Flash fiction: Is this what you meant?

Is this what you meant?

When you said dogspeed, did you mean big dogs or little? Remember Freddy, the old chi-mix I took in from the shelter? With the grey face, bad arthritis, and his red winter coat? He was slow, feisty but as slow as you are in the mornings. And Harold, my sweet Harry, bless him, he’s not as fast as he once was. It’s his hips – isn’t that true for all of us? But Rosie, she doesn’t bloody stop, does she? Putting her on a leash to walk around the block is like asking a marathon runner to skip to the traffic lights and back. Oh. You said godspeed? I don’t know what that means. Sorry.

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Writer’s Craft: A Credo for Creativity

A manifesto, a mission statement, a credo, they all help to focus us on why we do what we do as writers and artists.

1. Say it with a Punch and a Tickle.

2. Provocative Pratfalls: Please don’t take anything for granted. Challenge those assumptions and let us see you fall into the puddle. We’ll love you all the more.

3. Time Capsules: When was that? Are you sure? Take us with you. We want to eat from the same plate so feed us the right snacks and pour us a drink of the day.

4. Backdrops No More: Locations claim a place as characters. They affect everything from the weather, speech patterns, coats and hats, and how we walk through the world, so yes, your environments speak to all of it. Make us shiver.

5. Sink Into The Muck: Immerse yourself. Take a breath. Jump in. Hold on tight. Swim with all your might. We’re hanging onto your swim trunks.

6. Mirrorless in the Mainstream: Give those outsiders someone to mimic, to care about, someone like them, a story that resonates with them. The rest of the world can watch Fox News and Friends.

7. Constraints by Underwear: Show the absurdity of gender roles and stereotypes.

8. Passion, Kiss them with Kindness. If you don’t care about what you’re writing and creating, why should we? Exactly. Give us a decent smacker on the lips and make us wet and needy for more. That’s all I ask of anyone.

9. Grab Life. If you want to write, then write, don’t wait. You might be dead when you wake up in the morning.

10. Stay Human. We write to connect, to find meaning, and by telling a good story. It’s that simple.

Why do you write? Create? It was a great challenge to think about the whys and wherefores of doing what I do. Take the idea and run with it. Make it yours. Claim your own process.

And thanks for reading!

Writer’s Craft: On Fiction and Character Development

On Fiction: Knowing your characters is key to a writing an insightful novel or short story. 

It’s true, the more we know the protagonist, the side characters, everyone mentioned, the fuller the sense of story we take the reader into. We’re less like to have pawns, stereotypes, and more likely to have believable people reacting to the world we’ve stuck them into.

Alexander Chee came to VCFA in 2017 and talked to us in the MFA program about developing his own characters and how much research he would invest in each one. He inspired much of this list, some are his ideas and others are mine that came from the inspiration of listening to him talk.

The list is in no specific order. It’s a collection of random questions and suggestions that help me when I’m writing fiction. It helps me in revision too, I can go back to each character once the story is finished in my case, and look more carefully into their backgrounds and make sure it rings true or if more information is needed for the reader to understand their actions and reactions.
It helps me. I hope it helps some of you too.

  • Trust the magic
  • Let the story out
  • Trust the characters
  • Write everyday
  • Get it out, remember?
  • Drop in deep
  • Fall into the spell
  • Trust your intuition
  • What’s the reason for living that lfie?
  • Who’s in control in the story? The protagonist’s life?
  • Ask questions of your characters
  • Follow those questions in each chapter
  • Access the urgency
  • Create a playlist
  • What do you have to say?
  • See the world through their eyes
  • Trust intuitive structure
  • Write what you should write, what you know
  • Don’t worry about externals
  • Don’t be in good taste
  • Let the characters act true to themselves
  • Don’t censor them
  • Or yourself!
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • Poignancy, find it in each character
  • The story is its own editor
  • Do you know enough to tell this story?
  • Commit to writing two hours per day
  • Dive in, swim, float, paddle in that story every day
  • Write out all the sories and later work on how it fits together
  • What are you interested in?
  • Who do you want to hang out? You’ll be spending a lot of time with these characters
  • Research the context, era
  • Find those odd details
  • Clothes, politics, food, houses, music, transport, hairstyles, shoes
  • Don’t control the voice of each character, they are unique
  • What is the social place your character lives in? class, access, education, goals, lifestyles
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Know them so well that you can deeply know the motivations at all times
  • Find the intimacy of character details, the gestures, walk, look specific to that person
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves? To others?

