In many ways, writing is like learning to play the guitar; you have to pick and choose your words, like notes, until you have the right mixture. As a guitar player, you tend to find your place in Country Western or Rock and Roll, never to roam. Can you imagine Johnny Cash or Mick Jagger having the ability to write a piece of Classical Music better than Mozart or Beethoven? Maybe they could have. Who knows? But they were comfortable within their respective fields and never made the attempt.
Suppose, as a wordsmith, you rest on your laurels when you may have the talent to outshine Shakespeare’s prose or Wordsworth’s poetry? Why not avoid safety nets and reach for the stars. There is growth even in failure.
Being that I am neither a musician, Shakespeare nor Wordsworth, I will cite examples of successful stretching in my own genre, westerns.
I am fortunate to have read most Louis Lamour’s works. I cut my teeth on “Hondo” and fell in love with the “Sackets” series –all these books have sold or are destined to sell in the millions. John Wayne’s Hondo found Louis Lamour on the set advising The Duke on his character. Lamour was beginning his successful career and Wayne was past the middle of his highly successful career. These two men, both destined to be leaders in their respective fields, came to admire each other.
How did the world’s greatest writer of westerns get his start? He worked many different jobs and wrote in his spare time. In the beginning, Lamour wrote pulp stories, along with western short stories. He received his share of rejection letters—BUT HE NEVER GAVE UP WRITING. The key word is never.
When he was settled in his role as a leading writer of westerns, Louis Lamour reached beyond himself and entered a new era, expanding his horizons.
“The Walking Drum” – written about life in the twelfth century, took Lamour years to research.
He was not afraid to introduce controversial ideas. “The Californios” began his walk down metaphysical paths.
Once the Sackets series was well founded, he followed the family back to its beginning. His metaphysical books never reached the popularity of the series about the beginning of the Sacket family, but they made a respectable showing.
Once, I was asked if I found any mistakes in Lamour’s westerns. “Dozens of them,” I answered. Lamour never corrected himself. Even his editors didn’t dare to correct him. They would hint and suggest, but never ordered him to make changes.
In later life, he had to protect the copyrights on his earlier work by republishing. I felt fortunate to read some of them and see how he had grown a writer. Although I’ve willingly read several of his later western books more than once, I had to force myself to read these earlier works a single time.
The other western writer who influences my work was a retired New York dentist. He started his career by writing articles for outdoor magazines. His work took him to Arizona and the Zane Grey Westerns were born. He wrote with a little bit more elasticity than Lamour, but he showed a different picture of Life in the Wild West. For the most part, I found his work dull, but enjoyed his descriptive nature. Zane Grey had his share of rejection letters, but he won out in the end by never—you guessed it—giving up.
I decided early in my writing life to follow a family and the difficulties they faced in the Western Movement. I decided to be a bit rawer in my description of their life style than other writers. Thus, my characters answered the call of nature and reacted more naturally in their gun fights.
I have become a fanatic about research. I’m not a successful writer yet, so I have to do my own research. I own up to my ignorance of grammar, but it does not stop me from sharing my work. My loyal readers/reviewers keep me on the straight and narrow.
One thing I have learned, going on my fifth year of professional writing, is to listen to critiques from other writers. It is only one step in the long road to being published. Most of all, I do not brush off corrections of my facts. I back them up with sources and will admit when I err. Luckily, I seldom have to do the latter.
I urge every writer to expand his writing experience, stretch his horizons. Never stop at the first planet, when you can own the galaxy.
List of Louis Lamour’s titles
List of Zany Grey's titles
ABOUT CHARLES LUCAS
STORIES BY CHARLES LUCAS
POETRY BY CHARLES LUCAS
ESSAYS BY CHARLES LUCAS
I suspect you’ve heard from some writing teacher that “One cannot write a complete short story in less than 500 words.” To that I say poppycock! Why should it take 500 words to supply a character with a conflict, crisis, resolution and a bit of dialog? Didn’t Hemingway do it in six?
Okay, he implied a lot and left even more to the reader’s imagination—but still.
“For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”
So we’re not all Hemingway. But there’s no reason a crafty writer can’t tell a story in 100 words. Tell you what—since there’s no hard and fast rule on length yet, let’s give ourselves 150 words and call it microflash.
