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How I Wrestle with Red Herrings or, The Herring Stratagem January 30, 2011

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Cover of "Clue"

Cover of Clue

I have decided, rather foolishly, to try to learn how to write mysteries. Old fashioned mysteries with, you know, suspense, thrills, intellectual puzzles and all that. NOT to be confused with “mysteries” following such clichés as “the man against the system”, “the D.A./attorney/doctor with a vendetta”, or “follow the ancient clues to a conspiracy theory”…not naming any names (Dan Brown).

What I’m thinking about is something more along the lines of a Wilkie Collins/Agatha Christie sort of mystery. Which brings us to the question of the red herring. I find, at least, that red herrings are always the key to a good mystery. (If anyone is familiar with Clue! it’s also the key to a good spoof). But whenever I attempt to write a mystery, it always ends up being blazingly obvious “who dunnit” or so obscure that the motive is obliterated, never to return to any semblance of believability.

Writing a good mystery is no easy feat! And writing a thriller/mystery is even more of a challenge because you have to set the tone and mood with a wide, varied, and brilliantly descriptive vocabulary in your arsenal. Reading Mary Stewart novels, for instance, has been like seeing so many old friends  I’ve been out of touch with. I’ve stumbled across some very good, descriptive words that I haven’t heard for ages…especially in the real world, and perhaps in America. And, of course, you need to be descriptive about what your hero/heroine is feeling–“blood racing”, “heart pounding”–things like that. A good way to do this is to take particular notice of how YOU feel in terrifying situations (or, if you can’t think of anything particularly terrifying and have been incredibly happy-go-lucky, you should go watch some horror/thriller movies at the cinema). 

As I see it right now, the formula for a red-herring mystery is to set up your hero/heroine who necessarily (according to the rules) is above suspicion and perhaps a trustworthy sidekick/victim (unless you are Wilkie Collins and even the main character is not eliminated from the list of suspects). Then, you should plant at least two to three more characters with varying personal histories/motives. Either your protagonist or reader should, at this time, begin to suspect one character in particular, putting more trust in the other characters until… *Bam!* It turned out that the planted character that you trusted the most was the culprit!

I still, obviously, have more tweaking to do on the formula, more mystery novels to read and movies to watch (Hitchcock is particularly good for this sort of research).

If anyone has suggestions for good red herring stratagems, I would love to hear them!

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Wild, Wacky, and Woolly Character Arcs January 23, 2011

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While plot arcs are somewhat important in the novel structure, I find that without believable characters, they are like a car with no gas. Characters are the soul/fuel of the novel. Take Exhibit A,(*shudder*) Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Or (the more pleasant shudder), Exhibit B, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Even their titles suggest that these are character-centered novels. And even novels that don’t profess to be character centered ARE, in fact, character centered.

If you take out all of the characters from a novel, you have (aside from a very creepy Ray Bradbury short story) absolutely nothing. You have no “whodunnits”, no love interests, no angsty teenager worrying over something, no running around the moors, no quest. In fact, you never even get out the front door. And, if you’re like me, a book captures your interest more if it starts with “Marcy decided one day to meet a loan shark” than “It was a bright, sunny day and the bees buzzed on their way to collect pollen” (no offense, Steinbeck…)

If characters are important to the novel, character arcs should be focused on even more than plot arcs (unless you are a TV sitcom). The most popular of these (and mythical) is: the character is fed up and leaves home, the character learns something about him/herself, and the character matures (coming of age-style).

Perhaps you want to try something a bit different: the character is arrogant, the character decides to save someone (or the world), and the character changes for the better, perhaps becoming humbler.

But what if you really wanted to go WILD? What if you just wanted to keep your readers guessing as to who or what your characters really were? Maybe you write about a thief who tries to go straight only to fall into prison again and then has a revelation. Or maybe you’re making your readers guess WHO the character is: a character tries to mask their identity or gets amnesia (this latter example is the premise of a very good series by Anne Perry).

This can also decide, in a large part, your plot. If your main character is a gorilla who has just escaped from a zoo, for instance, you can’t create a plot around white-collar crime (unless, of course, you add some other characters).

But never, NEVER write an atavistic character arc! This would be the character who changes for the better and then goes back to his/her life before without learning anything. A very depressing and anti-novel indeed. Even anti-heroes change a little bit–a small insight into their situation or a bit more wisdom.

