napkin are unacceptable. Who knew?

While the structured events were excellent, I may (as in college) have learned more outside of class. All of the faculty members were approachable and available for questions and comments. They moved easily from podium to desk, attending each other’s classes and blurring the line between teacher and student. I learned that there are other people out there working in rural voids, without much chance for feedback beyond what’s offered on the internet. There are also healthy, disciplined writing groups in towns small and large. We’re all re-writing and submitting, trying to improve our work and tell our stories. It’s comforting to know. It may not make us sane, but at least we’re not alone. Contact with that sort of group energy also recharges the writer batteries. Now when I am getting lazy and start to think “good enough,” I consider putting that work in front of the workshop group and it makes me take one more hard look before sealing the envelope.

The final event of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop was an open mike reading. I’ve never read from my own work before. It was a rewarding experience, but even better was hearing the work of the other participants. It was a reminder that writing does not have to be serious, just as truthful as possible.

I’ll be going back next year, to West Virginia or perhaps somewhere new. Summer camp was a lot of fun this year, and it was well worth the investment of money and time. I didn’t come home with a macramé ashtray or a canoeing badge, but I do have new friends, dedicated writers who will look at work via email. I saw a poet dance to the music of her own words. I sweated on the steps and at the workshop table, and I trimmed a little fat in both places. I wouldn’t want to go to camp year-round, but my short stint in the summer made me eager to climb back into my basement for another few months.


West Virginia Writers’ Workshop.

Next year, maybe Sewanee if I can swing the $$$ and time.

Something in between at Hollins

I would also suggest the Speakeasy message forum at Poets & Writers. It requires registration and a login, but along with other good writing message boards it has one devoted to conferences, workshops and retreats.

Final Poll Results

How to NOT Write an Article

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By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I’ve been writing this article inactively for about two months. Actively, I’ve been working on it for two solid weeks. I’m not going to finish it. I’m going to miss my deadline and let everyone down.

Or, I could stop now and cut my losses and write about how I’m not writing this article.

Background Image: Jack Zalium/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Don’t wait until the last minute.

I could have, and should have, signed up for and started this article in January. That’s when the editors get together and start prodding each other to come up with ideas. There are many of us, so we can pick and choose when we’d like to work on something. This year, I waited until everyone else had chosen because I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to write about. I should have simply signed up first, then decided on what to do. I would have had months to decide on something, work on something, and polish something. Instead, I stared at a blank page, forcing my writer mind down paths it didn’t want to go simply because I’m out of time.

Choose a wide topic.

My original topic for this article was choosing simple words and phrases. I have a writer friend who fancies herself a language expert. She has four dictionaries close to hand and uses them all in daily communications such as emails and blogs. Her writing is impossibly complex, archaic, and trouble for anyone without four dictionaries nearby. I decided this would be a great article, passing on the wisdom that most readers will put the book down if they can’t understand it—if reading it is work, not joy. But all I really had to say I could sum up in a few simple words, as evidenced by this one paragraph. I couldn’t think of anything else to say once I’d gotten the basics on the page. The article simply fizzled out.

Ignore the distractions.

Once you start writing your first draft, don’t stop. Don’t get up and make pancakes, don’t turn the TV on just for a minute, don’t play with the kitten, and leave the email box alone. Writing inspiration is very flighty and it can leave as quickly as it arrived. Sit down and stay down until everything you wanted to say is on the page.

Plan ahead.

This is different from not waiting until the last minute. I had a minor day surgery I needed to have done and it was scheduled just a week before this deadline. Before the surgery, I managed to write two paragraphs and couldn’t get anything else out. I was focused on the event itself and couldn’t see too far beyond it. What I should have done at this point was plan for my failure and ask someone else to write a backup article. They would have been more than happy to help, considering the circumstances. I should have planned a backup article as I planned my ride home from the hospital.

Don’t be afraid of change.

If something isn’t working, stop working on it and start working on something that will work. This article is coming to me much easier than the original. I know already that this article is the one that will be printed. The other will go into the ‘archives’ on my computer to wait until the light of inspiration slices through my head and I can finish it.

Find your voice.

I notice that this article sounds just like me. I am not as concerned with sounding like a “professional” writer as I was in the other. The other article I sounded far away, as if I was writing it from above you somehow, imparting sage advice from the side of the mountain. This time, I sound friendly and personable, frustrated and pained about my writing and myself. I know you’ll all be able to relate to my struggle and my personal issues, so I’m writing it that way. It’s a lot easier to write this time because it’s my voice and not the voice I think you would listen to.

Listen to your muse.

I’ve known the other article wasn’t working since I first began actively writing it. I complained about writing it. I complained that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I complained that I was running out of time. I complained in my blog and to friends. One fine friend even told me to write an article about procrastination since my original topic wasn’t working. I didn’t listen to her, or to myself. I simply kept putting off writing at all. Once I did listen, I found I had a complete article.

Once this article is edited and put up, I’m going to volunteer for another for next year. I’m going to think long and hard about a topic. I’m going to start early and plan for distractions. I’m going to assign a date to sit down and write a month before the deadline. I’m going to start a draft and finish that draft in one sitting. I’m going to listen to my voice and to my muse.

I’m going to meet my deadline.