No way around it, microflash is one spare and bare piece of writing. Every word counts when you don’t have any to waste. Strong, active verbs are the order of the day. Adverbs are nearly extinct. The time frame isn’t much longer than the time it takes to read the story. Settings are usually hinted at and left to the reader’s imagination to fill in details. Dialogue tags are rare.
“So what do I have left to work with?” you ask.
Emotion, suspense, surprise—if you’re sneaky.
Characters are defined by their words and actions. There’s literally no time at all between defining the conflict and reaching the crisis. Well chosen words allow the reader to fill in the blanks. The resolution packs a punch through either a twist or an unexpected reveal. Well done, the reader will either laugh or feel his stomach twist. Microflash endings hit hard.
Writer Lee Allen Hill has lent us one of his microflash stories to demonstrate. Notice his economy of words as he draws his character with monologue. Even his narration sounds like the character’s thoughts, as often as not. Using pronouns to his advantage, he employs the device of misdirection. But there’s no cheating. Once you’ve been surprised by his reveal, go back and check every word. He hasn’t misspoken even once. His first sentence seduces you into an assumption—and he easily rides that assumption to the surprise at the end. I dare you not to laugh, even when you know the reveal is on its way.
Lee Allen Hill
Maria can’t get her eye make-up right.
She’s a grade-school teacher, for Pete’s sake. She can’t go out in front of all those people looking like a hooker.
She washes it off, starts over.
But the ‘do’? That’s another story. Maria’s thrilled with the way her hair came out. Stylish, dignified. Touchable, even. Not a hair out of place. Quite an accomplishment—given her stiff neck, and all.
Maria decides to shade back on eyeliner this time. More natural. But not too natural, you know? Not dowdy. All eyes will be on her, and no woman wants to go out in public looking dowdy.
Just a hint of color. That’s it. A touch of shadow. Yes.
Oh, you look mahrrrrrvelous, old girl.”
A call from upstairs. “How’s it coming, Maria?”
“Just about finished. She looks great.”
“I’m sure. I’ll send the elevator down. The wake starts in half an hour.”
See? A sneaky reveal is like the Tabasco on the oyster—you’ve already swallowed by the time you feel the bite.
If you’ve looked at Submissions in the past few weeks you’ve noticed that Page & Spine is now accepting flash fiction stories to 1000 words and microflash to 150. Don’t think it can be done? Check out EPITAPH (55words) on the February 1st CRUMBS page and Fred Waiss’ MORNING MISERY (89 words) on this week’s CRUMBS. Try it. It’s fun. –N.K.
If you’ve read a writers’ magazine or visited an internet writing site in the past several years, you’ve seen the term flash fiction applied to a new category of writing. You really can’t escape it. Magazines and literary journals publish it. There are whole e-zines devoted to the stuff. But what, exactly, is it?
That’s a hard question. As a relatively new literary form, not everyone agrees on all the details. But here are a few things we know for sure.
First of all, it’s a short story. It contains a protagonist, a conflict, a crisis and a resolution/reveal. There is at least some dialogue. And in the end, the protagonist must solve a problem or experience a revelation. Pretty standard stuff so far, right?
Second, it’s short. Really short. Whereas a short story is generally defined as containing up to 7,000 words, flash fiction is currently capped by most editors at a mere thousand. Fair enough. But what makes a low word count story flash?
Flash fiction demands a unique writing style. It’s bare-bones writing. Brevity limits the number of characters to one or two, certainly no more than three. The time period covered is short, often moments. The conflict is defined just sentences before the climax occurs. Adjectives are kept to a necessary minimum. There is a raging controversy over the permissibility of adverbs. Some purists think they should be banned entirely. Others believe they are occasionally acceptable as long as they don’t substitute for strong verbs. Verbs are active and precise. Nouns are carefully varied.
In the example below, kindly supplied by writer Lee Allen Hill, notice how the story spans only moments in elapsed time. A few well placed sentences sum up the back story of a lifetime’s mediocrity and explain Sir Thomas’ conviction that this is the discovery that will give him the recognition he craves.
Pay attention to how carefully chosen adjectives and adverbs are present when needed. Verbs are passive in back story, but they are not only active in the present, they define the Sir Thomas character. The archaeologist mutters, mumbles, even cranes. And in the end, Sir Thomas announces his discovery to the reader in a moment of pure whimsy— character development continued to the very last, amazing sentence.
What the Bones Say
Lee Allen Hill
Sir Thomas Jade’s calloused hands work deliberately as he brushes off the skull, but his heart beats at a rate he hasn’t experienced in years.