Anything with a plotline–be it a drama, a movie, a play, a novel–has some sort of character arc if you’d care to find it. In fact, it’s usually staring you in the face. And if you are concious of it, who knows? Maybe your next party trick will be acurately predicting what will happen next in a movie based on what you know about the characters.

Finding your Inner Writer Zen January 8, 2011

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In answer to the question: “How do you stay focused on a task or activity?” the first thing that comes to my mind is “no idea.” Because living in the world of technology–even through my very un-hip, lag-behind gadgets (aka, my laptop and pay-as-you-go phone)– means that focusing on a single activity is a thing of the past. (Which, if that took up our whole time, would lead to the death of the novel.)

Fortunately, the published authors of the world (for the most part) are able to concentrate on their novel long enough to finish it. This thought prompts me to ask, “When was the last time I finished anything?” Papers, yes. My senior thesis–a MUCH longer paper–yes. But a creative writing piece? I honestly can’t remember. Not even a short story.

So, case and point, I have no magical tips on how to stay focused on an activity. But I do know WHY it’s so difficult to stay focused in your writing life. There are so many ideas buzzing around, faintly in the background, that it’s sometimes difficult to pluck one out of the air and work on it. The brain is like a field of fireflies flickering on and off. Sometimes, when you’re working on an idea, the little firefly idea turns OFF and you’re left with nothing (only to have it flash ON later only at the most inconvenient moment when there really is no pen and paper at hand…or keypad).

For instance, I just read an article that connects exactly to a book idea that I had (supplying the magical missing motive that’s always so elusive). I even wrote down my idea, with an eye to finally finishing the book that’s been buzzing around for a  few years, flashing on and off in my idea field. But then I think, “I should really wait to start writing until”…

Here’s a tip to finding your inner writer zen: IGNORE thoughts like those. They will only lead to you farther away from your goal of just finishing something.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, or correct, or even what you thought you wanted it to be. It just needs to be finished. Every time I think about this goal, I think about the novel a few of my friends wrote me for my birthday. It was, I think, the most thoughtful present I’ve gotten, and every time I think about not finishing a novel, I tell myself, “If they can do it, I can do it!”

So, channel your inner zen, ignore thoughts such as planning and procrastination, and (at the risk of sounding like a certain commercial) JUST DO IT!

Sam the Profiteer September 12, 2010

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New York City Serenade

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This was something that I tried out a while ago. I love writing games, and this one was relatively simple to do. All you need is a dictionary and a pen and paper (or laptop as the case may be) and *POOF* your writer’s block is gone!

Disclaimer: Results may vary

The rules that I used are negotiable but once you make your own, you have to follow them to the letter:

Step 1: Obtain a dictionary…the bigger the better.

Step 2: Decide how many words you want to pick (I chose 16 as a nice, even number)

Step 3: Flip through the dictionary, stopping every so often and pointing to a random word (using words at the beginning, middle, and end of the alphabet. If you want, you can make a rule saying that every word you point to MUST be used…but sometimes this rule can be bent).

Step 4: Write down your words in the order that you found them.

Step 5: Stare at the words that you’ve written for as long as you need to in order to create a germ of an idea (no matter how weird)

Step 6: Create a story (with no editing allowed while writing it) with a beginning, middle, and end. Make sure that you use ALL the words.

When I did this, I didn’t have a particular number of words in mind but decided that I had all the tools to create a proper story when I reached 16. And these are the words I found:

Profiteer, Retch, Tariff, Misguide, Hail, Rapier, Dew, Sight, Tolerance, Diddle, Rappel, Convent, Furor, Rajah, Sought, and Vying. (This is also a very interesting way to learn new vocabulary).

And scrounging around in my pile of very messily post-it-labeled, beaten-up collection of spiral-bound notebooks, I finally dusted off the story that came out of these 16 words. I’ll give you the abridged and slightly edited version (I didn’t remember it, but it has a slightly sappy moral too):

Sam the Profiteer

Sam, the profiteer, lived in a grand mansion directly on the Southeast expressway to New York City. Misguided though he was, he was at least punctual, and came out every morning at 6 AM in his decadent white bathrobe and expensive leather loafers to visit his little booth, which automatically collected the tariff from all the vehicles that passed by. Sam considered himself to have a pleasant and, despite the noise of the expressway, a quiet life and had planned to retire to a nice beach house in the Caribbean with his butler and 29 other servants. Sam had no doubt in his mind that he was going to be a bachelor, until that fateful Wednesday morning when he met a woman who would change his life forever.

