Guest Post, Jen Knox: On Workshops

On Workshops: An Exercise in Character

 

notebook, laptopThere’s nothing like the first day of class. Coffee, notebooks, and laptops are strewn around the table. The awkwardness of either small talk or silence permeates the room. As the seats fill, the energy is palpable, and the student body seems to carry with it a collective question. What are you about to make us do?

I teach short fiction, often in workshops settings, and though I vary my lesson plans considerably, there is one outline I return to no matter the age or skill level because it is fundamental to fiction writing. This lesson is on characterization, the only lesson I have that is, if not fixed, consistent.

When getting to know a new class, I ask for names, where students are from, how they like to spend free time, their favorite book or movie, and what led them to my class. Sometimes I throw in silly questions, such as how they’d spend a million dollars in three days or who they’d interview first if they had a talk show and could have anyone living or dead on as a guest. In other words, I cover the who, what, when, where, and why to get to know them.

To introduce students to characterization is to introduce them, in part, to all aspects of short-form storytelling. For this reason, I follow introductions by asking my students to answer the first four intro questions for a fictional character as well—preferably a brand-new character. If the more far-reaching question was posed, I ask them to answer that, too.

There is rarely a lot of struggle with this exercise. Characterization is a natural thing. We have so many personal experiences and interactions to draw from that we can often come up with a character by asking ourselves a few simple questions. In fact, if you’re reading this, try it. It’ll only take a few minutes.

  • Name:
  • Place of origin:
  • Favorite past-time:
  • Favorite book or movie:

Think of characterization in a similar manner to how we get to know people. When we first meet a person, we only have appearance to go by, and it’s easy to deduce a thing or two from body language. In conversation, more information is gathered. The more we see a person and interact, the more data we have at hand to create a portrait in our minds.

Examining fabricated characters at this point, after only a few questions, it would seem they are mere acquaintances. We need to know more, so here are a few more questions:

  • What does this character want more than anything?
  • What’s in the way?
  • Greatest fear?
  • Does the character have a favorite color? Favorite food? A quirky habit?

Depending on the length of the workshop, we continue:

  • Would you date your character?
  • Would you be friends?

After adding to our list of questions and answers, a character begins to take shape, and at this early point in the workshop, I tell the class it’s time to share. When we go around the room, the magic begins to take shape. Suddenly, the number of people in the room has doubled. A fresh energy takes over as these quirky new people (usually people) are introduced.

Characters inevitably reflect aspects of either ourselves, people we know, characters from our dreams, and/or fictional characters we’ve been inspired by. We’re processing information day by day, so whether we’re conscious of it or not, all information shapes the way we think and perceive the world as artists. This is never more evident than in spontaneous creative efforts.

Because characters are often a collage of previous interactions, questions about human behavior, dreams, hopes, worries, and joys, they may even lead us to corners of our mind that are strange or uncomfortable. “How did I come up with this disturbing person?” a student might ask. Sometimes a disclaimer will be made: “Just so you know, my writing is not usually so dark.” Or, “I don’t like this person at all. He’s nothing like me.”

Characters, when made up on the spot, are not a reflection of us so much as a reflection of what’s been on our mind, what we know, and what we’d like to know. And in every case, they reflect passions and fears.

That’s not to say that if a student writes a serial killer character, that student is a serial killer. What it does mean is that if we write a serial killer character, that character will likely have some humanizing trait that we share, or reflect a fear we have about the world.

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Writing is a way to reframe reality by exploring our emotions through characterization and action, through pure creative output, which, ideally, distills all the information we have and carries with us into potent little worlds that seem both unfamiliar and not.

For the writing-intensive portion of class, I challenge my students to explore their characters by writing a scene in which their protagonists almost get what they so desperately want. This writing assignment is about plot through characterization. It is the heart of the story. It is also important to set a limit on the time they have to write, so I’ll often give them 20 minutes. Knowing a timer is ticking, we tend to find ways to work more words onto the page.

*

As we conclude, I challenge my students (and anyone reading this) to live like writers, to observe the world like writers, to take notes and take stock. Feel fully that thick, humid breeze or hear the birdsong during morning walks—hear what is always there but you never pay attention to.

