Category: Writing (page 1 of 78)

The Flash Fiction Challenge

Courtesy floating robes
Courtesy Floating Robes

Since this week Chuck has challenged his writerly readers to come up with Flash Fiction challenges of their own, over here in my own writer-space I thought I’d talk about why flash fiction is, in and of itself, a challenge for writers. Serious authors bang out 1000 words or more a day as they propel themselves towards the completion of their drafts. They bend over keyboards and notepads, tapping or scratching out thousands of words on a daily basis. So why is flash fiction such a challenge?

Paradoxically, it’s because telling a story is easier with more words than less.

While it’s certainly true that a saga like Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire would be diminished if it were not told with multiple volumes of text, it’s just as true that stories of equal poignancy have been told with a tiny fraction of such sagas’ word counts. Consider Hemingway’s shortest story:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

Other authors have done similar work, turning a mere six words into fully-realized, powerful tales. I make no claims of being a Hemingway, a Whedon, or an Atwood, so I’m much more comfortable trying to tell a story in 1000 words rather than six. Still, it can be a great challenge. You have to show rather than tell in as few words as possible. You must keep the tale simple while ascribing adequate depth. Your characters need to come alive in just a sentence or two.

It is an amazing way to keep your writing skills sharp.

Writers burn out. It takes a lot of energy to create. As with any work of art, a well-written story costs the author in time and motivation and fatigue. This is especially true if writing is not the primary profession of the author; if time for writing must be carved out around the time occupied by another form of employment or other responsibilities, it can be even more taxing. As strong as the need to write might be, and as much as unfulfilled word counts might haunt the author, there are only so many hours in the day.

Flash fiction keeps the wheels greased. It quiets the authorial demons hounding you to get more shit done. Oh, you should still get it done, don’t get me wrong. It’s just easier to dispense with things like laundry and TPS reports and menial labor when you get just a little writing done. It takes the edge off, while paradoxically sharpening your nibs. And prompts, like those over at Terribleminds, make it even easier to get into the habit of knocking a little flash fiction out on a regular basis.

I recommend Chuck and his books and blog for a lot of reasons: the brilliance, the profanity, the fearlessness, the strength of character, the clarity of voice, the beard. But let me add one more reason: most Fridays, he issues his Flash Fiction challenge. If you’re inclined to write, I highly recommend trying your hand at meeting one of those challenges. Your writing will improve. You’ll tell interesting stories. And you’ll feel accomplished, as well as in good company when you read other entries. Give it a try. I highly doubt you’ll be disappointed in what happens.

Characters And Choices

Courtesy Focus Pictures

There are times when the simple route is an appealing one. Our protagonist characters make good decisions, and good things happen. We project ourselves into the lives of our heroes, orienting ourselves towards making brave, clear-cut decisions that yield beneficial results for everyone involved. It keeps the narrative straightforward and our protagonists squeaky clean.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the real world, you know things are never that simple.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which if you haven’t seen, you should do yourself a favor and find to watch. There are no big bad villains to face, no world-ending threats, not even anything I’d call massively contrived, save for the science at the heart of the conflict. Still, you can overlook the contrivance because of the film’s focus on its characters, the choices they make, and the regrets that emerge as a result of those choices.

People face hard choices every day. Decisions need to be made in the name of survival, protecting those most precious, and preserving one’s self in the face of negative emotions, aberrant thoughts, or unwanted influences. People wrestle with their own demons in an invisible war that only manifests in their choices, and in the casualties left behind, in broken hearts and scarred souls. Not everybody comes out unscathed. Sometimes, nobody wins at all.

Your characters should not be any different.

The best characters, the one that truly engage with an audience, are identifiable as people, rather than ciphers or caricatures. And people make hard choices. People make mistakes. People pursue lines of flawed logic. And people can be corrected, adjust their courses, and try to make better choices in the future. It can be painful. It can be costly. It can haunt people.

The more you show this, the better your story will be.

Your characters don’t have to be perfect. Their choices don’t have to be perfect, either. It isn’t just slaying monsters or saving worlds that make our characters great; sometimes, overcoming one’s own obstacles and insecurities is more heroic than any of those great deeds. Let your characters confess their weaknesses. Let your characters accept responsibility for transgressions. And let your characters forgive those they care about who’ve wronged them. It will make the audience think, nod, cheer, and maybe even find a piece of themselves within the narrative that they can take home.