Final Poll Results

Interview With Kevin Brockmeier

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

Kevin Brockmeier is the author of two novels, The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, a short story collection Things That Fall from the Sky, and two children’s novels, City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. His stories have appeared in many publications, including the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Georgia Review, the Carolina Quarterly, The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and multiple editions of The O. Henry Prize Stories anthology. He has received the Chicago Tribune‘s Nelson Algren Award, an Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award, a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship, three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), and an NEA grant.

Kevin was born in Hialeah, Florida and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas with his family at the age of four. He attended Parkview Arts Magnet High School, earned a BA in Creative Writing, Philosophy and Theater from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) with a year at University of Ulster in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and an MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Iowa. Kevin is 33 years old.

I met Kevin shortly after I began working at an independent bookstore in Little Rock, Arkansas. As I was ringing up books on the cash register, my co-worker Georgette said, “This is Kevin Brockmeier; he gets an author’s discount.” We chatted for a bit, then he and Geo talked about the movie club they belong to. What a friendly fellow—I figured he must work for one of the local newspapers or magazines. Wrong! We had two of his books in the fiction section. Now we sport three and his current young adult title (City of Names is out of print). When his two recent books came out this year, we were lucky to host his first Arkansas book signing, and all it took was a phone call to Kevin: “I’d be delighted. I’ll let my publicist know the date.”

When it became apparent that my turn for an Absolute Blank article was due, I knew what it would be. When Kevin stopped by the store, I told him about Toasted Cheese and that I’d like to interview him. Even though we both live in Little Rock, and essentially in the same neighborhood, we decided on doing the interview via email.

Toasted Cheese: How did you get your start as a writer?

Kevin Brockmeier: As a writer or as an author? These are two separate questions. I suppose I got my start as a writer when I was seven years old, putting together mystery stories during my spare time at school. In these stories I was always the detective, and one of my classmates would disappear under suspicious circumstances, and I would solve the crime to the applause of my teacher and all my friends. They had titles like “The Case of the Missing Eric Carter” and “The Case of the Missing Miss Vinson.”

I got my start as an author, on the other hand—by which I mean to say a published writer, a writer with an audience larger than his own circle of personal acquaintances—when I was twenty-four and a story of mine, “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin,” won something called the Italo Calvino Short Fiction Contest and was printed in a small magazine called Writing on the Edge.

TC: Do you have a particular, or peculiar, writing schedule?

KB: The writers I know have adopted such diverse tactics when it comes to their routines—or if not routines, then impulses—of composition that it would be hard for me to say there’s any such thing as a peculiar writing schedule. I myself try to treat writing as though it were something like a regular nine-to-five job, with the difference that I write every day of the week until I am finished with a project (or with some discrete portion of a project, if it’s a novel) before I give myself a break, rather than taking a two-day break every weekend. I find that it’s difficult to get the engines running again after even a short vacation, and also that my own sensibility changes by small increments when I take time away from my writing, so I’m hesitant to pause in the middle of a piece of work for fear that I’ll ruin it by subconsciously shifting my approach to the material.

I think it’s best to write when your mind is at its sharpest. For a long time, that has been the middle of the day for me, but lately I’ve felt myself perceiving things more acutely in the evening, so it might be that I’ll have to change my working hours soon.

TC: Tell us about your path to being published.

KB: After my first story was printed in Writing on the Edge, I continued publishing stories in literary magazines and a variety of other venues. I was working as an adjunct English composition instructor at a pair of local colleges, as well as running errands for a property management company, but I spent much of my spare time writing. I got a couple of grants that allowed me to work on my fiction a bit more diligently, and in time I managed to complete a story collection, a novel, and a children’s novel.

Then what happened was this: A friend of mine from graduate school had become a literary agent. He wasn’t my agent at the time, but we were still in touch. One day, he was having lunch with an editor from Random House and asked her if she had read any new authors she enjoyed recently. She said that, yes, she had read a story called “These Hands” in the Georgia Review by a writer named Kevin Brockmeier, and though she had never heard of him before, she really responded to what he was doing. My friend said, “I represent Kevin Brockmeier.” And that’s how I fell blindly backward into acquiring both my first agent and my first editor in the course of a single lunch meeting.

This will be of no help, I realize, to anyone seeking practical advice on finding a path to publication, but it is what really happened to me.

TC: What do you most/least enjoy about your job?

KB: I enjoy many things about writing, not least of them the pleasure of communicating some part of my vision of the world to other people and the simple experience of tinkering with words. What I most enjoy, though, I suppose, is the day following the moment when I finally reach the last sentence of a story. There’s a brief window of time when I know that I’ve satisfied the pattern I set out to create and I’ve not yet started to sift through a story for its flaws that is tremendously gratifying.

What I least enjoy about my job—hands down—is the traveling involved with the publicity phase. I like visiting bookstores, giving readings, and meeting people who have read or are interested in reading my books. But I travel very poorly. I quickly become exhausted when I have to spend time away from home, from my bed and my familiar routine. I start to degrade, both physically and psychologically, and I cease to feel as though I’m experiencing my life as much more than a passive spectator. If there were a way for me to step out of my door and simply appear in whatever city I was visiting, then step back home at the end of the night, I would be much happier. What I need is a Star Trek-style matter transporter.