On Wednesday morning, exactly at 6 AM, Sam opened his door to the week sunshine and exhaust fumes, and started his descent towards the Southeast expressway to collect his daily stipend. His loafers squeaked on the newly polished pavement, and his white, luxurious bathrobe gleamed in the sun. [blah, blah, blah and more description]

Suddenly, he caught sight of an exotically dressed girl repelling herself down from the top of a Wonderbread truck. She jumped down neatly when the truck stopped at the tollbooth and proceeded to make her way into Sam’s front yard.

“Hey, get off my lawn!” Sam yelled. He had no tolerance for trespassers. To his chagrin, the girl ran towards him.

“Oh kind man,” the girl said, her voice trembling on the verge of tears, “please hide me from my cruel fiance. I have come to America to start a new life!” The girl looked up at Sam with large, tragic-looking eyes and managed to have what sunlight there was glint off of her long, shiny hair. Sam was struck by her beauty.

“Without paying?” He retched.

“You heartless pig!” The girl spat. “Have you no heart?” She burst into sobs. Sam felt a new magnanimity in his heart for this poor fugitive and decided to help her after all. [blah, blah, blah] And he fell instantly in love with her. This blind devotion was long forgotten the next day, however, when Sam walked down his path at his usual hour and saw who the beautiful girl’s fiance was. 

Coming slowly but steadily out of the hazy horizon came the most stately train that Sam had ever seen in all of his profiteering days. It was colorful and decked out in gold and silver. The tusks of the elephants were encrusted with diamonds and rubies, though how they managed to get an elephant over here in an ocean liner was beyond his comprehension.

Sam hailed the majestic train coming down the Southeast expressway. His first impulse was to turn over the girl and milk this rajah for all he was worth.

“Hey, over here. I think I’ve got your fiancée.”

At that, the rajah, covered with rubies and fine silks, held up his decorated hand and the train and all of the people, who barely fit onto Sam’s manicured lawn, pulled over, ignoring the obscene shouts and honking of the cars whizzing past them. At the same time, the rajah’s fiancée came running out of the house, followed by Sam’s butler and his 29 other servants.

“How dare you!” She stormed. “I thought you loved me. I shall never marry you now!”

“My darling future wife, come back to the palace and stop this foolishness,” the rajah pleaded.

“Never. I shall stay here and marry him!” the girl grabbed Sam’s arm possessively.

Sam turned to the rajah. “How much will I get if I hand this girl over?”

“Whatever your heart desires. You will receive enough to retire to a palace filled with riches beyond your wildest dreams.”

“Richer than you?”

“Well, of course not, naturally,” the rajah stammered, “but I see that you are already something of a prince yourself.”

“Don’t listen to him!” the girl said, “He will give you nothing. His plan is to kill me and inherit the richest kingdom in the world. He is blinded by greed, like you are.”

“Like I am?” Sam echoed feebly. Despite his millions, grand estate, and 29 servants, no one had ever told him that he was greedy.

“If you’re going to kill her, I won’t give her to you,” Sam challenged the rajah.

“Are you vying for her hand, then?” the rajah laughed. He jumped nimbly off his elephant, as much as jumping off an elephant can ever be called nimble, and handed his colorfully decorated coat to one of his many servants. […] Of course, Sam wasn’t planning on dying. He had a year of wrestling under his belt, and did not consider himself half bad.

“Okay, you’re on,” he said to the rajah and handed his bathrobe to his butler.

“Here is your rapier,” the rajah said as one of his servants handed Sam something that he had only seen in museums. While the rajah held his own jewel-encrusted sword at the ready, Sam caught sight of another knife in his sash, glinting in the sunlight. “Ready?” [details of sword fight].

Finally, the rajah’s sharp rapier reached Sam’s hand and Sam’s sword fell into the dew of his manicured lawn […].

“Please,” Sam pleaded while the rajah’s sword inched closer to his neck. “I–“

Before Sam could say more, the rajah fell senseless beside his sword. The butler was standing over him, holding a glass vase. Everyone fell silent and Sam let out a sigh of relief.

