Thursday, January 19, 2017

Guest Blogger David Galef on: One Solution to a Lot in a Little Space -- The Flash Vignette

In the world of creative nonfiction, where I swim most of the time as a writer, brevity is not only a craft goal, but also closely associated with Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. What follows, however, is a post adapted from a new fiction craft book, entitled, yes, Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook.

Now that we've cleared up any possible confusion, I'm pleased to introduce the book's author, David Galef. David is not only a fellow New Jersey writer and an accomplished author, but also the head of the creative writing program at Montclair State University, where I teach on and off (at the moment, I'm "off"). David would argue—and I agree—that much of what he offers in his new book is equally applicable to narrative nonfiction, as it is to fiction writing. I'm finding it particularly helpful myself, as I'm revising my first two pieces of fiction—one a medium-length short story, and the other a piece of flash which, like this introduction, is crying out for, well, brevity.

Please welcome David Galef

            By definition, flash fiction is rendered in miniature. But what happens when you start cutting down on words? What becomes of plot, character development, and thematic depth? Obviously, some of what you can attain in a longer story is going to have to go. Forget the long landscape description or the three scenes showing the grandmother’s slow decay from Parkinson’s. On the other hand, some treatments are particularly suited for the short run. One well-known form is the vignette.

            The vignette started in fifteenth-century printing as a decorative border of vines around a page, then turned into what the vines enclosed, usually a page with an illustration. We now think of it as an illustrative scene, a literary sketch. The French coined a term for this form, calling it tranche de vie (literally, “slice of life”), and its ingenuity lies in what any cross-section reveals: the hidden depths of an interior view.

            Picture two eight-year-olds playing croquet: those unwieldy mallets, the lawn sloping unfairly, and one ball headed for the bushes. This vignette, just begun, might be called “Game.” It shows the seemingly innocent fun had by two small children on a Sunday afternoon, with more than a hint of pre-tween rivalry. We’ll name the children Ivan and Sandra and make them neighbors. You can hear the smack of mallets on the balls along with some conversation about school. But after the first paragraph, Ivan says something nasty about Sandra’s mother. Sandra responds not by hitting Ivan’s ball with hers but by kicking it. The “game” escalates from there.

            As you can see, “Game” isn’t a story with a proper beginning, middle, and end. It’s a moving picture that becomes a sketch or scene, suggesting something beyond. The term “sketch” is all the more apt when you think of visual art, in which a sketch is the essential lines of a drawing, but not filled in.

            Here are some guidelines for creating a vignette:

            Focus on a moment. If you start to chronicle any substantial duration stop, and instead deepen the presentation of what’s already there: waiting half an hour for a date to show up, a missed five-minute opportunity to help a stranger.

            Develop only as much as you need to register an impression of either a character or an event or even a mood. One trait indicates a sunny personality; a distorted shadow indicates trouble.

            Think in psychological terms. Your sketch has a meaning beyond its mere existence because of what it represents: an old woman who can’t enjoy a summer afternoon, a boss who won’t take no for an answer. Here are five pointers for this kind of treatment:

            1.         Don’t merely describe. Follow the action. Dramatize.
            2.         Do more with less. One short scene from a day is plenty.
            3.         Be representative. One small portion can stand in for a whole life.
            4.         Go for evocative, concrete details, not abstractions.
            5.         If possible, find a way to give shadows and depth to your sketch. Make it mean more than what it seems on the surface.

            If you're interested in trying a vignette, Here are a few exercises:

            Think of yesterday as a sequence of events. Then choose a common incident, such as lunch, an hour at work, or a car ride. Now describe it, animate it, and dramatize it so that the reader gets a vivid picture of what’s going on, on both an exterior and an interior level.

            For instance: With a smile, I serve plate after plate of the daily special, spaghetti and meatballs, at Abe’s Diner, but I really hate my job. Or: She hitches a ride home with a coworker, a man she’d like to ask out, but she hasn’t got the nerve.

            What incident did you choose, what did it show, and why was it significant? How much of the character did you reveal, and in what ways? Did anything change over the course of the event?

            Try conveying emotion or attitude in miniature. Here are some specific directives: What slice of life—the more ordinary, the better—would you use to show envy at the way your parents treat your brother? How good does your friend think she is at driving versus how inept she really is? Why is that man on the curb accosting passersby by asking the same question over and over?

