Today we are pleased to feature Jen Knox as our Authors Talk series contributor. Jen talks about her contributions to Superstition Review and what she, as a reader, looks for in a strong short story. Jen also says that the why and how she writes ultimately boils down to character and her desire to understand the human condition from different purviews. She ends her talk by offering advice to burgeoning fiction writers.
Join local author Jennifer Spiegel (Bell) for a free community creative writing workshop every Monday at Phoenix College! The class will take place in room B-126.
The focus will be on getting down the basics and hitting the hot topics. Jennifer will lead prospective writers of every skill level through a different topic each week.
List of topics:
3/26 Taking the community pulse: Fiction or nonfiction, writing goals, and basic principles.
4/2 Character and Point of View
4/9 Show don’t tell
4/16 Descriptive language
4/30 Beginnings and ends
5/7 Hot topics, publishing, writing in the age of #metoo, and the writing life.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP or to ask any questions!
Jennifer Spiegel is mostly a fiction writer with two books and a miscellany of short publications, though she also teaches English and creative writing. She is part of Snotty Literati, a book-reviewing gig, with Lara Smith. She lives with her family in Arizona.
Today we are pleased to feature C.A. Schaefer as our Authors Talk series contributor.
C.A. Schaefer discusses the origin of her short story “Raw Materials.” She parallels performed magic and fiction, and how she serves as both the magician and assistant of her own work. She then talks about research being at the heart of her writing and the importance of science, philosophy, history, and art in the fantastic. She ends her talk by discussing the next step for her writing; one of endless possibility.
C.A. Schaefer’s short story, “Raw Materials,” can be read in Issue 20 of Superstition Review.
Today we are pleased to announce that Natalie Sypolt has a forthcoming short story collection. The Sound of Holding Your Breath: Stories is being released by West Virginia University Press. Pre-orders are available online for the November 2018 release.
Natalie was featured in Issue 10 of Superstition Review. Her story is titled “Fractured” and is currently available to read.
Natalie has also contributed to the Superstition Review Blog. Her first guest post, “When Writers Gather, Or How to Make a Workshop Work for You” covers the topics of conferences and workshops. She offers some great advice in a do and don’t format. For her second guest post, “A Retreat from Distraction”, she discusses distraction, productivity, and a bit more of finding what works for you as writer.
Today we are happy to announce The Price of the Haircut by Brock Clarke has been released. The Price of the Haircut, published by Algonquin Books, is a collection of short stories whose excerpt can be found on the authors website.
You can read Brock’s interview with Superstition Review in Issue 3.
Joshua and his three sisters on his 7th birthday. Sarah Beth is in the Myrtle Beach shirt.
Years ago, when I was taking an undergraduate fiction writing class, the professor talked about the short fiction he wrote in the year after his mother’s death. He showed his work to a friend, and the friend told him, “I see your mother on every page.” My professor protested angrily, but he went home and realized it was true. He was writing fiction, not autobiographical, not about dead mothers, but deep down, he was writing about his personal loss.
I found something similar happening to me when I was writing “Beagle in the Road,” five years after my brother’s suicide. I was writing about a moment when I was thirteen years old, seventeen years before I lost my brother. At that point, Joshua was five and happy, likely playing with Hot Wheels cars or shooting outlaws in a computer game that came free in a box of cereal. My little brother had nothing to do with my decision to follow my beagle into a busy road, so he didn’t belong in the essay. Still, I found myself embedding my grief into every line, and unlike my professor, I was intensely aware that this was happening, surely because I was (and still am) in the midst of writing a memoir about Joshua. I knew I wouldn’t have written the piece at all if he hadn’t died. After a few years of witnessing my parents’ grief, the beagle memory came back to me, and I suddenly felt horror mixed with my old pride and gratefulness about the risk I’d taken that day.
When I came to the end of the essay, I struggled with how to close without my brother. Throughout the piece, I’d felt his five-year-old shadow running alongside my thirteen-year-old self, both of us buoyant in our innocence of everything that would come later. And in the end, I pictured my brother’s twenty-two-year-old body when I imagined myself dead on the road. So, I tried to shoehorn his suicide into the turn, explaining to readers why I saw this moment so differently years later, after I’d witnessed the broken health and malaise that can follow the loss of a child. But the suicide revelation kept feeling melodramatic, a disrespect to my lost brother and to my parents’ grief. Since Joshua wasn’t present on the essay’s surface, I hadn’t developed him as a character, and readers couldn’t mourn a brother they didn’t know. I finally realized I had to stay in the moment, focusing on the relationships between characters who were actually present: my beagle and me, my dad and my beagle, my dad and me. The audience would understand that my life and perspective had changed in the time since I rescued my beagle. The reason I had changed was beside the point.