“That’s what he gets for diddling!” Sam said. One of Sam’s 29 servants had called the police and the rajah was taken away in a police squad car, followed by the hundreds of people and elephants, and later deported. The princess, despite Sam’s protest, decided that she would choose to give up her title and join a convent [or, in a more feminist ending, become the CEO of a very successful business].

Sam, being a changed man, decided to give away his house and retire early to that little beach house on the Caribbean. He finally took the long-since-paid-off toll off of the Southeast Expressway forever.

The End.

 

To Mary Sue or Not to Mary Sue (that is the question) September 6, 2010

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I learned about this term from one of my friends who knows more about the world of fan fiction than I do. And as soon as she explained what it was, I knew that I had heard about it before (albeit not referred to as a “Mary Sue“). New writers are often accused of putting in Mary Sues into their new fiction. And a “new writer” can either be an adult who is publishing their first book, or a young adult writer who is taking a creative writing class or publishing their fiction. And even when they’re not accused of it directly, a reader or critic can always tell. Take Lauren Willig for example. Her books are wonderful, but of course there were the to-be-expected questions from the critics: “So, did you base your main character on yourself?” And when she protested that there was no connection, they pressed her and said something along the lines of “You have to admit, it’s a huge coincidence, isn’t it. You were a grad student at Harvard, your character is a grad student at Harvard…you do the math.” (On that note, Harvard seems to be a tenuous and overly publicized place to begin your creative writing career).

Putting yourself into your fiction is only natural to the beginning writer. With all those people and books telling you to “write what you know” who better do you know than yourself with all of your dreams, ambitions, quirks, and experiences? And the main criticisms of Mary Sue characters is that it is yourself, only a better you. It is a braver, prettier, smarter, more courageous you having all the adventures that you would want for this alpha-version of you. But there are problems with the alpha-you character:

  1.  the wish-fulfillment controversy
  2. the 2D character quandary
  3. the darling-of-the-characters stereotype
  4. and the invincibility paradox

 These are the obvious downfalls that a Mary Sue character can exhibit. However, a very clever writer (or a very normal writer) can avoid these traps. Some people do a splendid job of the Mary Sue. Take Elizabeth Kostova, for example. Her first novel, The Historian, had a main character who is a citizen without a country. Her father was a professor and they would travel from country to country. This has obvious parallels to Kostova’s own life. However, this doesn’t at all detract from the depth of her characters and the parallel, though present, does not dominate the novel. This is an example of someone writing fiction based on what they know, rather than writing their lives into their novels.

Many good writers of young adult fiction do this admirably. Of course, a writer of teen fiction wants to really identify with their audience which often means channeling their experiences as a teenager. However, when channeling, authors need to remember both their faults and their virtues in order to create a likable character. In The Princess Diaries series, Meg Cabot (who looked through her own diary to channel her character) portrays a teenage girl who is clumsy, unpopular, imperfect, and, as a result, utterly likable. The more problems they encounter and the more imperfect your character is, the more readers won’t try to accuse you of Mary Sue-ing. And no one likes a character who faints every other page but still manages to somehow attract every male character in the book (and I’m referring to Evelina here), or even Evelina‘s modern equivalent in terms of character–Twilight.

And although Mary Sues are most commonly attributed to and criticized of women/girls writing novels, no one has really noticed the trend in “Male” novels that is rampant even on today’s New York Times Bestseller List. The 40-something man who is either unattached or has a loving wife, a high sense of the moral/ethical, the courage to speak up against the “system”, and almost superhuman survival powers when the “system” tries to take revenge. I’m particularly referring to Tom Clancy, Ian Flemming, Robert Ludlum, and yes, even Dan Brown. I’m not saying that these books do not have value, but I am simply pointing out that male Mary Sues are ever-present in today’s literary world as well. Everyone can fall into this trap.

So, if you do Mary Sue, do it responsibly:

Surgeon General’s Warning: Mary Sue-ing may lead to two-dimensional characters and bad publicity.

As a general rule, a good writer should be able to create characters that are inherently interesting. And interesting people make mistakes, and are imperfect. I like to think about it in these terms: would you want to meet your characters, even the baddies? Would they make interesting dinner conversations? Or would they drive you up a wall?