If you have more ideas, then add to the comments below and we can share the info. Thanks again. Be well. Be creative.

Book Review: The Collected Works of Billy The Kid by Michael Ondaatje

What is it about this book that is so timeless? The Collected Works of Billy The Kid takes us inside the life, thoughts, desires, rationalisations and memories of this iconic character from the American West on the 1880s.

It’s called a novel on the cover but Ondaatje plays with structure by mixing poetry, prose, photographs and historical accounts. Ondaatje flows between forms to create an in-depth collection. Ondaatje does this so easily, so beautifully that I kept turning pages, and on my second cup of coffee, I was still in bed reading while it rained outside.

Ondaatje researched The Collected Works of Billy The Kid, turned to photographs, dime novels, contemporary newspapers and accounts from all those who came across him. What he gives us is a narrative, a memoir in a sense, one that shifts perspectives and forms, interior and exterior worlds, and all in a concise precise lyrical language. It’s amazing. I loved how each page took me to a new experience or incidence. Part myth, fiction, history and storytelling, The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is restrained but energetic.

He captures the language of the 1880s in the syntax and choice of words. Poems are often short and immersive.

MMMMMMMM mm thinking

moving across the world on horses

body split at the edge of their necks

neck sweat eating at my jeans

moving across the world on horses

 

Each poem or prose stands alone on the page. There is a lot of white space. They are tidily written, aligned at the top and left. He adds photographs. The style of a dime novel. Newspaper cuttings. He plays within the poems, one echoes nicely from the first stanza to the last one that is written in reverse of the first and is as stirring in both.

Garrett was “the ideal assassin. Public figure, the mind of a Doctor, his hands hairy, scarred, burned by rope” and “everything equiped to be that rare thing” Ondaatje finished the two page portrait the writing sane assassin five times with no punctuation and ending with sane.

Is it possible to understand the violence of Billy the Kid, one so young, and where did the need or ability to kill come from. “A motive? some reasoning we can give to explain all this violence. Was there a source for all this? yup – ” Billy and Brewer watched a friend murdered horrifically from a nearby hillside, one that stuck with the boy of eighteen.

Or so says Billy half way into the collection.

With the gentle yet graphic build up of Billy’s story in part written from his perspective and at other times from the women and friends around, I’m there. I trust Ondaatje completely. He writes with such empathy and the internal worlds are fascinating and lyrical. It’s an addictive journey. I couldn’t put the book down. The pauses between moments build up the tension and the desire to know more kept me there. The bite-sized stories, the form, isn’t just a recent invention, which is what I’d thought, it’s timeless. This book is from 1970. So what is it that carries so well? Ondaatje plays with form to suit the needs of each piece. It makes sense to write in broken and disjointed poems for Billy’s emotions as when he takes a woman to bed in the middle of a storm, or to write a simple shorter prose piece about the setting of the barn at the Chissums’ while waiting out a fever with the farm animals and rats.

What am I left with? As with all these reviews of mine, they are more of a personal response. Think of me as a hungry reader and writer looking for permission to write as my instinct demands, always reading as much as possible to find others who have played and experimented in ways, tones, forms and language. This book then is perfect for me right now. Why?

The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is immersive. The language is lyrical, poetic, and detailed and not just for understanding that era. Mixing up structure and form gives an added depth to the content and is not just for show. The emotional strength of the poetry is fed by those changes in form, rhythms and syntax. The combination of styles here works so well that the story affected me deeply. Ondaatje is such a master with words. There is no doubting him. The Collected Works of Billy The Kid kept me turning pages, taking notes, pausing to breathe in an image. I was invested, engaged, and curious. At times I had to put the book down and stare out the window. What more could I ask for as a writer or reader?