            When your vignette is complete, you’ll know it, or your readers will. From one angle, it may look like a line segment, a point that travels from A to B. But viewed as a segment cut from the whole, it’s character dealing with event in a way that reveals the line as a lot longer, back into the past or into the future. A good vignette extends far beyond its narrative span; it displays a life.


David Galef has published flash fiction in AgniSmokelong QuarterlyNANO Fiction, Norton’s Flash Fiction Forward, and in his book My Date with Neanderthal Woman. He is the author of the novels FleshTurning Japanese, and How to Cope with Suburban Stress; edited an essay anthology, Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading; and co-edited the anthology of fiction, 20 over 40. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York TimesNewsday, and  The Village Voice, among other places, and he is a humor columnist for Inside Higher Ed.  Connect with David at his website and via Twitter

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Read-Along. Like a Ride-Along. But with books.

Let's pick up with the reading theme from the last post, shall we? I mentioned that I want to read a lot more than what is required for my work life. But there's one part of work-related reading that straddles the work and pleasure reading columns.
It's what I call the Read-Along. This is something I offer to do with my writing coaching clients, or sometimes writers for whom I'm editing a manuscript that's in need of more-than-moderate revision.
What we do is carefully choose a book that speaks to the very particular writing challenges that client is facing—and then we both read it, simultaneously.
Sometimes we read just a chapter at a time, and I follow that up with a series of questions. Or I ask the writer to note down observations. Other times, we read bigger chunks, then we check in, sometimes with a longish phone or Skype call. Or we read it through quickly, then make our way through again slowly, zeroing in on something in particular—say, the chapter endings, or time movements, or structure.
On one hand, it's like a tiny little book club for two. But it's really a very focused reading-like-a-writer activity, customized for that writer's interests and writing goals, and making some of the same demands as the reading annotations required in many MFA programs.
Sometimes we're in search of quality prose, a tight story, a prime example of a form. Or we're looking at a particular type of book or story structure or organization; a genre that's new to the writer-client; maybe a POV she's never written in before.
Though it's often a book I'm already familiar with, and I read it again as the client reads, some of the most memorable read-alongs in the past couple of years were books that were new-to-me.  
I've read-along to a couple of young adult novels (with a fiction writer who typically wrote very long novels for adults); an emotional memoir (with a journalist who wanted to stretch beyond just-the-facts); and a humorous novel made up of very short chapters (with a nonfiction writer hoping to turn dysfunctionally funny family episodes into fiction).
Though typically separated by hundreds (maybe thousands) of miles, being "on the same page" (sometimes literally on the same day) as a writer I'm working with is a singularly enriching experience. It's one thing to say, "go read this book." It's another to be having the parallel experience, and knowing we're going to discuss it later.
I have one such read-along coming up. This time, it's a themed essay collection—for a writer-client itching to edit an anthology. While her story editing skills are strong, the idea of assembling the varied pieces is a mystery. We're going to be looking at the mix of essays and authors; how the pieces differ and what ties them together; the order and flow of essays; and the variety and level of prose in the different pieces. (And, as it's a book I haven't read before, it will do double duty for my 2017 reading challenge list.)
I can't quite recall how I got the idea for the Read-along; it may have simply been a client frustrated with something, and me thinking of a book she could read that might help…and then realizing I'd be better equipped to help if I re-read that book too. Or maybe something else. What I know is that the activity seems to deliver beyond what I'd originally hoped. Plus, it's kind of fun.
Reading should be fun. Even when it's not precisely "pleasure reading." Right?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

I Resolve to...Read. And read and read and read and read

This past Sunday, at an event labeled "Resolve to Write," a bunch of local writers met to rev their writing engines for the year ahead. As part of my role as an instructor/workshop leader with The Writers Circle, I led the group. It was great fun to help other writers identify and clarify goals for the year, share challenges, and discuss successful strategies for time management, creativity, and getting past the constant procrastination allure of just having to do this one more thing before I sit down to write

I came away, I believe, as energized as the participants. Resolved to write more.

The year started for me though, with a slightly different but related self-imposed mandate: I'm resolved to read more in 2017. A lot more. And especially, more books that are not required reading for my teaching duties. Authors whose craft I admire. Books that sound like fun. Books to disappear in, lean on, learn from, laugh along with, linger among. Just more reading. More.