Plot *sometimes* happens July 30, 2010

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I don’t know if many writers experience this but it is very difficult for me to both write compelling characters and a good plot-line. I’ve heard from different sources that all you need to do is choose whether your novel should be plot centered or character centered. It’s the difference between an Ian Flemming novel and an Ernest Hemingway short story. But shouldn’t your story really have both to make it a ripping read?

And it isn’t true that once you’ve fully developed your characters, the plot will fall into place. I’ve tried to find a good plot to put some of my better characters in but I keep starting and stopping. Maybe I’m trying too hard, maybe I just need to start writing and see where the story goes. But I know that a successful story takes at least a little planning. If you are writing and then suddenly hit a road block, you need to know at least a little of what’s going to happen at the end in order to overcome it.

And some writers have different strengths. Some can hatch fantastic plots (the Ian Flemmings and Dan Browns of the writing world) and others realistic characters (the Ernest Hemingways and Wilkie Collinses…though Wilkie Collins does an amazing job with both). What I’m thinking of doing is putting my ideas into two categories. 1) Plot ideas and 2) character sketches. Would it be easier to match the character to the plot separately, or would it be more consistent if  the two were created at the same time? In any case, there must be a writing excercise to strengthen the bond between character and plot. Sometimes plot happens naturally and sometimes it doesn’t.

A Fly on the 19th century Wall July 18, 2010

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George Eliot

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While looking over my last plinky prompt (the product of a burst of late night energy) I began to wonder what perspective I had been writing from. I was too tired to think up any names, so both of the characters remained nameless. However, I also wrote some of what the characters were thinking. This led me to ask the question: Where would you put this sort of dialogue in a novel?

An interesting thing that I’ve noticed about novels (and yes, the 19th century novels in particular) is that there is not always a consistent perspective. The author sometimes switches from third person limited to omniscient without another thought and sometimes even switches from first person to third person!

A dramatic example of this is in George Eliot‘s Mill on the Floss. She starts the novel with this totally ambiguous narrator in the first chapter. It’s written in the first person and someone can spend ages deciding if its Maggie, or her brother, or one of her two lovers. This is because the second chapter begins in the third person suddenly, and the reader asks the question: is the narrator really referring to his/herself in the third person? Weird. Where did the narrator go?

This is, of course, not playing by the rules. And while the students of modern literature scoff at straight-laced Victorian writing, these so-called conservative Victorians did, indeed, break all the rules of perspective that we now hold in high regard. When someone asks you what you wrote your story in, a budding novelist of today will tell you readily “Oh, third person limited” or maybe “First person, of course.” They probably won’t say: “Well, I started in third person omniscient, but then I switched to third person limited, and ended it in first person.”

Since the Victorian writers are no longer with us, the conventions/rules are that your perspective should be consistent. If you start changing it in the middle,  your readers will (supposedly) be confused and it shows amateurish writing…But not if you do it purposefully.

Let’s take the example above. How do you write a novel in third person omniscient, third person limited, AND first person?

Well, first you would start with a very sparse third person omniscient. Like a fly on the wall only with partial access to characters’ thoughts. Maybe it’s a dialogue between two henchmen:

Henchman 1: “If the boss says we take care of him, then we’d better take care of him.”

Henchman 2 shrugged as he took two guns out of the locked cabinet labeled “Cadbury Eggs.” It was time they changed the label to something classier, he just didn’t know what. He wasn’t looking forward to the job either. He had finally gotten tickets to the big game and now this would eaten into his schedule.

Henchman 2 nudged him and gestured to the fly on the fall, suspiciously listening to their conversation. “Hey, what’s that fly doing there?”

Then, it switches to third person limited surrounding the main character.

Joe Walker, successful businessman, philanthropist, and secret organizer of Project 51, sauntered across the street. He checked his watch demurely. He was already twenty minutes late to work thanks to a faulty alarm clock. But he didn’t worry about that too much seeing as he owned the company. His morning appointments would have to wait. As he waited at the next intersection, he saw two dubious characters lurking in front of his office building.

And finally, near the end of the novel, the first person narrative.