TC: Have you ever experienced writer’s block? If so, how did you break through?

KB: I’ve certainly experienced times when I wasn’t writing, but I think that’s natural—and that it can, in fact, be productive for a writer to let his mind lie fallow for a while. I believe the best thing to do during those periods is read, tinker with the stories you’ve already written, and work on other types of writing, more personal and less rigorous forms like letters and journal entries.

That said, I write very, very slowly when I’m engaged in a project, and I’m not sure how easy it would be for me to distinguish writer’s block, whose most salient feature, as I understand it, is the long gap between one story and another, from my actual process of writing, whose most salient feature is the long gap between one word or one sentence and another.

TC: Why do you write?

KB: For me, the most honest answer to this question would be that I write out of gratitude for all the books that have spoken to me over the years.

TC: You said you sift through a story for its flaws. What is your sifting, or editing, process?

KB: Most of my editing takes place as I’m working through my first draft, though to call it a “first draft” is something of a misnomer, since I tend to revise each sentence many times before I move on to the next, each paragraph many times before I move on to the next, and each page many times before I move on to the next. I progress very slowly to the end of the story, in a series of tiny overlapping waves.

Because I work that way (a method I don’t recommend, by the way, since it’s very slow and painstaking, but one that I haven’t been able to avoid), my stories have usually reached a state that’s fairly close to their final form by the time I complete the last sentence. My final editing process, then, involves reading back through them to look for any infelicities, imprecisions, or contradictions I might have missed along the way.

When I first pick up a finished story for that last edit, after a day or two of rest, I usually see nothing but such problems and wonder what on earth I’ve been doing with my time. My way out of this is to search through the story for some one sentence that seems fixed in a kind of beauty. Once I find it, the rest of the story seems to crystallize out from that still point, and I’m able to look at it with a more generous, less jaundiced eye.

TC: This year you had two novels published in the same month, a novel called The Brief History of the Dead and a young adult novel called Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. How did you juggle writing the two? Or was it just your agent’s work, in order to maximize publicity and save you from two tours?

KB: I always follow up each book for adults with a book for children, but I’m never actually working on the two simultaneously. I’m the type of person who finds it hard to set one project aside (or even one sentence aside) until I feel that I’ve made it what it can be. That said, both of my thus-far-published children’s novels (there’s a third that still hasn’t made its way into print) have been released immediately following a novel or a story collection. In part, this is because it’s taken me longer to sell my children’s fiction. But at least in the case of Grooves, I suspect it’s also because my editor sensed that The Brief History of the Dead was going to garner a certain amount of attention and felt that that attention would help the sales of Grooves. My children’s publishers have never had the money to send me on an extensive tour, in fact, but I’ve made it a point to publicize those books independently whenever I’m on the road.

TC: There are so many elements in creating an engaging story: plot, setting, character, theme, point of view, conflict. Where do you begin? Does it vary with each project?

KB: Someone else asked me this question recently, so I’ve given it some thought. I believe I begin each story first and foremost with an idea. Sometimes that idea is an element of the plot, sometimes it’s the psychology of a certain character, sometimes it’s a metaphor or symbolic device, sometimes it’s a particular narrative strategy—anything at all. It might sound as if I’m ducking your question, but I mean it when I say that when a story truly begins to take shape, and more than that to excite me, it always presents itself to me above all else as an idea I feel compelled to explore, even when that idea is something as amorphous or continually shifting as a character or a sequence of events.

That said, I’ll never actually begin writing a story until I’ve devised a title to place at the top of the first page. I once heard somebody describe the title as “the target toward which you shoot the arrow of the story,” and that’s a notion that makes a lot of sense to me. Without a good title, I feel I don’t know what a story is supposed to be. Sometimes I’ll even formulate the target before I’ve got the arrow, which is to say that an intriguing title can occur to me months or even years before I understand what sort of story it’s meant to accompany (as was the case, for instance, with “Love Is a Chain, Hope Is a Weed,” the last section of my novel The Truth About Celia).

TC: You’ve taught writing in many venues, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What advice do you offer to beginning writers?

KB: The advice I offer usually arises naturally—or at least I hope it does—from the stories we’re discussing in any given class. A couple of ideas I’ve been mulling over recently, though, are (1) that any narrative (or any piece of writing at all, really) will either adopt the sentence or the paragraph as its smallest unit of complete meaning, stacking one on top of the other to make the steps by which it moves forward, and it can be useful to determine which sort of narratives you’re most comfortable with or skilled at producing, and (2) that every writer of worth places his concern in at least one of these three things: in fidelity to the language, fidelity to his own obsessions, or fidelity to the human experience. Many of the best writers locate their faith in all three to varying degrees, but as long as a writer is sufficiently devoted to at least one of them, he’s doing the kind of work that I can respect.

TC: When you have a signing you often share your favorite books and I think movies. Would you share your top ten of each with us?

KB: Gladly. My top ten of each (in no particular order) are as follows:

Ten Favorite Books

  • The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  • All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories by William Maxwell
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater
  • A Death in the Family by James Agee
  • The Complete Short Stories by J. G. Ballard
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton
  • The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

Ten Favorite Movies

  • Ponette
  • City of Hope
  • In America
  • On the Waterfront
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Elling
  • Running on Empty
  • The English Patient
  • Frankenstein
  • The Muppet Movie

Some other time, you can ask me for my lists of favorite albums, songs, stories, foods, beverages, restaurants, words, human beings, states of being, years of my life, topics for lists, etc.