As always, my bookshelves, the to-be-read pile, the coffee table, the night table, my writing table, are all overflowing with books. So much to choose from…and more arrive weekly. I just can't help myself.

Two years ago, I resurrected my habit, begun in early childhood, of keeping a list of each book I read during a calendar year. This year, for even more motivation, I signed up for the GoodReads 2017 Reading Challenge. My goal is 65 books for the year; last year, I logged 43 completed books on my raggedy list (with five started but not finished). And I know I had some not-reading-anything days, so 65 seemed modest, but enough to keep me going. Maybe, I'll even exceed it.

Sometime during college, I fell out of the habit of listing "Books I Read 19XX" in a notebook. Mom kept report cards and my Girl Scout books until I'd married, and when I went through her things after she'd passed, I found all the Mother's Day cards I'd ever sent her. But no book lists. How I'd love to see and handle those notebooks again!

Though my GoodReads lists will be online somewhere, and my own private (duplicate, I guess) list will live in Excel-land, I'm toying with a paper notebook list too. Just want to see if it yields the same satisfaction as it did oh so many years ago.

If you're interested in setting up your own 2017 reading challenge, I'd love to hear!


Friday, January 6, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- January 6, 2017 Edition

> At Electric Literature, Stacy Schiff, on the messiness of the writing process.

> Sundress Blog has a terrific list (and links to many of) "2016's 30 Most Transformative Essays".

> So maybe digital writing and reading isn't making college writing worse.

>In my final 2016 post, I mentioned my *I Did It List* idea for writers. At her Remains of the Day blog, Andrea Lani weighs in with her list and further thoughts about going forward from there.

>Steph Auteri's "24 Favorite Reads of 2016" is both a solid list and a witty peek at reading when one has a toddler.

>Yet more to chew on in the submissions strategy category, this time via Kim Winternheimer at the Masters Review Blog. Then there's Chelsey Clammer with an ode of appreciation to her submission spreadsheet and what it teaches her (I share this geeky love for my own Excel organizers).

>I don't know how this escaped me for months, but anyone (in this case, Joanne Novak) who writes a love letter to the EM dash has got me at—hello.
>While you may not be precisely interested in pitched articles or essays to Hearst magazines (or you might!), this post has so much to teach writers who find it a frustrating scramble to track down editors (and their email addresses) at mainstream media.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

January 2017 Newsletter

Interested in my newsletter? If it's not already in your inbox, you'll find it here. 

In addition to a few useful links, and a short writing pep talk, this one includes a discount for editorial services. Pay right now, write later!

Want to be on the mailing list for future newsletters (between 3 and 5 per year)? Click this. Don't want more newsletters in your inbox? I get it. See you back here soon!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Being Ethel to a BFF's Lucy Yields one Personal Essay after Another

When you've had a very close friend since you were five, and you're both now over 50, and you're married to men who have been each other's best friends since kindergarten, and when you are, like me, a writer of personal nonfiction, well—that BFF finds her way into your writing. A lot.

Since I'm not always sure she (and sometimes her husband) would be eager to be on the page with their real names in everything I write, sometimes she's Lenore. Anne. Laurie. Her husband is occasionally Jeff. It isn't important that anyone know which name is accurate. Except us.

"Us" for a long time were thought of, affectionately—and sometimes exasperatedly—by our four parents, relatives, neighbors, and teachers, as "Lucy and Ethel." When we were younger, the Lucy-and-Ethel moniker was just funny, and fun.

But recently, I had occasion—involving of all things, a snooty vendor with an overdue bill—to reflect back and realized that our Lucy-and-Ethel panoply was something that went far beyond comedy; it helped make me strong and confident, even now.

That's what I wrote in an essay for Purple Clover recently in an essay titled, "The Lucy and Ethel Years." Here are two excerpts:

"I played Ethel to Laurie's Lucy for years. For every harebrained scheme she devised—and there were dozens, maybe hundreds—I countered with calm, sensible reasons why we couldn't do any such thing. It was wrong. Slightly dishonest. Sneaky. Dangerous. Maybe a little bit illegal. For five minutes, I'd try to talk her out of whatever foolish thing she was proposing.
Then, I'd jump in and together we'd hatch the plan...
....When I think about the crazy, gutsy and dumb things the two of us did, it brings up more than fond memories; the Lucy-and-Ethel years taught me to read people, to figure out what to say or ask (or hide) at crucial moments, to understand who to snow, who to avoid, and with whom I could be honest. It also taught me that having someone by your side that you trust completely, and who feels the same about you, makes life's problems and challenges utterly doable."