They’re your characters. The choice is yours.

Becoming A Master Builder

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

I may not be a Master Builder. I may not have a lot of experience fighting or leading or coming up with plans. Or having ideas in general. In fact, I’m not all that smart. And I’m not what you’d call the creative type. Plus, generally unskilled. Also scared and cowardly. I know what you’re thinking: “He is the least qualified person in the world to lead us!” And you are right.

I can’t be the only one who relates very well to Emmet’s speech.

For the whole maybe half-dozen of you who haven’t seen it, in The LEGO Movie, the protagonist LEGO Minifig, a construction worker named Emmet, literally falls smack into one of those prototypical genre-crossing movie plots. There’s a thing that the antagonist is going to use for something nefarious, the protagonist has another thing that can stop the first thing, and the plot revolves around getting his thing onto the other thing (phrasing). There’s even a prophecy, a rhyming one at that, which tells of the destined hero saving the day by being skilled, imaginative, brave, powerful, smart, and I think there’s something in there about them smelling good, too.

The twist is this: Emmet is none of those things.

He freely admits this, in a speech given to a room full of ‘Master Builders’, franchise characters in Minifig forms who can change whatever they want about the world around them. Their only limits are their imaginations. Emmet, on the other hand, is a stickler for instructions. He’s a construction worker; he follows blueprints. When there is no blueprint, he gets lost. And while he may be friendly and a bit of a goofball, his relative incompetence becomes a pretty major hindrance when he stumbles upon the thing from the prophecy.

A protagonist in a story like this tends to be described as an “everyman”, a perfectly average and decidedly unremarkable individual to whom extraordinary things happen. We are meant to relate to this character, to place ourselves comfortably in their shoes. Emmet does this well by owning up to truths some of us avoid facing: we’re not perfect. We’re failures. I for one have lost count of the times I’ve come up short when facing various situations or challenges. Despite living in mortal quaking fear of letting down the people I care about, I have done just that, on more than one occasion. How can I be a master of anything if I can’t even be a decent programmer, or a consistent writer, or a reliable and honest friend? There’s no reason the wonderful people I love should give me the time of day, considering how spectacularly I can fuck things up. I can’t deny the truth: I’m going to screw up. I’m going to disappoint. I’m going to fail.

Swamp Creature: Is this supposed to make us feel better?!
Emmet: There was about to be a but…
Gandalf: You’re a butt!

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
“Well, you were right about him being a ding-dong.”

But I’m going to try not to fail anyway.

The hidden strength and power in Emmet, and The LEGO Movie in particular, has nothing to do with prophecies (Vitruvius made it up, anyway) or special magical items (actual mundane things given hilarious verbal spins) or astonishing powers (although I do wish I could put spaceships together as fast as Benny does). It’s sheer willpower. It’s determination. It’s stubborn, downright thick-headed devotion to simply doing the best he can with what he’s got. Sure, Emmet gets scared. He messes things up. He gets played for a sucker and lets people down.

That doesn’t stop him from doing everything he can to make things right.

That’s what makes a Master Builder. That’s what makes a person more than the sum of their failures. We cheer for Emmet because, in a way, it’s cheering for ourselves. When good writers give us good protagonists, they don’t give us perfect paragons of virtue or strength or power. They give us people. And people are flawed, thoroughly and terribly and irrevocably and beautifully flawed. I’m flawed. You’re flawed. All of us are flawed. But our flaws are not just negative attributes to be ticked off as grounds for denial on some worthiness test. Our flaws give us strength. Our flaws allow us opportunities to overcome them. Our flaws make us better people, in whatever pursuit we follow in our lives.

Emmet has no special training, no inborn power, no secret item that allows him to overcome his flaws. He just commits himself to being better than he was. He makes plenty of mistakes, and bad things happen, but that doesn’t curtail his motivation. He carries on the best way he knows how, and in the end, he doesn’t need a prophecy to prove to himself, to his friends, and to us that anybody, no matter how ordinary or average or unskilled or cowardly or butt-like they might be, can do the same.

