I've always enjoyed writing short stories, so when I recently heard about the NYC Flash Fiction Challenge, I thought "Here's something I can have some fun with."
The premise behind the Flash Fiction Challenge is simple - each participant is assigned to a Group. That group is given a Genre of story to write, in a particular Setting, with a random element that must be included in the story. Oh, and the catch? You only have 1000 words to tell your story in.
Back in August, I participated in this challenge for the first time. My short story "Brothers in Arms" is a "ghost story that took place at a military training camp and included an outdoor grill." This past weekend, I was issued a new challenge: to write a romantic comedy which takes place in a chocolate shop with fried chicken.
To read my recent entries in the Flash Fiction Challenge, read them HERE.
Almost everyone is familiar with the work of Aesop. At some point in their life they have heard at least one of this cautionary tales or fables. His most memorable stories include the story of the Lion and the Mouse, the Grasshopper and the Ant and the Tortoise and the Hare. For centuries, Aesop's stories have been a way that many of us have learned, from a young age, rules to live by in our world.
Over the past year, I have been busily re-writing some of Aesop's work into contemporary stories. And on November 7th, I'll be taking the stage and sharing one of those stories at the Off The Page Open Mic at Magnolia Cafe in Guelph, Ontario. Which story am I sharing? I'll have a video of it to share with you afterwards. See if you can figure out which one it is.
Since the new year, I have been working very hard to make some changes to my life, personally and business-wise. Some of the changes were gradual and were fairly easy to change into. Some, however, have caused total breakdowns and then... something happened. A breakthrough.
I have come to believe that, in order for deep change to occur, sometimes a breakdown is necessary for the breakthrough to occur. Why? Because we have to learn how to let go of our preconceived notions - and this, invariably, leads to a "breakdown" of sorts.
When we begin a new way of living, and start to build new patterns, our body and mind first say "But that's the way we've always done things, so let's go back to that. It's comfortable." The body and mind want to stay comfortable. They want to keep the status quo. Change is uncomfortable. It's painful.
If we persist in trying to build new habits, there comes a saturation point where our body and mind have to let go of our old ways of being and this is when the body has a "breakdown." Sometimes it is a physical thing. Sometimes, our mind says, firstly, "I can't handle this. It just doesn't make sense." It causes an emotional or mental collapse.
So if you're going through a rough time because you are making changes, and you're feeling like you're at your breaking point, Don't Stop. Keep doing what you're doing. Because on the other side of your breakdown is a breakthrough.
Robert Graves says, in his poem "To Juan at the Winter Solstice" that there is "one story and one story only". All other stories, by that description, are simply retellings of that first story.
Finding a way to re-tell a story, any story, and not just that "one story" is a challenge. Because, not only must the writer or storyteller find a way to tell the original tale, they must bring something original or a new perspective to the story. The question is, how will the storyteller do that?
Will they tell the tale from someone else's perspective? Will they add some element that makes the main character more loveable or detestable than they previously were? Will the author find a way to take a traditional tale and make it contemporary? Each method of retelling brings with it challenges.
When I decided to write Delilah, I had to decide what would make the familiar story interesting again. I decided to tell the story from Deliah's point of view. This was problematic at times when I might have wanted to show events happening away from where Delilah was. I had to create scenes where situations occured where Delilah was present.
I did research and then took literary licence and invented things that I could not be sure of. I researched both the Hebrew religion and way of life as well as that of the Phillistines in the Valley of Sorek. I was challenged because I couldn't completely re-invent the wheel - I couldn't make Delilah a modern woman. BUT I could tell the story of Samson and Delilah as a bit of a romance akin to Romeo and Juliette.
The original story of Samson and Delilah was about a man who was drawn from a loving relationship with God by the conniving deceit of a manipulative, evil woman. In my story, Delilah is not the agent through which Samson's covenant with God is broken, but through which his relationship with his God is redeemed. Likewise, Delilah's relationship with Samson also helps her relationship with he
Some people here might be wondering why I'm talking about automatic weapons and writing in the same sentence. Especially people who know me and my loathing for all things that require heavy artillery. So what on earth could compell me to write about automatic weapons and writing in the same sentence? Let me explain...
I'm a freelance writer. I do three types of writing:
1. Writing that I love,
2. writing that I get paid for, and occasionally,
3. writing that I love that I also get paid for.
The writing that I love to do (and that I occasionally get paid for) is the stuff that I wish I had more time for. Right now, I'm spending a lot of time doing the writing that I get paid for. Where do I find this work, you ask? I'll tell you.