Carry a notebook. When you come up with a beautiful line, a new insight, a new observation, or just pure guttural emotion, write it down as soon as you can. Explore it on the page. And through all your observing and listening, keep your new character in the back of your mind.

As you live, this character solidifies. And as you continue to write, I suggest creating a few more and traveling with them, too, examining the world through multiple sets of eyes, and writing when so moved to do so. In this way, characters become vehicles by which to study the world. They can return in different scenarios or deliver a single message and move on.

The more I write, the more likely it is I’ll see a character return, only with each story she becomes stronger, more defined. Sometimes characters from different stories end up meeting in a narrative some months or years down the line. Sometimes, they fizzle out. But when we know our characters, really know them, our writing feels less like work and more like opportunity, a journey.

First-Ever Tempe Community Writing Contest

tempe writing contest

 

November may be National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), but for ASU students and Tempe residents who’d rather try their hand at shorter works, this is also the month to start preparing for a new spring writing challenge.

ASU’s College of Letters and Sciences and the writing programs in the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences are partnering with Tempe Public Library to host the first-ever Tempe Community Writing Contest.

The writing contest, which invites submissions in the genres of poetry, short fiction and nonfiction, is open to all Tempe residents, Tempe Library cardholders and all ASU students.

Entries will be accepted between Jan. 15, 2015 and Feb. 15, 2015 at this online submission link, and individuals may submit one piece in each genre if they wish. Entries will be read anonymously within three judging categories: high school student, college student (undergraduate or graduate) and community adult. One winner from each entry category will be chosen for each genre.

“The contest was the idea of several of the Tempe Public Library staff,” explains Jill Brenner, adult services librarian. “We’ve recently been offering more programming for writers as a natural extension of library services. The response has been fantastic, so we wanted to take it one step further.

“We immediately thought of ASU as a partner, since several of our writing workshops are being presented by ASU faculty members,” says Brenner.

She began collaborating in August with Jeanne Hanrahan, faculty associate and liaison for ASU Academic Success Programs, and Duane Roen, College of Letters and Sciences interim dean, to organize the contest and enlist judges from the university’s creative writing community.

“I thank the many faculty and staff who have enthusiastically stepped up to support the contest, and hope faculty across ASU will encourage their students to submit their writing,” observes Roen, who enjoys leading Tempe Public Library workshops to inspire family-history writing. “The process of writing, like any of the arts, can be an outlet for expression and a lifelong journey that enriches our individual lives and our communities.”

The Tempe Community Writing Contest winners will be announced in the spring and celebrated at a reception at Tempe Public Library. Winning entries will also be published on the library’s website. Additional information and contest details and a PDF of the contest announcement can be found at the Tempe Public Library events webpage.

For more information visit: https://asunews.asu.edu/20141110-tempe-writing-contest

Call for Submissions: The Manila Envelope

Manila Envelope
The Manila Envelope: A Literary & Art Online Magazine is looking for poetry, short fiction and short creative non-fiction as well as visual art (jpeg images) to include in our upcoming Fall Issue by the end of September; we also accept submissions on a rolling basis.
For information and to see our aesthetic preferences please go to http://www.themanilaenvelope.com.

Guest Post, Geoffrey Miller: Flash Fiction is the Belle of the Ball

Flash fiction is the belle of the ball, the flavor of the moment, the soup of the day and apparently well on its way to mainstream acceptance as a separate and unique form of writing. Recent articles in mainstream publications like O Magazine and MacLean’s had articles and pieces of flash as well, most literary journals now have separate submission categories for flash submissions and there are more and more flash only journals out there now. You can even earn a PhD in flash from the University of Chester in the UK. I mean Flash Fiction now even has its own day – just in case you missed it – June 22 demands a red circle on your calendar in 2014. What exactly one is supposed to do on this day I’m not sure, maybe read a piece of flash?

With so much attention coming flash fiction’s way, it made me think – did Juliette hit it on the head when she said what she said about roses or does that only apply to flowers? Huh? Well what is it that you are submitting – flash fiction, postcard fiction, sudden fiction, short-short fiction, micro fiction, palm of the hand story, vignette, or a I was going to say prose poem but then things would get really out of control. Vignette is often used as an example of a piece of flash fiction done wrong so we can knock that off the list as well; leave it for the playwrights. However, that still leaves about half a dozen names in a writer’s jargon. Who cares? If everyone is talking about the same type of writing then does it really matter if we call it something different as long as we are talking about the same thing? I guess Juliette was right after all.