Image: Wikipedia

Saturday, December 31, 2016

One Writer's Thoughts on New Year's Eve -- and The Year's Top Posts

Before the day gets away from me, and it's 2017, and I forget how much I like tied-up endings (in life, if not in prose), these are my thoughts, post-shower, pre-breakfast. I use the word "should" not in the bullying, guilt-inducing way, but in the prodding, goal-directed, self-to-self pep talk way. Sort of.

I should write a final blog post for the end of the year.

I should go buy the dessert I'm expected to bring to tonight's party.

I should finish my office decluttering, the day-after-Christmas project that always stretches to just before dinner on New Year's Eve.

I should finish my January and February submission calendar.

I should write down my *I Did It List* for 2016, the one that's been swirling in my head for a month, the one I urge every other to undertake, the one I've been avoiding because OUTSIDE of my little writing world, the year was, in some ways for my own family, for friends, for the country, as Queen Elizabeth once called 1992, "an annus horribilis."

I should help my husband put together that new Ikea file cabinet for my office, but since I stink at almost all DIY projects that do not involve words, I'll leave it to him and my son.

I should hit SUBMIT on my first piece of short fiction I told myself I'd finally send out into the publishing world this year. (But my nonfiction soul is waging a loud and occasionally snarky "But is it really any good?" and "Who says you can write fiction now?" fight).

I should finalize the two syllabi for Spring semester. Or at least write down the day next week when I'll do it.

I should write a note or at least a tweet to that writer whose finely written nonfiction narrative piece I just read in a nice journal, and tell him so. Because it's something I always mean to do and often forget to do, and because I know what it's like to be that writer, hearing something nice about something you've written and wonder if anyone will appreciate. (UPDATE: between drafting this post and proofreading it, I did this. I feel better already).

Finally, I suppose I should...fill and organize that new filing cabinet; re-order all of my office bookshelves so the newly acquired books aren't stacked in a heap; bring my clip file up to date; get my tax info ready; overhaul my blog; finish reading the three books I'm in the middle of.  Nah, just kidding. I'm not doing those six things at all!

But all the rest? I'll be doing all of that today. Not because I should, but because I want to and my writer's mind won't let me rest until I do and because I promised myself that once I do all of this, I can go to that party tonight and feel a little bit lighter. Until I sample the dessert I'm going to buy.

Hope your New Year's Eve works out just the way you want. See you back here in 2017.

Oh, and because I forget to do this last week, here are the most popular posts of 2016:














Happy New Year !



Images - all Flickr/CreativeCommons: Lights:-NicMcPhee/UnhinderedByTalentTacks -HDValentin.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- December 2, 2016 Edition

Looks like there are a bunch of new subscribers: Welcome! If you don't already know, Friday Fridge Clean-Out is me clearing out links I've gathered in the past week (or more)...much like how I sometimes feed my family on a Friday night, pulling leftovers out of the fridge. Enjoy!

> Jane Friedman with good (and in many cases, overlooked) advice about "How to Smartly Evaluate a Small Publisher." Just because a press is traditional (and not a self publisher), doesn't always translate to a desirable partner.

> Check out Christelle Lujan's "20 Apps for Writers Who Want to Get Serious" at SheWrites. I definitely need a few of these!

>Is an official book launch worth the effort? Dorit Sasson weighs in with some recent experience.

> At WOW! Women on Writing, Chelsey Clammer encourages submission, and offers her 1,278 rejections since 2011 as proof that the prize (in her case, 150+ publications!) goes to those who stay in the game.

> If you like Pinterest: a whole bunch of nifty lists and cheat sheets here with writing, revision, and editing advice.

> Short stories printed on wine bottle labels! What's not to like? (Okay, they're in Italian...)

> Finally: breathe. Or at least have a laugh with Daveena Tauber's "Post Election College Paper Grading Rubric" at McSweeney's.

Have a great weekend!