TC: Thanks, Kevin. I owe you a large ginger ale… Canada Dry, Vernor’s, the organic one Georgette loves, or other? Vernor’s is my fav.

KB: Let’s go with the Vernor’s.

TC: There will be a six pack of Vernor’s at the bookstore with your name on it Tuesday.

Yes, he came in on Tuesday: “I’m here for my ginger ale 😉 and to order some books.”

Final Poll Results

Grabbing a Bite
with MaryJanice Davidson

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

What do you get when you cross Buffy’s attitude, Angel’s “vampire with a soul” schtick, and Carrie Bradshaw’s designer shoe fetish?

Well, you might get something like Betsy Taylor, the heroine of MaryJanice Davidson‘s popular “Undead” series.

For those not familiar with the series, here’s a quick overview: 30-year-old Betsy is hit by a car and wakes up in the morgue. She discovers that she is a vampire, but a strange one… sunlight doesn’t hurt her, she can touch crosses and other religious articles without pain, and she isn’t consumed by the urge to feed. As it turns out, these are the very things that make her the prophesied Queen of the Vampires. She teams up with “tall, dark and sinister” Eric Sinclair, a sort of vampire king, and you can guess what happens next.

Davidson is incredibly prolific, having published 26 books in four years, with 7 coming out in 2006 so far. (“I type fast,” she says.)

Undead and Unpopular, the fifth book in the series, was released this month, and we here at TC had the chance to pick Davidson’s brain.

Toasted Cheese: How long have you been writing professionally?

MaryJanice Davidson: I quit my SDJ (Stupid Day Job) three years ago and have been writing full time since. It was frightening to contemplate, since I’ve had “real” jobs since I was 16, and Minnesota was in the midst of a terrible recession at the time, and my SDJ was a good one (Ops Manager). Everyone encouraged me to keep my job and keep writing at night, except my husband, who told me to go for it. And once I did it I never looked back. And once my editors knew I was writing full-time, they went out of their way to try to find me lots of work. They knew I had a family to feed.

TC: What’s the first thing you ever wrote? Published?

MJD: The first book I ever wrote was The Adventures of the Teen Furies and, coincidentally, it was the first book I published (the e-publisher HardShell Word Factory bought it, and it’s still in print, both as an e-book and as a paperback).

TC: How long did it take you to get published?

MJD: Years and years. I’ve been writing since I was 13, submitting since my early twenties, and I’m now 36. I have a stack of rejection letters from just about every romance publisher out there: Harlequin, Silhouette, Warner, Avon, Little Brown, Dorchester.

TC: What writer (or writers) do you admire? Is there anyone in particular that inspired or influenced you?

MJD: Stephen King (I love his rags to riches story), John Sandford, Laurell K. Hamilton (another rags to riches story, plus she was a single mom for quite a while), Carl Hiaasen (funniest writer ever), Ann Rule (amazing depth of research for her true crime stories), Charlaine Harris (just an outstanding writer in general, and such a nice lady in person, a total sweetheart!). I’m pretty eclectic; I read across genres. Frankly, I admire any writer who managed to get published; it’s a tough business.

TC: What about the “paranormal romance” genre interested you?

MJD: I love vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches… the idea of having “super powers” is just fascinating to me. What must it be like to be immortal, to be super strong, to see in the dark like a cat, to do magic? Fascinating.

TC: Was there any real life inspiration for Betsy?

MJD: I guess, maybe me. I’m six feet tall, like Betsy, and a jerk, like Betsy, and self-absorbed. I didn’t want a “Mary Sue” heroine, the type who can do no wrong. What I like about Betsy is that not everybody loves her; in fact, she irritates the hell out of a lot of people. Also like me!

TC: What are you currently working on?

MJD: I just finished SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES, my new paranormal series about a grumpy mermaid who doesn’t like to swim and is allergic to shellfish. And I’m working on another Alaskan Royal book, THE ROYAL SURPRISE. (What if Alaska was never bought by the US, was its own country and had its own royal family?)

TC: Can you tell us what’s next for Betsy and Sinclair?

MJD: Well, the wedding (if all goes well). Betsy really wants an “official” ceremony as opposed to the Book of the Dead simply stating she and Sinclair are mated for a thousand years. Whereas Sinclair thinks the idea of a ceremony is just ridiculous; they’re already husband and wife according to vampire lore. And Betsy badly wants a baby, which is a little tricky, since her ovaries stopped working the day she died. And she still has a lot of vampires to win over; many of them think Sinclair is the real power behind the throne, and she’s just a fluke. When, frankly, it’s the other way around.

TC: Do you have any advice for our readers?

MJD: Never ever ever give up. If I had quit submitting any time during those 15 years, I would never have made the New York Times list. I’d never be writing full time and, frankly, I wouldn’t have gobs of money. It’s a tough business, but persistence is definitely rewarded.