 The Collected Works of Billy The Kid

Michael Ondaatje

(Vintage Books, 1970. $11)

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Review: (Not that You Asked: rants, exploits, and obsessions) by Steve Almond

(Not that You Asked) is a collection of essays written over a couple of years. Many of them had been previously published in a wide number of literary journals. It’s pretty amazing to read how many were snapped up within 2005 alone. Almond had been busy. He’d been appreciated. It’s no wonder then that there was a call to put those essays and more into this collection. I’m surprised that I only came across him last week.

Steve Almond is such a lad, and so good at writing us back into his teenage anxious inexperienced self with humour and insight. I can’t say I liked those teenage boys much, but I get it, the focus and embarrassment, the developing crushes and a basic horniness that doesn’t fade. The subtitle sums it up as those exploits could be called sexploits.

Sex is an undercurrent throughout, the tone is self-deprecating at times, and he is honest, bitingly so at times. (Not that You Asked) is divided up into sections and isn’t chronological but within each section, there is a linked theme to the rants, a specific theme or question. Titles such as Chestfro Agoniste catch your attention, especially since then he describes how he and his girlfriend, not a very nice one by the sounds of it, a bit of a sadist when he didn’t want her to be, well, they try to wax his chest hair. It doesn’t go well. The idea, the fantasy, was cruelly absent, instead he’s funny and blunt and in a list, he set up the hope. Then he says, “I don’t suppose I have to tell you that my expectations were a bit on the high side.” I like how he used different forms, going from a simple introduction, a list, then a set of disclaimers and explanations before getting down to the nitty gritty of wax, hair, blood, and tears. Yes, he cried. I like this about him, he tells us when he’s a wimp, even if it’s written with that tone of irony, you know that he sees himself clearly and finds it funny from this perspective as a dad in his forties even as parts are written in the present tense. Confusing? No. We trust him, enjoy this conversational feel to his essays in (Not that You Asked). I did anyway.

He mixed up style wise and it gives me permission to play with form. Almond used lists, the acts of a playwright, and even step-by-step instructions. Yes, those instructions, a lesson on how to write sex scenes, it’s one I want to share with friends and keep for myself, with some good advice for writers. Like the rest of his book, he combines a light touch with insightful comments. Step 5, “real people say all kinds of weird, funny things during sex, such as ‘I’m think I’m losing circulation’ and ‘I’ve got a cramp in my foot.’ In other words, be true to what really happens, the awkwardness, stickiness, and laughable moments. Noted.

Topics in (Not that You Asked) ranged from Red Sox (my least favourite chapter), to the legacy of Vonnegut, integrity in literature, the risks and responsibilities of critical bloggers, the sight of fake tits, roles of popular media, and becoming a dad. If there is a common thread here it’s hard to name directly. I can’t see it. Yet although I’m not sure how or why, I gladly went along with him, back and forth time wise. He pulls it together with a consistent style and voice that is smart and heartfilled, ironic and forgiving. I imagine sitting down at the kitchen table with him is just as full of silly anecdotes and insightful observations. It’s almost like we glimpse beyond the public wit of Almond and he undresses to explore this softer, thoughtful side.

The essay about Vonnegut ends with this after the death of the writer he’d admired for so long. “He leaves us his books, his pleas for kindness, his foolish hope for our salvation.”

And I see a similarity in Almond’s collection here. The book ends with a story about raising his baby daughter in Judaism even as if his family didn’t share that with him. “What we actually lacked was belief” he says of his own childhood. This essay is one of the most grown up, most vulnerable in the way he talks of faith, his wishes for his daughter and the pain his dad felt for not knowing the “possibility of some great spiritual bosom into which he might nestle and rest his weary bones.” Yes, even when he writes of deep feelings, his language keeps it grounded in a light way, funny, and a lad after all.

And for his daughter? “She will know where and who she came from. She will be loved, unreasonably. The rest is hers to determine.”

A sweet ending indeed.

You’d almost believe Almond grew up overnight. Gone is that sense of detached wit, and a gentle dad speaks directly to us of his hopes for her.

Almond’s (Not that You Asked) has a distinctive voice, horny, messy, honest, and smart. He’s got a big heart. This collection gave me permission to play with form, not to feel constricted to chronology and to trust the connections within the essays themselves. We all have stories that we write, a theme to our words, and a voice of our own making. It’s inspiring for me as an emerging writer.