Freelance sites. You know, the sites where people go and ask for someone to write something for them for ... whatever they are willing to pay. I frequent several sites, routinely bid on interesting projects, and I get work. A lot of work. Enough work to feed my family and I and pay the mortgage (most months anyhow). And this is where the whole automatic weapon thing comes in.
A few days ago, I bid on a contract to create some quizzes for a client. They asked for some samples of my work, as well as my "writing resume", so I put in a bid, and attached my resume and some quizzes I had created (and which had been published) for children's magazines. I figured that, according to the directions in the job ad, I had complied with the request of the clients. I checked the site a few times, noticed no activity and figured that the client hadn't chosen me. No big.
Today, I got an email from the marketing division of this site. They wanted me to provide this client with "sample health quizzes" with no guarantee that the client would purchase them. The client, they said, wanted people to submit health quizzes. My response to that letter:
"I have provided this client with SAMPLES of other quizzes which I had created for other clients, relating to health (emotional health) and to culinary knowledge. The job description didn't say for me to write two health-related quizzes, nor were there specific directions on which health-related topic the client wanted to focus. There are millions of health topics I could work off of, but I'm not in the habit of writing "on spec" for a project like this. I'm a professional and I'm not going to waste my time on a quiz that might not be what your client wants.
Your client needs to be more specific about what she wants. If she wants a quiz about superfoods, she needs to say so. If she wants a quiz about healthy exercise habits, she needs to say so. If she wants one relating to a particular topic, theme, issue, or relating to her blog, then it would be good if I had that information. Otherwise, I'm writing blind and that's a waste of my time and money."
So ... back to the automatic weapon, and writing and why I'm using that analogy.
When a client wants a writer to work with them, they need to have a clear idea of what they want. If they don't have that clear vision, it's impossible for the writer to create what they want. It's a frustrating experience that makes both the client and the writer unhappy and stressed. Not only that, however, it also makes it impossible for the writer to reach the client's TARGET AUDIENCE.
Yes, see... there is a reason for that weapon of mass destruction. When it comes to writing, I am a "sniper." I don't use an automatic weapon and scatter my shot all over the field. I write to my target audience, to the audience that my client wants me to write to. Whether it's a stay at home parent who wants to lay off on the bonbons, the teenaged guy who wants to get his first job, or the executive who wants to improve his golf game, I write specifically to THEM and to their pains. I use laser accuracy to write to your market, whether you want a short article, a quiz, or an ebook. Whatever. That's MY job.
So if you're a potential client, if you're thinking of hiring a writer, what should you know? You should know who your target market is. You should know their age, gender, education level. You should know whether they prefer chocolate ice cream or vanilla, whether they prefer summer or winter, and what they have for breakfast. When you can pin-point your target, when you can point to their pain and what problem you want to solve for them, you can share your vision with the writer you're going to hire. This makes it possible for your content to reach the right people, the people who are more likely to spend money with you later.
Skip the scatter gun - give me my "rifle" anyday. Now I'm off to the range to practice my shooting... both hands on the keyboard!
Recently, something happened here at home that made me realize just how important perspective is.
The local power company had notified us in advance that the power would be out for an entire day (okay 6 hrs, but you get the idea). I was entirely put out, I couldn't stay home to work that day, I had to get my dog to her sitter so she wouldn't be alone in the house with the alarm going off every ten seconds, and I had to go out for lunch rather than make my meals at home. And because of the inconvenience, I also opted to order in pizza for a dinner. That night, I spoke with my husband, who is on an internship in Tanzania (Africa) via Skype.
I related my traumatic day to him ... and he simply nodded and smiled. When I asked him about HIS day, he said "Oh, it's been three days without power here." He said it as if it was completely normal and natural that this should occur. And indeed, it is the natural state of things where he is. But rather than being all frustrated with his situation, he had managed to come to terms with his situation and adopted the Tanzanian mantra "Hakuna Shida" (no worries).
This revelation brought to mind how important it is for writers to examine the perspective of each of their characters in their stories. How, for example, would a typical North American view taking a shower, as opposed to someone who has lived in Kenya? How would someone who has lived through poverty view the person who is throwing away a steak because it's slightly over done?
Perspective is important - and that character's perspective will shape how they interact with others and how they behave overall. In writing circles, this concept is sometimes called Point of View or POV.
I have found some amazing writers who have used alternating or varying POV effectively in their stories. One of my faves is Polly Horvath's The Corps of the Bare Boned Plane. I hope you'll share with me some of your favorite stories involving alternating or interesting use of changing POV.
A story is a story, right?
It doesn't really matter how long it is, it is still a story.