As Joe opened up his mailbox, a mysterious and very hefty letter fell out. Not wanting to stay long in the lobby of the apartment complex, Joe dashed up to his penthouse suite where he could read the letter without an attempt on his life. He had a feeling that this was going to be important and perhaps explain the events that had happened. It was from Sylvia, the maid at number 27 and a secret agent:

In these pages, I am enclosing the details of what happened on September 18th. If you are reading this, something has happened.

Then, there is a narrative from Sylvia’s perspective. Usually during this narrative, the reader forgets about Joe and for a few chapters it is essentially a first person narrative with dialogue, plot, and characters. Some of this account might even overlap with events that have already happened in Joe’s third person limited account.

This switching of perspectives always keeps a reader on their toes and is also a nice addition to a mystery novel, or even any novel. And if someone tells you that this is “just not done!” simply tell them: “You see it all the time in 19th century literature.”

A Chase in Alaska July 17, 2010

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Svalbard, tundra landscape

The tundra was cold and desolate. As the cops looked across the barren field, they noticed that there were no houses or buildings in sight. Nothing but snow and the occasional shrub. The endless sky was already beginning to darken.

“I think we lost him,” one of the cops remarked dryly. She brushed some snow off of her special issue uniform. As an animal rights activist, nothing but synthetic fur would do. Her partner looked at her incredulously.

“How’d we lose him? There’s nothing here for miles!”

“Beats me. I wasn’t the one who fled the scene. Now I guess we’re lost, thanks to your clever pursuit.” The sarcasm was lost on the second cop, however. He went back to the squad car and looked around. There was, indeed, no sign of the road they had left nearly a half hour ago. He started to miserably hunch back into the driver’s seat.

“Oh no,” the other cop started for the car, “I’m driving this time. Back to the station.”

“But he couldn’t have gotten far,” he protested.

“In a white car? At dusk? In the middle of the tundra?”

The car was white, he had to admit. And not a grungy white either, like the car had been around the block a couple of times. No, it was a white as pure as the driven snow, like it had just been driven out of the dealers’. Probably hot, he thought to himself. He couldn’t remember seeing the license plate. But, he reflected as he grudgingly scooted over to the passenger’s side, even combining the two crimes it wasn’t worth pursuit at night. It had been ages since they had seen a gas station. In fact, when was the last time he had filled the tank up?

The car gave a few grumbles as she tried to start the engine.

“Not working?” he asked.

“No…” the other cop answered absently. Then she caught a glance at the fuel gauge. “We’re out of gas! I thought you were going to fill this up.”

“I thought you were. You said you were going to the convenience store so I just thought…”

“Not the store at the gas station!”

“Phone the station. They could send over a truck.”

The other cop nodded as she picked up the handset. “This is car 14 requesting assistance. We’re out of gas, over.”

A static-filled voice answered on the other side. “What’s your position?”

The cop in the passenger side turned on the gps, scrutinizing the small, glowing screen carefully “Uh…” The other cop leaned over his shoulder.

“We’re in Canada?! We just crossed the boarder! He’s way out of our jurisdiction now!”

“Assistance might take a while,” the static voice at the station replied. “If you see a polar bear, try to keep a low profile, over.”

The cop in the driver’s seat pulled on her heavier jacket, “That’s not funny.”

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Fiction in a Flash July 9, 2010

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Ah ha! No sooner had I posted Plinky Prompts than I saw this post, also on how to use it to help the creative writing process. On the weekend (apparently when people have more time to write) Plinky users can choose to participate in the “Weekend Writing Challenges.” The first of which will be writing in the third person.

However, the post directs you to a flash fiction story, an example of what you could write in the third person. And flash fiction without a warning label would just be false advertising:

Warning: Flash fiction is not for the faint of heart. Entire story arc must be completed in a limited word count. 

While I agree that flash fiction would be very useful for this era of short/compressed messages, a writer has to put as much thought into it as a novel or short story (sometimes more). I first heard about this genre under the title “sudden fiction” and that’s an even better description. It’s speed dating for the world of fiction. The story starts out slowly but frantically as the writer adds as much subtle detail as possible. Imagine a swan swimming across the water gracefully while its feet are paddling under the surface. Then, the end pops up suddenly and the whole thing abruptly stops. If it’s good, the reader feels that the whole story was extremely clever without knowing quite what it was about.

I’m not sure if all flash fiction is written in the third person or if it could also work in the first person.

For more information on flash fiction, or sudden fiction, there is a wikipedia article on it.

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