Billiard Recommends: Undead and Unwed

More MaryJanice Davidson:

Final Poll Results

Writing Flash Fiction: Interview With Brevity Editor Dinty Moore

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

The new interest in flash is due mostly to the emergence of e-zines and other online publications. People are also buying more anthologies than in days past. Most e-zines accept flash; many specialize in flash or are flash-only. You can write flash in any genre from sci-fi to erotica. You can also write flash that’s non-fiction or creative non-fiction.

In searching for markets for your flash, look for related terms like sudden fiction, micro fiction, and postcard fiction. Brevity editor Dinty Moore says, “For fiction, I prefer sudden fiction, and for nonfiction, I am using the term short-short or sudden nonfiction. I suppose the terms don’t really matter, but what I want to get away from is the idea that short works come out in a ‘flash,’ or as mere sparks. They take development and they take time.”

Misconceptions about flash

Flash is easy. Flash is hard, harder than longer fiction to write. Writers who enjoy a challenge should tackle flash. “Making something so short a complete literary event takes skill, care, and attention,” Moore says.

Any short-short is flash. This is the most common misconception about flash. Flash is not about length alone. There is no set word limit for flash. If you’re writing for a certain publication, follow their word limit guidelines. I’ve published flash ranging from 100 words to 500 words. Some journals allow flash that’s close to 3k.

An excerpt from a longer piece, if short enough, is flash. “One of my pet peeves is the writer who sends me work and says, ‘Here is an excerpt from a longer piece that might suit.'” Moore says. “First of all, that phrasing shows a lack of confidence. Second of all, I don’t want an excerpt, I want a whole.”

Flash differs in its style, structure, word choice, etc. from longer fiction and an editor can spot a excerpt from a larger non-flash piece. If you’re looking to meet a word count, you’d be better off shortening a piece originally written as flash.

Flash is flexible in terms of storytelling conventions. Even though you’re writing flash, you still need to tell a complete story in terms of structure, character development and resolution.

Dashing off flash pieces will give you a greater quantity of stories to submit and a higher number of credits. This may be true but just because a piece is short doesn’t mean it requires less time to write. Poetry writers can attest to this. Just as a good poem can take years to finish, a flash story can take more time than a novel for a writer who’s particular. You may get immediate gratification from finishing your flash sooner than you would have finished a short story but you may take longer to edit the piece, rework your word choices or simplify your storyline.

How to approach flash fiction writing

Word economy

It’s no wonder that Ernest Hemingway wrote flash; his economic style was perfectly suited for it. One of his most famous is only six words long: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

The most important aspect of flash is word economy. This is another example of how poetry techniques are important tools for all writers. Not only does word economy allow you to convey your ideas within your word count limits, it adds to the flash feel of your story.

Word economy is not about fitting your story into word count parameters. It’s about making choices that keep the writing tight and brief.

Moore says, “The successful short essay starts fast and moves quickly, but doesn’t sacrifice vivid language to do so.”

The help of a crit group or writing buddy can be invaluable for the flash writer, especially when first getting into flash. Often we pare down our stories to what we think are the bare bones only to have a friend return a critique with another couple dozen words trimmed off the count. For example, “blue-green” could become teal. “A worn pair of jeans” could be “worn jeans.” This kind of editing gets easier as you practice it, It will also help you tighten your longer fiction and make it more compelling.

Your story idea

“Often, the essay centers on a single significant moment (or idea, or metaphor).” Moore continues. “‘Single’ is important, because if there is a single significant element in the essay, that element can be explored and illuminated in 750 words (the word count limit at Brevity). If there is too much to say, nothing is fully drawn.”

Like any creative writing, you can begin with a story idea. Maybe your idea is based on a character, a bit of dialogue or a “what if?” scenario. The key to using your story idea in flash is to keep it small. A good rule of thumb is the bigger your idea, the bigger your work should be. Some story ideas are conducive to a novel, some are better suited to a short story. Write first, think about your length later. If your flash idea needs 5k to be successfully told, maybe it was never meant to be flash.

Better left unsaid

One trick of flash writing is knowing what not to say. Assume your readers will fill in the gaps. Leave off backstory and superfluous details. Make sure your connections flow and make sense without telling us what fills in the blanks. Moore says, “Some writers, perhaps frightened by the stingy word count, fall into the bad habit of preaching and explaining.” Show, don’t tell: the writer’s mantra.

Other tips

  • Begin with action; drop the reader into something already happening.
    • Ideas:
      • In the middle of a robbery.
      • During the fight that ends a marriage.
      • An elephant breaks loose at a circus.
  • Shock or surprise your reader. You only have a line or two to grab a flash reader, whereas a novel reader might keep going for a full page. Human nature guarantees that sex and/or violence should work.
    • Ideas:
      • Make a character nude—in public.
      • Open a box that contains a body part.
  • Push your reader hard toward the story’s end. Don’t give your reader a chance to stop and think about things. To paraphrase the King Of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland: Begin at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, then stop.
  • Don’t hold back. Say everything you need to say in your story. Don’t let the word count stop you from communicating. Use the restraints to present just what is necessary. Think of it like watching a magician. Instead of the old “nothing up my sleeve, nothing behind my back, nothing in the hat” spiel, you’re just saying “Voila! Rabbit!”

