“If you want to write great prose, become a poet."
“No way! Poetry curliques my brain. I don’t understand that stuff.”
“Find a poet who speaks … er, writes your language. They're out there, you know. Read, get a feel for it, then try your own hand.”
“Aw, come on. Me, write roses are red, violets are blue stuff?"
“If that’s what you like, sure. Look online. There are lots of forms to choose from. Writing structured poetry is great mental exercise. It’s like doing sudoku and crossword puzzles at the same time.”
“I like puzzles. Poetry’s figurin’ out the right words and squishin’ them into some sorta weird pattern, right?"
“And working out rhythms and rhymes. Like music.”
“Man, that’s some heavy liftin’. Like takin’ my brain to the gym.”
“It’s a great tension reliever, too.”
“That mean if I write poems I won’t get tense from not movin’ all them verbs around?”
“Not moving… You mean avoiding tense shifts?”
“Yeah. That’s it. Not shiftin’ is makin’ me tense. ‘Fraid I’m gonna strip some gears.”
“Well, I suppose…”
“Hey. If I exercise my brain it’s gonna build muscles, right?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“But if my brain gets muscles, isn’t it gonna be too big for my cranium an’ leak out my ears?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. Not for a looong time.”
If you think poetry is easy, become a plumber.- L. Oliver Bright
Confused? Intimidated by flash fiction? Our second contest with a ‘First’ prompt pulled in less than two hundred entries and of those, only a handful qualified as flash fiction. I’m impressed by our winner, Cheryl Miller-Fitzgerald, who not only provided our readers with a classic piece of flash fiction writing, she also invested in the thread that ties us all together, allows human emotion to be an un-negotiable tapestry woven into universal understanding.
For those who didn’t make the final cut, please pay attention. I read some great stories and some of the authors will be contacted by N.K. Wagner, our publisher, with separate offers to publish on Page and Spine. But a short story with a budget of words does not translate automatically into flash fiction.
With flash fiction there must be a twist, a surprise ending—something that throws the reader off an assumption, an obvious path. Sometimes a reader’s reaction might be, “I should have known,’ a reaction that implies clues were dropped into the story were misunderstood, like an assumption that the butler did it—only to discover that it was the cat.
Congratulations to Cheryl Miller-Fitzgerald for her winning story The Step Class and to our runner up Martina Kranz for Vision Quest. Enjoy their stories next week and be sure to annoy or tease me with your stories. Remember, Page and Spine does encourage and pay writers for their work. N.K. is the pretty one. I’m just MEAN!
Editor’s note: Cheryl, I tracked Jade to her office yesterday and intimidated the price of a small latte out of her, so your prize is $25. Gotta maintain high standards at Page & Spine International Headquarters and Gift Shop. – N.K.
I still have left-over moments of intimidation that I recall from childhood when an authority figure centred me out. I suppose the biggest reminder occurs when a patrol car pulls up beside me and an officer happens to glance my way. My immediate reaction is to wonder if I’ll be pulled over. Now, never mind that I’ve never committed a serious crime, and this usually happens at a stop light where there is no chance I’m travelling over the speed limit, it’s a simple knee-jerk reaction.
Imagine my surprise when someone had that same reaction to me. Aware that I work as an editor, a friend asked me to look over a letter that was critical to her career. Before she parted with the papers she gave me a litany of excuses and explanations for possible errors. She had laboured for days writing this letter, and it occurred to me that what she really wanted was for me to hand it back and say that it was perfect.
As I was reading, I made comments about the strength of her argument, but then I came to a sentence that needed tweaking; it was awkward and a change in punctuation would clarify the intent of her meaning. Her face fell the moment I picked up a pen.
I remembered being told, ‘the policeman is your friend.’ And so too is an editor. An editor can often take a good story and hoist it to a position of excellence. It’s not just a question of literacy—Spell-check took a lot of retired school teachers out of the editing business—a good editor sees a story as a sum of all of its parts. She can offer valuable suggestions for a different writing perspective or uncover inconsistencies in the plot line and even point out when a character flounders—saying or doing something that doesn’t ring true.