I read. I read a LOT. My husband often criticizes me for reading as many different things as I do, often at the same time. Recently, however, I finally worked my way through a novel, and after consuming it in just a few days, I felt the need to nibble on something a little ... different. I decided to try reading short stories, rather than entire novels.
Now, for some people, short stories are just not enough to satisfy them emotionally. They need the intense descriptive paragraphs describing every tiny detail of a room, a dress, a look.
I confess, I am not one of those people who get all wrapped up in tiny details. I like raw emotion, impressions of places, feelings, intense conflict and compelling characters. I guess that's why I'm a big fan of contemporary young adult literature. However, it also explains why I love short stories so much.
Where a novellist might spend an entire page describing a particular setting, a short story writer only writes what they HAVE to write, what is important to the development of the character, the plot, the theme and the story. A short story writer has to learn, very quickly, what is important to the story and what is superfluous.
Right now, I'm reading Winter Tales by Isak Dineson as my bedtime reading. The mythic elements make it an interesting read - and, while it's not my favorite collection of short stories, it is interesting for me to see how a short story writer must take all those things that make a novel GREAT and do the same with a story that has far fewer words. A little while ago I read a collection of short stories about Africa entitled Say You're One of Them. I couldn't finish the book. It was too upsetting for me. Another book I recently read was Imagining British Columbia: Land, Memory, Place. This book was, for me, an incredible synthesis of art, geography and amazing literature by local authors. Each story touched me in some way.
Authors who write short stories have less time to capture you and your attention and make you want to sympathize with their main character; they must GRAB you by the throat (or make your stomach ache) so that you are compelled to read further. An author that writes a novel has more time to get you to commit to their character and their conflict. Not so for short story writers.
I have found a few authors that do that exceptionally well. Ones that take you and turn you inside out, make you laugh, make you cry, make you ache. It's a gift... but it's also something that, as writers, we need to read as many different styles of writing as we can, so that we can learn from these talented writers whose stories inform and transform us.
I believe that we can always learn from eachother; that great writers are ones who learn from others. I invite you to share your favorite short story collections (and authors) here.
When you think about writers, what do you think about?
Do you imagine someone who just has a story to tell? It could be a sad story, one with a happy ending, one that leaves you wondering "what if..." anything really.
Do you imagine them to be someone who has an agenda? A purpose? A message?
Do writers enlighten you?
What do they do? Not just for you, but for humanity?
The reason I ask this question today is because of a post that I read earlier today by a self-proclaimed whistleblower. It really moved me to see how this one individual so eloquently wrote about his concerns for our country, our environment, our rights and our economy and challenged people to stand up for themselves and be counted.
So I am asking this question of my readers. What do you think the role is of a writer? Do they have more than entertainment value in your life? Please share your thoughts on the role of writers. I'm interested to hear what you have to say...
Over the past few days, our region has been hit with uncharacteristic heavy snowfall and is now reeling from freezing winds from an arctic outflow. The kids have been home, and we've been lucky to be warm and toasty and dry inside.
Thinking about the snow and the arctic air, I couldn't help but think about times when my brain freezes and I just can't come up with the next thing to write. Most writers call this "writer's block."
I used to get really frustrated when this happened, but in the years since I started writing professionally, I have developed some tools to help me cope when I don't know what to write.
Another thing I like to do is exercise, particularly walking, cycling or aquafit. Now, some of these exercises are more
planned than others, but I do find that, the more that I exercise, the clearer my thinking is and also the stronger my writing is. What an interesting co-relation.
When I'm experiencing literary frustration with one project, I will often jump onto working on another project for a little while. It's been my experience that, when I am stuck on one project, simply switching gears and working on something else
gives me enough of a break to be able to come back at it and see my project with new eyes.
What are your strategies for dealing with writer's block?
The other day I went to a meeting to learn how to be a more effective blogger by answering questions that relate to the kind of work you do. When it was my turn to listen to questions people had about my work, one of them was simply "What makes a good story?"I knew right away that I wanted to talk about character and conflict and themes... and I will do that in more detail in the next few blog posts.
But this morning, I was checking my Facebook when I saw that my brother Chris (The Smits Brothers) had posted a video to his page. I don't always watch videos that he posts - he's a professional trainer and trains supermodels and Olympic class athletes. Most of his videos have to do with training and athletics, 90% of which I could NEVER even dream of doing (no snowboarding for me!) I spend most of my day BIC (butt in chair). I have the physique to go along with it. But that's another story...
Good story, in my opinion, does three things (and I learned this from Pulitzer prize winner Jacqui Bananszynski) :
It entertains people
and it connects people
So why am I sharing this video? Because it is an example of "good story." See if you can find how this story accomplishes all three of those things and apply those principles to your writing. You can write "good story."