Of course, I have my own personal readers like my professor’s friend, people who saw my brother on every page. My most important reader, my writer sister, got it immediately. A poet friend read the essay, expecting a piece about my childhood beagle, and she said, “Wow, this fits right into your memoir!” And it does fit. Eventually, when readers see the piece in context, they’ll know it’s about Joshua. When I describe my dad’s potential grief, they’ll think of that horrible day seventeen years later. They may even cringe as I do over that imagined image of my broken body, thinking of my brother’s body hanging in his closet. But I also know that context also isn’t necessary. Readers who didn’t know my professor couldn’t get the mother connection in his stories, but I’m sure they felt moved by the undercurrents of grief—likely something that’s often happening to me when I find myself moved by a story, essay, or poem in an unexpected way.
In the end, I couldn’t help myself. I was burning to mention Joshua, so I put him in my bio. In creative nonfiction, the biographical note inevitably changes readers’ perception of the essay, so I decided to take advantage of that. But let’s face it: not everyone reads bios. If everyone did, my own undergraduate students would never call female writers “he.” And I know that one-sentence mention of my brother isn’t nearly enough to allow the most careful readers to understand all of the Joshua resonances that exist for people who know me. So, for readers who don’t see this blog post, or connect the piece to my other work, I’ll be content to let that grief stay concealed within my body—my real body, my live body in the essay, my imagined smashed body in the essay—the place where grief always hides.
Some Thoughts on Flashbacks in Fiction
Let me begin by saying that I will never claim to be an expert in anything pertaining to narrative craft, only someone who enjoys reading and writing and has done a good deal of both.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to talk about an essential feature of fiction, one of the first devices that any beginning writer learns about: the flashback. In the fictionist’s (fictionista’s?) arsenal, flashbacks are possibly the most important weapon of a writer. Without flashbacks, a story is forced to mimic the limited trajectory of human experience: only moving forward into time. I’m sure there are great stories that don’t use any flashbacks, but I can’t imagine many of them are longer than a single scene, and even stories that don’t have obvious “he thought back to that distant day” (more on that later) transitions that mark out flashbacks often do flashback in subtler, briefer ways. Any dialogue that features characters speaking about prior events counts as a flashback, even the briefest memories that occur to characters are flashbacks. The reason we don’t always notice these is that when done right, flashbacks are unobtrusive.
A good flashback fluidly transposes us from one point in time to another: can seamlessly transport us from a disappointing family dinner of skinless chicken and peas and mashed potatoes (not touching each other, of course) to the chaff-clogged grain silo in Kansas where the character shared her first kiss with a corn-fed boy who could best be described as “Ned Flanders-hot.” Now, this is not to say that obvious flashbacks can’t be good, but I’d say the odds of a flashback being successful decreases the more clunky and noisy its execution.
Ways that flashbacks can be “noisy” include the following:
-Obvious transitional phrases like “that reminded him” or “she was transported back to the time”
-Ending flashbacks with some variation of the awful “he/she was shaken from her memories by a sudden noise” maneuver
I’m not saying I’ve never done these things in my own writing, but I try to avoid them if I can, and when I see them in fiction I tend to grouse a bit.
I don’t want you to think that all “obvious” flashbacks are bad. One of my favorite examples of a flashback comes in the opening sentence of my favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
This is not only a flashback but a flashforward, seamlessly transporting us between two—possibly three—time periods and simultaneously “spoiling” an event that comes later in the novel without actually telling us anything important (spoiler: the Colonel doesn’t die from the firing squad but does die later on from old age). This flashback derives its elegance from the beauty of the language and also the striking juxtaposition between a soldier facing a firing squad and him as a child experiencing a formative moment with his father.
Pet Peeves with Flashbacks
I have two main pet peeves when it comes to writing flashbacks in addition to those already covered above.
First, and perhaps most aggravating, is the use of dreams to convey flashbacks. This is an overused trope in many kinds of fiction, and even when it’s done well it annoys me. News flash: people don’t dream in complete memories, or at least no one I know does, and I’d question diet and sleeping habits of anyone who does. Dreams are not perfect portals into memory, they are more suggestive and elusive than that, and their place in fiction shouldn’t be as mere avenues of flashbacks when there are more straightforward ways to show us characters’ memories. An example of a good use of dream as flashback comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where in a dream Raskolnikov recalls a moment from childhood when a horse collapsed in front of him and an entire street full of people began to beat it in an attempt to get it moving again. The violence of the episode is likely embellished and exaggerated by the dream, but as a memory it shows us Raskolnikov’s empathy.
The second is a phenomenon I mostly see employed in genre fiction (fantasy, science fiction, the odd detective story) where writers use italics to render flashbacks. An example of this comes from one of Jim Butcher’s (normally an excellent prose stylist) Codex Alera fantasy series, where he rendered a multi-page scene all in italics simply because it took place in the past, separate from the main timeline of narrative action. There are a number of reasons why this is bad and wrong, but the foremost reason is that reading an entire paragraph or page in italics can be murder on tired eyes, and that using italics for an entire passage misses the point of italics: that they are for emphasis. The other chief reason is that I suspect the use of italics to denote a flashback says two things about the author, neither of which are particularly good. Either the author lacks confidence in their own ability to communicate to their readers that they’re reading a flashback, or the author thinks the reader is an idiot.
And of course, we never want to think our readers are idiots–if you approach your writing that way, you’ve already failed.