A writer can hire an editor and it’s often worth the expense, but if that is not a viable option, find someone who shares your enthusiasm for writing and ask for their honest opinion of your story. That’s not to say that you have to agree with their assessment and make the changes, but a fresh pair of eyes can often spot things you’ve missed.
Even an editor needs an editor. We are so intimate with the work we create that we skip over errors repeatedly—no matter how many times we re-read our stories. An editor reads the story without the preamble of thoughts and plots that have been rumbling around a writer’s head before they commit them to paper. Each of us begins to read expecting to be entertained and impressed.
To keep that eagerness intact, take care of obvious errors ahead of time. Generally known as SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar), these mistakes interrupt the enjoyment of a story. They jar the reader out of the mood the writer has created and they affect the editor's overall perception of your work. Don't overtax your editor with obvious mistakes, and she'll do a better job for you in the end.
Without a strong ego, none of us would ever submit a story for publishing, but you need to set that ego aside when asking for and receiving guidance. Remember: the editor is your ally. Often the most important lesson an author needs to learn is how to listen to good advice.
♦ Essayist, commercial copywriter and published short story writer Jade regularly demonstrates her ability to accurately assess writing talent as Page & Spine's Senior Story Editor. Her compassion for new writers is counterbalanced by her direct, often cryptic responses to submissions she does not favor.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
I don't think this particular memory is mentioned in my new book Snaps, Scraps & Snippets of the Past & Present, but I used the "tools" mentioned in the book to come up with a detailed story of that day. And several times, I've started a poem called "Lost at the Carnival”, just never finished it. Hope you enjoy.- Lois J. Funk – Manito, Illinois
Dad drove all morning to get us there. Chicago: Riverview Amusement Park. Even my eleven-year-old sister, who already thought she was "too grown up" to associate with the younger two of us, was happy for the trip.
It was the biggest carnival we'd ever seen – one where the rides, booths, and fun house were put there to stay. Not like the fly-by-night one that came to our hometown every spring; roped off the main street and set up a merry-go-round and Ferris wheel; then tore it all down and moved on, all within a few short days.
Bright lights, cotton candy and Kewpie dolls, and barkers coaxing Dad to try his luck at shooting galleries and darts, flooded my head with fantasies as we sauntered along the midway.
While Dad herded us quickly past gimmicks and games, he couldn't ignore a free-standing glass cubical that loomed taller than his six-foot-one stature. The wall-to-wall platform inside the case was lower than my shoulder height, so he didn't have to lift me up to see the electric racetrack with two shiny red cars gliding smoothly around its curves. Side by side, the five of us stood there, with no one in front of us to block the view and no one waiting for us to Just once, I looked way up at Dad. I could tell by his smile that he was as fascinated with the cars as I was. Then, with my hands and nose to the glass, I got so engrossed in the scene that, if someone said, "Come on, let's go,” I didn't hear it. Nor did I notice when they all walked away.
But the next time I looked up, I saw that I was standing there alone.
My heart leapt to my throat. I turned in a circle, looking frantically for any sign of Mom or Dad or my sisters. Tears wet my cheeks. My family had disappeared, as surely as if we'd been playing Hide 'n' Seek and I'd been named “It.” The trouble was, they hadn't told me that the game was starting; they hadn't counted to ten; and they weren't offering a single clue as to where they were hiding.
Hoping not to be noticed, I moved slowly away from the glass case and the cars, tears increasing with each step. But I was noticed, by a friendly policeman who bent down and asked my name while assuring me that everything was going to be okay. What he didn’t know was that I was too bashful to open my mouth around strangers; that my mother or sisters always piped up and answered questions posed to me by people I didn't know or didn't want to answer. So where was my family now? Had they even noticed that I wasn't tagging along behind them or clinging to one of their hands.
My uncle was a policeman, so I had no fear of letting this one take my hand. I walked beside him, bashful, embarrassed, and sobbing, to a guard shack in a little setting of trees near a gate. A single wooden step led up to the propped-open door. Inside, a second policeman sat on a tall stool in front of a small desk. Without leaving the stool, he handed my rescuer a sparkling plaque: a plaster of Paris carousel pony, undoubtedly from a booth on the midway. Then he leaned way out the door to smile and ask my name. But I still wasn't talking.