Or was she? For example, when someone passes me a piece of short-short fiction I expect it to have the same basic structural components as a longer piece of fiction, exposition, conflict and resolution, but there will be a greater need for me to assume or hypothesize in order to build the narrative arch into a whole in my mind. Calling that short-short fiction makes sense after all it is a short story condensed into a shorter form, which asks for a little presuming, by the reader.

But I don’t see the flash. The piece is asking me to do something but I don’t have to; there isn’t an uncontrolled neuron flash in my mind if I don’t put my mind to it. TJFKhis is what flash fiction should do, it should present text based on previously constructed mental associations in the reader’s mind in order to create a gestalt piece of writing which comes alive inside of the reader’s mind.

For example,

An inattentive, transient license – “Check it” – high-pitched, estrogenic sound awkwardly steamed from thick, too-big lips covering whimsical precarious tan teeth. Mirrored sunglasses sterilize eyes, plunging transgressor back to fatigued, faded skin, unkempt hair – a mind of questions, comments, demands, justifications – stayed verbally, exposed physically – “Is there a problem?” Pigments, parchments, binding, images relapse then release ribbed steel, scuffed plastic, relabeled boxes reskinned with tape, twine, and plastic that meld into a horizontal borough in motion, eclectic and naïve to the pigment of deities.

That’s how a piece of flash fiction about flying into JFK for the first time would look to me. Yes, now we’ve gotten personal and now you know why I don’t want to let short-short fiction get all the good names, regardless of Juliette and her rose.

Guest Post: Cream City Review Interviews Author Tom Williams

Tom WIlliamsTom Williams is the author of the novella, The Mimic’s Own Voice and the forthcoming novel Don’t Start Me Talkin,’ due out in February 2014 from Curbside Splendor. He’s also the Chair of English at Morehead State University and this year’s judge for cream city review‘s fiction contest, among other things. CCR‘s Mollie Boutell recently caught up with him to chat about writing, music, and beer.

 

 

 

Cream City Review: Give me three stories everyone should read.

Tom Williams: This is such a difficult question. Why only three? And which three? How to choose and not sound deliberately obscure, a literary log-roller, or hopelessly conservative? My solution: a first, second, and third-person story by people I do not know:

1. “The Moths,” Helena Viramontes. US Magic Realism, sad and triumphant, rite of passage, incredible ending.

2. “Soul Food,” Reginald McKnight. Will honestly flip your lid when it comes to notions of what second person does or should do, and was published in the ’90s, well before the quasi-literary, post-apocalyptic, zombie genre was getting its footing. And it’s in second person! With a first and last line you’ll not soon forget.

3. “Murphy’s Xmas,” Mark Costello. Simply put: Costello is the best short story writer you do not know. And this holiday classic makes Fear’s “Fuck Christmas” and The Pogues’s “Fairy Tale of New York” look like Hallmark cards.

CCR: I love that you included a second-person story. Sometimes I feel like Lorrie Moore was the last person allowed to use it. Speaking of Lorrie Moore — she said “a short story is a flower, a novel is a job.” What’s a novella?

TW: When I was writing The Mimics Own Voice, this is what cheered me every day: Melville’s line from The Confidence Man: “It is with fiction as it is religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.” And that reminds me of a scene in Animal House, where Pinto (played by Tom Hulce) and Professor Jennings (played by Donald Sutherland) have this pot-stoked conversation:

Pinto: Our whole solar system could be like one tiny atom under the fingernail of some other giant being. Oh. Oh. This is too much! That means one tiny atom under my fingernail could be . . .

Jennings: One tiny universe.

This strikes me as a perfect analogy for the novella: a complete and complex object—a tiny universe–that fits neatly under a fingernail. If the short story is too brief for you and the novel too long, yet you want both the perfection of form and the complexity of life, there’s that middle form that you either call the long story or the novella.

CCR: If you could make a soundtrack for your soon-to-be-released novel, what might be on it?