Words of wisdom

Moore offers this advice to writers who want to try flash: “Don’t write one short piece and hope it is wonderful and makes your reputation. Write ten rough drafts of ten different ideas; save one. Write ten more, save two. Then develop those three and see what you learn.”

Markets for flash writing

Dinty Moore’s next book is a the memoir BETWEEN PANIC AND DESIRE: NOTES FROM A SERIAL PROJECTIONIST, which “journeys from 1962 to 2006 in twin strands: my pathetic life, and major cultural moments.” He has also published Toothpick Men: Short Stories (now in a new expanded edition available from the author), The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes and edited Sudden Stories: The Mammoth Book of Miniscule Fiction. His personal site is

Final Poll Results

Emergency! 21 Tips for Writing an Article Fast

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Oh, no! The scheduled article has fallen through.

Despite the best-laid plans, it occasionally happens. Someone forgets a deadline, or gets sick, or the planned article, for whatever reason, just doesn’t work out.

Now it’s up to you to fill the space. You need to come up with a replacement article fast. What do you do?

Background Image: Jason Verwey/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Use What You Have On Hand

  1. Pull out that back-up article you keep on hand for just these situations, blow off the dust, and polish it up. What? You don’t have a pre-written back-up article? Doh. Go to number 2.
  2. Finish off a partially written article. Remember those two or three paragraphs you jotted down in a fit of inspiration a few months ago? The ones you’ve been meaning to get back to? Now’s the time.
  3. Start with an idea from your idea file or folder. If you aren’t already keeping an idea file or list of topics for future use, start one now! Just as Martha Stewart would tell you to always keep your pantry stocked for when you’re snowed in or guests drop in unexpectedly, a writer should always keep his/her idea file stocked for writing emergencies.
  4. Expand or continue a previous article. For example, my article “12 More Quick Fixes That’ll Make You Look Even Smarter” was a continuation of my earlier article “10 Quick Fixes That’ll Make You Look Really Smart.” An easy trick: if you’re writing an article and find that you have too much information for the allotted space or that some stuff just doesn’t seem to fit, keep the “extra” information and use it to start a second article.
  5. Re-purpose an existing article (your own or someone else’s). For example, an article about accepting constructive criticism gracefully could be reworked into a “how to critique” article.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s all well and good, but what if…

“I Have Nuthin’!”

  1. Choose a hook/theme. This will help delimit the parameters of your article and help you outline it. For example, if you chose “a rainbow” as your theme, you’d know that your article would have six main points, each based on a color.
  2. Make a quick trip to 7-Eleven, er, Google. If you have even a smidgen of an idea, google it and see what pops up. You might not find anything directly on point, but you never know what will trigger a creative burst.
  3. If you must start from scratch, take five or ten minutes and brainstorm. Write down everything thing you can think of, no matter how silly. Then return to number 7.
  4. If you’re still stuck, procrastinate. No, seriously. Take a short break and let your mind wander while you do something else—preferably an activity that’s more physical than mental. Sometimes that’s when the best ideas surface.
  5. Whatever you do, choose something that requires little to no research. Pick a topic that you’re familiar enough with that once you’ve decided on it, you can sit down and write the article straight through without having to take a lot of breaks to look information up.

So, now you know what you want to write about, but—ouch—you only have a day (or hour) to get it done. This is when the task seems most impossible and the “if onlys” set in. If only I’d known I had to do this a month ago! If only I’d written this article on spec! Well, you didn’t, so no use if onlying it. Instead…

Make the Task Less Daunting

  1. Split the article up into sections and work on it a section at a time. Think back to the old high school essay format: introduction, three-paragraph body, conclusion. It’s a little pedantic, but it’s a good place to start. An introductory and/or closing paragraph or two are never out of place and the body can be adjusted to suit. For example…
  2. Use headings and subheadings. Starting by listing just your headings helps you organize your thoughts and ideas quickly. Once you have your outline, you can go back and fill it in.
  3. Use bullet points. Point form is less intimidating than a straight essay format. Rather than having to keep a single argument going over several paragraphs, you can write a little bit about several different points that are loosely tied together.
  4. Pick a number: “Five Ways To…” “Ten Tips For…” Numbers make your task finite and therefore you’re less likely to suffer from “I’m never going to finish” frustration. Examples are my article “Six Ways To Write What You Don’t Know” and Baker’s article “Seven Writer Resolutions.”
  5. Use a question and answer format, even if you’re not interviewing anyone. Structured like an FAQ (frequently asked questions), this format can be very effective. Questions can double as headings. For an example, see Baker’s article “Been There, Zine That.”

This will give you the skeleton of an article. For example:

The Character Spectrum

Intro paragraph 1

Intro paragraph 2

Red: Protagonist (Nancy Drew)

Orange: Protagonist’s BFFs (Bess & George), who exist to assist the protagonist.

Yellow: Protagonist’s Peripherals (Dad, Hannah-the-Housekeeper, Ned et al.), who support the protagonist, but may hinder her detecting with a) their concerns for her safety or b) their insistence that she show up for dinner on time.

Green: Random characters necessary to keep the plot moving forward, including characters who may or may not be assisting the antagonist with his/her evil plan.

Blue: Antagonist’s minions / sidekicks / associates.