(Not that You Asked) makes me want to read more of his work, to appreciate and see how he does it in his short stories. Off to the library then.

 

Random House, 2007

288 pp  $14.00

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Writer’s Craft: Revision

A few suggestions for revision. It’s the biggest challenge to me, or rather it has been. This last year though, I’ve found the process less overwhelming. Breaking it down into parts, into giving myself a different focus each run-through takes the pressure off and makes it more enjoyable. What do I mean? I’ll pick one of these points in the list below, and look for that idea alone. Read the essay looking at verbs specifically, what did I overuse? Which verbs could be more dynamic?

Or for settings, I’ll read the novel chapter by chapter focusing solely on the settings, the physical descriptions of rooms, landscapes, homes, streets or towns. I’ll look for ways to capture the sense of the place, the sight, sound, textures and influences on that space.
I’m working one aspect at a time, there’s less pressure and it’s easier for me to find the details lacking or needed. This list is my way of approaching revision. I hope it helps you too.

  • First line: what does it do? Cut it, try again
  • Physical descriptions of people, the narrator, everyone, give the visuals as soon as possible even if indirectly to let the reader imagine what you see.
  • Context and physical settings: let the reader know where the story is set.
  • When, where, why, who: give information so the reader trusts you and then they’ll go with you anywhere.
  • Risks: raise the stakes constantly
  • Choices: give the characters choices and unpredictable responses
  • Find the magical moments of change, shifts, ideas, memories, actions
  • Go with your instincts
  • Generate new ideas when in a good mood
  • Edit when cranky
  • Verbs: highlight your verbs for a page or two and you’ll see which ones could be made more active, interesting, unusual – within reason though. Said/ thought etc are needed, a simple identifying verb also has its own place.
  • What is the story within the story? (the situation and the plot with the plot being the process or goals or development of the protagonist)
  • What secrets are lingering underneath the spoken?
  • What will she sacrifice to reach her own goals?
  • Will she give up her own dreams for another?
  • What’s the fear?
  • Active choices: stay engaged and less at the mercy of life, let her take action
  • Stay physical, keep the characters doing, acting on their worlds, moving, changing, shifting on the physical realm
  • Senses: address them all
  • Backstory: understand each character’s back story whether it’s mentioned or not
  • Motivations, drive, goals, intentions: ask what each one wants and why
  • Trust the story to tell itself, especially on the first draft, write it out, let it out
  • Contrast the mundane with the mad
  • Remember your stuff: when she mentioned a favourite shirt, or a mug, or a person, come back to those details, use them later on.
  • Go deeper into the psyche of each character
  • Rhythms and musicality, repetitions, refrains, use the language to set up a movement with your words and not only the storyline
  • Surface tension: what’s going on behind the main conversation?
  • Uneasy pairings: actions and unexpected emotions eg a nice swim and screaming fit at the public pool.
  • Chronic and acute situations: Chronic is the ongoing longer lasting situation and the acute is what drives the action in that very specific moment
  • Specificity: if you refer to a bus, call it by number or route name
  • Expectations: set up point of view, characters, setting etc quickly
  • Scene: mess with the predictable and those expectations
  • Stain: what then lingers from that scene or interaction?
  • Escalation: character driven, keep building the tension or drama with how your characters work or avoid their own stories
  • Dialogue: each voice has its own syntax, words, rhythms
  • Names: full names give authority and weight
  • Movement: find the grand movement forward as well as the little whirls and loops within
  • Set designer: write as if you are directing the playhouse, the stage, and moves of each one who steps on your stage. Claim it and enjoy the details.
  • Tenses: check consistency
  • Is the reader in the story or being told a story?
  • Use music to influence your rhythms when writing, create a musical playlist for the era or culture you’re writing about. Immerse yourself in those sounds
  • Research the slang, politics, news, weather, culture of the time period
  • Tension: drives the story without it, oh well, who cares, right?
  • Storyboards: write up what happens and when, see what can be moved, or to check the flow of actions, steps, tension, what’s missing?
  • Breathe in, hold it, hold it, hold it, release = Act One, Two, and Three
  • Sentances: vary length, tone, rhythms, paragraphs, white space.
  • Physicality of characters: who do they move in their own bodies? In their clothes?
  • Faces, bodies: be specific, really see each character, the shine of skin, greasy hair, frizzy or dried with split ends? Get into those details
  • Backstory: be juicy and play with their backgrounds
  • What if: add absurd ideas, fabulist, magiacl, trippy. Play with it
  • Threads and throughlines: feel them, create them, follow them
  • Wordplay: it’s your language so mix and match your images to suit your sense of play
  • Bird’s eye view: what’s going on around the main characters?
  • Add more weirdness.
  • Oh, and ENJOY YOURSELF!