TW: Mollie, this is the softball. My forthcoming novel is called Dont Start Me Talkin, which is also the title of a song by the book’s principal muse, Sonny Boy Williamson II, who your readers might know lived for some time in Milwaukee in his later years, while he was recording for Checker, in Chicago—where my publisher is located. And in addition to borrowing that title, at present, each of the twelve chapters of my book have Sonny Boy Williamson titles as their titles. So the simplest thing would be to go to iTunes and download His Best, by Sonny Boy Williamson, and listen to such numbers as “One Way Out,” “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” “Good Evening Everybody,” and “Help Me.” And then listen to Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, James Cotton, Sugar Blue, Charlie Musselwhite, Satan and Adam, and any other blues harpist of note.

CCR: We will. Now, your best advice for someone, say, entering a short fiction contest?

TW: Send the story that’s currently making you worried; the one that appears to be finished but has something to it that keeps you from sending it out might be the one that’s busted through all the limitations one invariably muscles into one’s work. If a story seems “your” story, it might be one that only works for you. If it’s one that seems to trouble your aesthetic, your standards, your sense of what it is that stories essay, it might work for others. Send it out to a contest sponsored by a magazine you like to read and then don’t periodically check the contest journal’s website for updates.

CCR: What’s your favorite Wisconsin beer?

TW: This question is even harder than the one about three stories people should read, because there are so many good Wisconsin beers, including the macro brews of Miller, the resuscitated majesty of Pabst and Schlitz, the serious old school wow of Point, the craft intricacies of New Glaurus and Sprecher, the unbelievable freshness of Hinterland and Titletown. All of this is to say that while I lived in Wisconsin, it was not the best time of my life, but the beer was ineffably wonderful; but the one that caught me first and best was a Leinie (not of the new vintage but the old)—a can of what’s now called “Original,” with its less than politically correct Native American in profile logo. It came dripping with ice from a cooler on a summer day and I can still feel the tang at the back of my throat. And suffice it to say when I think of Wisconsin beers, it’s the one that first surfaces in my mind.

Cream City Review’s contest postmark deadline has been extended to January 15. Stuff your story (and the $15 entry fee) into an envelope right now and send it along to: cream city review
 c/o UWM Department of English,
PO Box 413,
Milwaukee, WI 53201.

Guest Blog Post, Joan Colby: Old Lady Poems

“An old lady poem,” was the judgment of a friend recently. I was offended, then considered—at 73, am I getting to be an old lady? How could that happen!

Yet, the poems I wrote in my 20s were sharper and less reflective. Many had to do with self-discovery, the landscape of the young. As time passed, I found this investigation tiresome. It was easier to accept the person I have always been, or through decades have become.

My poems shaded into narrative. Though I write short fiction, I found my natural rhythm and voice more suited to the poem, yet story increasingly intrigued me. Subject matter changed too. Poems on the struggles of relationships—parental, sexual, marital, social gave way to less personal, more external topics.

I wrote a series of poems on criminals and on saints (featured in The Lonely Hearts Killers), a chapbook on art (The Chagall Poems), on the natural world (The Boundary Waters) and most recently on decades of country life with a noir flavor (Dead Horses). It seems a predictable progression. While I am still interested in, and write about, a variety of subjects, with the passage of the years, elegies replace love lyrics, ruminations on illness, loss, loneliness and death, for good or ill, are new preoccupations.

I hope I’ve retained the sardonic outlook that speaks to my dread of falling prey to “old lady poems.” Hera forbid, I become a character in one of my own such as “Red Hats.”

RED HATS

A hat tribe based on a poem
Praising a notion of insouciance.

The intention to wear purple
With a red hat when old

Incited not a revolution
But a convention of the like-minded.

Not the war bonnet
Prescribed

But a herd of red hats
Grazing their salads.

Four Way Books Standing Order Plan

Four Way Books is offering a superb discount on all its titles if you sign up for their subscription plan. It’s like a CSA for publishing.

Here’s the 411:

Like a subscription plan, this offers all of our publications at an attractive discount (32 per cent) plus shipping. Books arrive twice a year as they are published. No ordering necessary. This is a great way to increase our sales and to keep up with poetry and short fiction. The cost to you is about $75.00 each fall and spring. Just email me at editors@fourwaybooks.com and I’ll sign you up!