Purple: Antagonist (Dastardly Criminal-du-jour)

Closing Paragraph

At this point, you should be feeling considerably more relaxed. The hard part is done. Now it’s just a matter of filling in the blanks.

Flesh It Out

  1. Don’t be afraid to write out of order. Know how you want to conclude? Write the final paragraph first.
  2. Use lots of examples. Examples can help you explain something quickly and they also fill space. One caveat: if you stick with a single book or series throughout as the basis for your examples, make sure it’s something that most readers will recognize.
  3. A judiciously placed quote can be just what an article needs to make it sparkle. Here, for example, quoting Jaywalke, I insert “a witty and heartwarming inspirational quote about writing.”
  4. Keep each section simple and short. Make your point and move on. Now is not the time to drift off on tangents or try to write that epic piece you’ve been contemplating.
  5. If you get stuck on a point, leave it and come back to it later. If you’re completely stuck, step away from the computer. Even a five-minute break can be enough to clear your head.

And then get back to writing. No dawdling now, people are counting on you.

Banish Doubt!

  1. Use the “just write” principle: finish the article first and then edit. Remember, you don’t have time to re-write your first sentence twenty-seven times. What’s needed in this situation is a competent handling of the subject, not your most eloquent phrasing. Once you’ve proofread your draft, forego agonizing over it, and get it off to your editor as soon as possible.Once you’ve finished your article, take a few minutes to start or add to your idea file before you give yourself a pat on the back. Then next time you’re called on to produce an article at the last minute, you’ll be prepared.

Final Poll Results

The “P” Word

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’m a recovering perfectionist. As I started this article, I was trying to come up with the perfect word to describe perfectionism. Should I call it a disease, an addiction, a disability? Really, perfectionism is all these things.

But isn’t striving for excellence a good thing? Yes. But striving for excellence is not the same as striving for perfection. There’s a reason none of my “perfect” word choices were positive. A complex plot, fascinating characters, high quality writing, a minimal number of typos—all these things are marks of excellent writing. They are terrific goals well worth setting and working toward. The perfect plot, the perfect characterization, perfect writing—these things simply don’t exist. Setting these as your goals means you will never meet your goals. Ever. Striving for perfection is simply setting yourself up for failure. What can possibly be positive about setting yourself an impossible goal and then beating yourself up for failing to meet it?

There’s a difference between being “excellent” and “being perfect.” Being “excellent” can often be set up as a well defined goal. For a sport, it can mean winning a gold medal in the Olympics or beating a world record. In writing, it can mean being on the New York Times Bestseller list longer than J.K. Rowling or winning a Pulitzer. There is never any end to the goal of being perfect. You can always be better. Perfectionism is a no-win game.

Many unpublished writers are perfectionists. Some—those with the never-ending edits, the “I’ll submit this just as soon as I’ve worked out this last little detail” attitudes—are easy to spot. But there are many forms of perfectionism, and each has its own way of sabotaging accomplishment. Here are some of the main categories of perfectionists:

Background Image: Ariana Escobar/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The “Every Detail Perfect” Perfectionist

This is the type of person most people see as being perfectionist. Nothing is ever finished because they are constantly improving things. They will change perfectly good active verbs in their constant search for the “perfect” verb. Nothing is ever good enough for the Every Detail Perfect perfectionist. And certainly they would never, ever, consider letting a publisher see their story until it is “perfect.” And so publishers never see their stories.

If you are fighting Every Detail Perfect perfectionism, set yourself deadlines. Deadlines can be very frightening for Every Detail Perfect perfectionists, because they never want to give up on perfecting their work. Force yourself into situations where you have to.

As you start fiddling with a story, give yourself a time limit. Say “In three weeks, I will send this story out no matter what is left to be done.” Enter a contest, like the Toasted Cheese Three Cheers contest, where you have to write a short story and submit it in two days. If you are finding yourself continually making mental excuses to miss self-imposed deadlines, then try to get at least one job with writing deadlines. Freelance for a textbook company that needs a short turn-around time on something, or write columns for a local monthly newsletter. It’s harder to weasel out of promises to others than it is to weasel out of promises to yourself. It’s even harder if it’s something you are being paid for.

After working under deadline for a while, you’ll get a good feel for when a change is really important to make, and when you have entered the “every detail must be perfect” mode. Change your motto to “Good enough is good enough.”

The Procrastinating Perfectionist

It’s harder to recognize the procrastinator as a perfectionist. They don’t fuss over the details. On the contrary, their work tends to be sloppy, because they put it off until the last minute and rush through it. How is this perfectionism? The Procrastinating Perfectionist operates on the fear that things will not be perfect. They know, either consciously or unconsciously, that it can’t be. In this, they are one step ahead of the Every Detail Perfect perfectionist. They know they are playing a losing game. So they stack the deck. They leave themselves excuses for their work to be imperfect. They delay until they are close to a deadline, then churn out stuff quickly. “I had to do it so quickly, how could it be perfect?” In this way, they reassure themselves. They know in their hearts that it could have been perfect if only… If only they’d had more time, if only the computer hadn’t crashed in the middle of that chapter, if only…

Procrastinating Perfectionists are less afraid of turning over control of their writing, and more afraid of being found out. Someone might find out they cannot be perfect. The Procrastinating Perfectionist believes that perfection is possible, just not for them. Everyone else can do it, so there must be something wrong with them. They procrastinate to cover up and give excuses for their apparent inadequacy.