As the policeman beside me tried desperately to appease me with the glittering pony, I caught sight of my oldest sister striding quickly toward me with a big smile and an "I'm here for you" look in her eye. It turned out that everyone had been looking for me, and she was proud to be the one who found me. She accepted the pony from the policeman and handed it to me. As I clung to it, Mom and Dad and my other sister came barreling around the trees and the corner of the shack, smiles of relief on their faces.
Back home, Mom wrote Age 4 on the back of the carousel pony, and it lived in my sisters' and my bedroom for a long time. I'm not sure when it disappeared, but I always suspicioned that it was too much of a reminder of that day.
Fun and Games
a big wheel takes me
for a spin
on the midway
barkers on the prowl
for sitting ducks
house of mirrors
the overall view of myself
© 2014 Lois J. Funk
I've never forgotten how scared I was that day, and the picture of that plaster of Paris pony has always been vivid in my mind. It was plain white, probably 6' X 6", with mixed colors of blue, red and green glitter on the saddle, harness, bridle, etc., but not on the pony itself. So that's where I started "reconstructing" the memory. A few times, I'd start to write something that COULD have happened (and that might have made a better story for others to read), but then I'd think "No, that didn't happen," so I'd leave it out and stay with only the details of things that really DID happen. That way, it also becomes a part of my journal and of true memories.
Lois J. Funk is an internationally published poet and children’s author. Her new book,Snaps, Scraps & Snippets of the Past and Present (How to Retrieve the Lost Pictures of Your Past), is featured on Facebook, at "Writings by Lois J. Funk" and is available through firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ladies and gentlemen, poets and poser…er, prosers, have you been accused of writing a shaggy dog story? Do your fish tales smell like your brother-in-law after six months of sleeping on your sofa? Have you been told your latest cautionary tale sounds like a great idea?
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Set the hook. You’ll grab your reader’s attention in the first paragraph and make him want to learn more.
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What follows is an example of what successful application of The Stickler Technique can do for your story.
WHEREFORE ART WE, ROMEO?
"For Heaven’s sake, will you look at this mess? I’ll never get the blood out of this silk. And who's going to mend the hole? It’s all your fault, Montague.”
“My fault? You could’ve told me you were going to take a sleeping potion. I rode all the way home from Mantua, risked my neck defying the Prince’s order of banishment, because I heard my wife’s laid out cold as last night’s pizza, and this is the thanks I get?”
“Well, if you’d stopped to talk to Friar Lawrence instead of murdering my fiancé…”
“Fiancé? How does Paris get to be your fiancé when you’re already my wife?”
“It never occurred to you to say, 'Sorry, Pops, I'm married to Romeo. Too bad you missed it—great wedding night'? Uh…it was a pretty good wedding night, wasn’t it?”
“What? Oh, for Heaven’s sake! It was fine.”
“Fine. Fine? Do you want to elaborate on that? How was it only fine?”
"Well, it’s not like I have anything to compare it with, you know. Unlike you.”
“Me? Rosaline never let me…”
"Then you’re the only one, the little strumpet."
“Nothing. Oh, Romeo, why did you have to drink that poison and ruin everything?”
“Because I couldn’t bear to live without you, sweetums. Why’d you go and stab yourself?”
“Because you guzzled all the poison, you selfish prick!”
“Prick? Yeah...okay. Did it hurt much…stabbing yourself and all?”
“Of course it hurt. It hurt like hell!”
“Uh, Julie? Speaking of Hell, do you think it’s getting a little hot in here?”
"We committed suicide, Romeo. Where'd you think we'd end up? Venice?"
Notice how the characters take turns as narrator by contributing to the discussion (but only one is the protagonist; can you pick him out?).
Notice the story begins a breath before the reveal and the plot and backstory are one and the same. Disguised as a touch of humor, an anachronism (pizza) is injected into the story early to warn the reader that all is not as it seems, but the reader is (hopefully) too wrapped up in the action to take time to ponder its implication.
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Note: Page & Spine’s management has no idea where this infomercial came from and takes no responsibility for its content. Profound apologies to William Shakespeare. – N.K. Wagner