I may not be all that smart. I may have trouble with motivation and focus. I may admonish myself to a worrying degree. I will continue to fear the disappointment and anger of the people I love. And I may find myself wondering if the wounds I have suffered, and more importantly, those I have inflicted on others, will ever truly heal.

But I cannot and will not allow those things to prevent me from getting up, dusting myself off, and doing my utmost not to fail. To make amends. To create new worlds. To rebuild bridges even in the wake of fires. To bring people to life. To be, in the context of all of the above, a Master Builder.

And if I can do it, what’s stopping you from doing the same?

500 Words on Recovery

Tunnel Light

I haven’t had a week like this one in quite a long time.

I mean that in both good terms and in bad ones. Over the last few weeks, my life has been in a state of relative upheaval. I’ve had a lot of struggles, mostly internal ones, and I’ve pulled back from the things and people I love to get things sorted out. I’m coming out of the tunnel, now, and I’m very relieved to see that the light I was struggling towards isn’t an oncoming semi.

So what’s been sorted? And what’s next?

My work and living situations have been in flux, but have taken on more stability, especially in the past week. True, it’s not in the form of a solid, routine, commuting, 9-to-5 sort of stability at the moment, but honestly, with the way my living situation has changed, that might be for the best. Redoubling my efforts to do more remote freelancing to support my writing feels more true to my nature than hunting down the elusive corporate gig that really plays to my strengths and lets me feel like more than a cog in a capitalist machine.

This all boils down to the internal struggles I’ve been having on a personal level. As much as I would like to think that I am an intelligent primate with a well-ordered and focused mind, the truth is that things can and often are a lot more chaotic than I’d like to admit. Especially when my mood swings in ways that are barely under my control, if at all, or my subconscious mind latches onto an emotion or concept that runs counter to what I consciously know is counter-productive, my mental landscape goes through changes in weather rather than remaining calm and placid. Hell, there have been earthquakes in there lately.

Recovering from rough periods like this one is never easy. I’ve taken some time in relative isolation to get things under control before they became even more problematic for everyone involved. And I need to make this clear: nobody outside of my own head has done anything objectively wrong. I’m very thankful for everyone who’s chosen to stay in my life, even if communication has been disrupted. Those disruptions don’t last forever, though.

Sometimes, all you can do is fight for your own mind as hard as you can, and pray that those who’ve stood with you are still standing when the smoke clears.

I trust my friends, my closest ones, more than I do my own brain sometimes. They wouldn’t be so willing to work with me, even in waiting, if they did not feel I was trustworthy in return. Now more than ever, I’ll do my utmost to vindicate that trust. I’ll take the time necessary to do right by the people I care about, and who care about me. I will do the things that make me come alive.

I have a responsibility to the people I love. I won’t ever forget that.

The Dryest Spell

Dunes of the Namib Desert, taken by Simon Collins

I can’t think of a time when I’ve had a longer dry spell in terms of writing. I’m not quite at the shaking-hands staring-eyes push-food-towards-me-with-a-stick-lest-I-bite-your-fingers-off phase of writing withdrawal… but I think I’ve approached it. And, thankfully, I’m taking steps to get myself out of it.

They’re slow, much slower than I’d like, but they’re happening. Case in point: this blog post! I certainly have a great deal to talk about, outside of the choking miasma that occasionally drifts through my headspace, and I need to get back in the habit of making words, my words, happen every day. And while I correspond with friends and write out internal experiences and sort out feelings, that isn’t the same as informing the world, shedding light on Truth, or telling the stories that need telling.

My goal, in all of the things I do and every choice I make, is to reduce cruelty in the world while increasing love. I’ve made some blunders along the way, had impulses and emotions blindside my conscious mind, and even come close to breaking down on an occasion or two. But I still haven’t given up. I’m still committed to doing everything I can for the people I care about. And I’m working just as hard as I ever have to get out of my rut and take the path less traveled, the one walked by troubadours and truth-tellers, the one paved in paperback covers of those who inspire me to join their ranks.

Deserts are vast. They are unforgiving. They are punishing, desolate, silent, and lonely places.

But they are not the entirety of the world. Nor do they last forever.

And I am finally, finally, coming to the end of this one.

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