Review: Baby Geisha by Trinie Dalton

“Underwear has nothing to do with sociological barriers,” says the narrator in the opening chapter in Baby Geisha, a collection of stories and monologues told with Dalton’s usual wordplay, vivid language, and unexpected images. Readers will fall deeply into these sketches of charmingly messed up characters inhabiting often ignored subcultures and dreams.

Trinie Dalton has created another evocative world all of her own. As described on the cover, it’s like a travelogue with each chapter being set in completely different states and countries and yet the collection hangs together with skill and whimsy. Each story has a unique narrators voice and setting that reflects the narrator’s interior monologue, so convincing it’s blurs the sense of fiction and biography. We wonder. In Wet Look, Iggy has gone looking for a spiritual awakening, Be Here Now, but unfortunately only makes it from California to Missouri. He talks to himself not to judge even as he’s busy judging, speaking outloud even though “he realized this was an unpopular view.” He finds himself at a firework display in the Ozarks, and “he caught himself making assumptions and aimed to halt this.” This is the narrator who struggles in his tent to put on clean boxers before going out because his dad taught him to be prepared for a possible trip to the hospital. The contrasts of what he’s looking for and how he experiences this trip is revealing, funny, and poignant.

Dalton has a unique way with words as we expect after publishing five other books. She adds such unexpected details and in one story the old cheese “has a doll head flavor,” and we all know what she means. The language is often sensual, sexual and wonderfully silly so that the tales come across as charming, light, whimsical, and you almost don’t notice how she writes about loss, loneliness, grief and even death. The mix of magical and mundane made me laugh outloud repeatedly as I read the collection. “It was moronic instead of ironic,” she writes at one point and I nod, knowing the feeling.

Her world is bizarre, a fantasy made of grounded descriptions within ridiculous settings and with memorable characters: Pandora. Zane. The Perverted Hobo. A Husky called Bob. And Rita.

The first lines nearly always stand out, grabbing my attention, and I want to read more. “Sloths, I’m in.” “I’m the kind of snowflake who likes to be the last one clinging.” And, “The trail to the escalator is lined with pigeon entrails, from diseased city birds that were gutted by Bengali tigers.” Well, of course. What else would I expect from Dalton?

The last lines work a similar magic for me. In context this line becomes something more poignant, sad even, “But will I always be a dog eating kibble?” ends the tale of a shell-shocked father back from Vietnam.

In Word Salad, the unexpected once again says hello, popping up at times to make me grin, laugh, and carry on reading. Delighted, I was constantly delighted by the mischievous in the sensual, the different actions told with such a straight face. A road ends in a lake for one narrator searching for wildflowers. There was “nowhere to go but in. I plunge, my engine dies,” and then climbs out as if it’s the most natural response to drive into the pond.
Trinie Dalton’s flights of imagination are simply beautiful, extraordinary, sexual and sensual in ways that kept me reading and left me wanting to sit down and talk with her over a cuppa tea. The funny lines, the language, a careful study of people and tender insights fill these pages: I’m inspired.

Reading Baby Geisha is like hearing a familiar voice in a crowded pub. You have to listen for more. You linger, you pay attention, and yes, you will laugh. Pure mischief.

trinie

photo by Blake Z Rong 2017

BABY GEISHA (stories) by Trinie Dalton

Two Dollar Radio

$16 trade paper (146p)

ISBN 978-0-9832471-0-4