Deadlines only enable the Procrastinating Perfectionist. The Procrastinating Perfectionist is a master of excuses. To overcome the Procrastinating Perfectionist in you, you need to remove any obstacle that might serve as an excuse.

What this perfectionist needs is routines. A Procrastinating Perfectionist should start with one or two small chunks of time each day—one for writing, and maybe one for editing. It doesn’t really matter how small the block of time is: it can be 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes. The trick is to make the time small enough that the recovering Procrastination Perfectionist in you will do it every day. Too large a time chunk, and you will find an excuse why you can skip out of it today. And tomorrow. And… Make sure at the end of each time period, you leave everything set up for the day. If you use paper and pencil, make sure the pad is out and the pencils are sharpened. If you use a computer, look about and remove any distractions in the computer area. The key here is to develop a routine. If it’s not working, make the routine smaller. The specifics of your writing routine are less important than having a routine you do regularly. Once the small routine is engrained, you can expand it. Just make sure each step becomes a habit before adding the next step. Make your new motto: Slow and steady.

The Paralyzed Perfectionist

The Paralyzed Perfectionist is an extreme version of the Procrastination Perfectionist. The Paralyzed Perfectionist also knows their work will never be perfect. However, where the Procrastination Perfectionist will create excuses for doing the job imperfectly, the Paralyzed Perfectionist will give up on the job entirely. “If you can’t do something perfectly, don’t do it at all” are the secret words behind a Paralyzed Perfectionist’s inaction. If you can’t put anything down on the page because “everyone will hate it anyway” or “I can never be as good as that bestselling author. Who am I fooling?” then you probably suffer from Paralyzing Perfectionism. Paralyzed Perfectionists tend to be overwhelmed by large tasks, and have a hard time figuring out where to start. This is because they have a hard time visualizing all the steps that happen between “I want to write a brilliant novel” and the final, brilliant novel. Paralyzed Perfectionists think they can short-circuit the process. In their minds, just wanting to write a bestselling novel means they should be able to sit down, crank out a bestselling novel in one sitting, send it out the following day, get the contract a week later, and be on the best-seller list the first day the novel comes out. This is what should happen. But the Paralyzed Perfectionist will know in their secret heart that it can’t happen that way, so why start at all? If they do start, then the first roadblock is proof it can’t be done, a reason to stop trying. They tend to react strongly to critiques to of their stories because they see it as proof of failure rather than part of the process.

The Paralyzed Perfectionist needs to work on the all-or-nothing thinking. Routines are helpful, but a Paralyzed Perfectionist can write every day, creating story beginning after story beginning, and still never finish or submit anything. The first step on the road to overcoming Paralyzed Perfectionism is to recognize it and start adjusting your thoughts. Break long-term projects into little chunks. Take it one scene, one chapter at a time. Set small, reachable goals within your long-term goals, and reward yourself when you meet them. Keep a collection of really bad books to thumb through when you get the “I’ll never be good enough to be published” blues. Your motto should be “Just do it!”

The Combination Perfectionist

Many perfectionists are combination perfectionists. Paralyzed Perfectionist writers might find it very hard to finish projects, and use an event like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to behave like Procrastinating Perfectionists: “Of course it sucks, I wrote in a month. What do you expect?” They then become Every Detail Perfect perfectionists, and take forever to edit and “perfect” the novel, until they circle right back to the idea that they can never live up to their impossible standards, and just let the story languish on the hard drive.

The Road To Recovery

I’m a combination perfectionist. I’ve beaten the “Every Detail Perfect” perfectionism. I’ve written a thesis, which was the first blow to my EDP perfectionism. I still remember as a student using another person’s thesis, and wondering how they could have been so sloppy as to have such obvious errors in their work. I found out fast when the time came to write my own! Eventually, I went to work for a textbook company as an editor, and after five years in that job, any shreds of “Every Detail Perfect” thinking has been long obliterated. Not my feeling the product should be good, but my feeling that every single i must be dotted and every single t must be crossed before something can leave my desk. In my job, “failure” doesn’t mean “imperfect,” it means I can’t deliver a reasonable product on time. I still struggle with Procrastination perfectionism and Paralysis perfectionism. Of those, I have a decent handle on Procrastination perfectionism. Paralysis perfection has been the toughest one to face up to and fight. I often don’t succeed, but I keep on trying.

It’s hard, especially for the Every Detail Perfect perfectionist, to view perfectionism as an evil, not a virtue. But I’ve firmly come to believe there is nothing good about perfectionism. If you agree, and are ready to give up the search for the Perfect, I’ve offered the tricks that tend to work for me. I probably haven’t covered all the forms of perfectionism, but the real key to recovery is to realize what behaviors are driven by the idea that something must be perfect, but isn’t.

As you find yourself stalling on a project, ask yourself: What sort of perfectionist am I right now? Then take steps that help you overcome those perfectionist tendencies. Remember, perfectionism isn’t really about quality at all, even though it may seem that way on the surface. Perfectionism is about impossibility. Start shifting your thinking away from meeting (or avoiding) impossible standards in both your language and in your actions, and you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish.

Final Poll Results