He’s spent his entire adult life enduring the hardships and privations of archeological digs all over the globe in order to help enrich mankind’s knowledge of its murky past. But for all his effort, dedication, he has never managed to hit the big time—always a mere contributor, a guest, a footnote at digs organized by others more renowned, more celebrated than himself.
But now, in his seventieth year, he has made a momentous discovery that will etch his name alongside—perhaps ahead of—the other glory-hungry giants in his glory-starved field.
His long-held, but academically scorned, theory of Early Trans-Atlantic Migration is being validated and dusted clean before his very eyes. The ancient, nearly complete skeleton his archeologist’s brush is relentlessly revealing will rewrite conventional human history and inspire countless new avenues of discovery for centuries to come.
“Finally,” he mutters, “incontrovertible proof primitive man lived and thrived in North America long before the celebrated Paleo-Indian migration along the Siberian land bridge.” Yes, I like the sound of that.
Sir Thomas’ expert eye and preliminary field tests have already assured him the bones are at least 50,000 years old—obliterating conventional migration theories. What’s more, certain osteo-structural anomalies strongly suggest these remains represent a branch of mankind’s developmental tree never before unearthed. His excitement grows. The significance of this find cannot be overestimated.
“Monumental import,” he mumbles aloud as he painstakingly brushes away the last of the debris.
He is amazed by the condition of the specimen. Even where some of the actual bones have disintegrated, their detailed impressions remain in the fossilized sediment.
He leans back on his haunches and surveys all he’s uncovered. His eye drifts to the fossilized impression of the missing left hand. He realizes for the first time that the hand must have been holding some sort of primitive tool at the time of death. A remarkable bonus, in that the impression of the tool will provide invaluable information about the technological achievements gained by these, as yet unknown, people. He studies the impression closely, then leans back on his heels.
He cranes forward and examines the impression of the tool again.
“It can’t be,” he whispers. But he knows it can be nothing else.
He leans back once more and tries to fathom the mind-numbing ramifications of what he has just discovered.
He rocks back and forth on his heels. “Ladies and gentleman of The Academy,” he speaks to the air, “on a recent dig along the Burnside Ridge in North Dakota, I uncovered the well-preserved remains of a 50,000-year-old man … a man of a heretofore unclassified branch of the homo erectus tree … a man who died of unknown causes … while holding … an archaeologist’s brush.”
copyright 2012 by Lee Allen Hill
Next week, we’ll downsize flash fiction and take a look at its little brother, micro-flash.
copyright 2013 by N.K. Wagner
What in blazes is writer’s block?
This complaint seems to be a common issue. Writers moan about the lack of inspiration. Even a list of prompts doesn’t always break through the armour that captures a writer’s creativity and holds them prisoner.
I have trouble relating to this malady. Given a topic as bizarre as navel lint, it’s highly probable that I could wax on for several hundred words before coming up for air. It’s as natural for me as breathing. I don’t have to think about it, I simply sit down and start to type.
Before lap tops became the norm, my love affair with paper and fountain pens created the illusion that I was stuck for words. There was always a pile of crumpled sheets below my chair. I simply couldn’t tolerate scribbles or scratched out sentences. When I decided that something needed changing, I’d ball up the paper and toss it on the floor, then start over. No, I didn’t bother with a waste paper basket. The discarded words were like a monument to my efforts.
My reluctant acceptance of a computer screen soon became an environmental tool, likely saving dozens of trees from my editing process. Being able to delete, not always purposely, and backspace, soon erased all the pauses in my writing ritual.
I don’t block out stories, as some tutorials suggest, but simply sit down and start clicking away, allowing the free flow of ideas to move from my brain onto the computer. Rarely do I know where the story will take me, but inevitably it takes on a life of its own.
Writing is in my veins. I need to write. I’d much rather pen an essay, than engage in debate. The solitude allows me to formulate ideas and if they don’t fall into place, there’s always the delete button.
I once believed that my need to write was not about baring one’s soul or dealing with inner conflict. But now, I think that’s exactly what this passion is; a way to externalize and examine inner dialogue. It’s a way of looking at things, even confusion, in black and white.
Having come to that conclusion, I can only theorize, but I suspect, those who suffer writer’s block are very secure people. Myself, perhaps I’ve never sorted out who I am, and make constant attempts to unlock the truth. With every keystroke, I get closer to knowing who I really am.