Notes from Purgatory – (Don’t Over)kill Your Darlings

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Ambition is to the mind what the cap is to the falcon; it blinds us first, and then compels us to tower, by reason of our blindness. But alas, when we are at the summit of a vain ambition, we are also at the depth of real misery. We are placed where time cannot improve, but must impair us; where chance and change cannot befriend, but may betray us; in short, by attaining all we wish, and gaining all we want, we have only reached a pinnacle where we have nothing to hope, but everything to fear.”
-CHARLES CALEB COLTON, Lacon

I’m not going to lie, I’ve left a lot of projects at the wayside in my time as an author.  Most of them were mercy-kills because certain ideas weren’t worth pursuing over time or their plots simply weren’t panning out.  Even so, there were others that were genuinely good, ones that might’ve blossomed into compelling stories had I not suffocated them with unbridled ambition.  Such an unfocused perspective on my work sometimes contaminates my writing process before I really get to the meat of my stories.  By then I’ve already lost interest because these stories aren’t living up to such implausible depth.

What I mean to say is I overkill my darlings.

Looking back on the corpses of stories past, I see plots that were spoiled by an old sense of grandiosity.  I distinctly remember trying to force complexity into plots that actually needed simplified.  I recall digging deep networks when a shallow pool would suffice.  I would dilute a story (and, by extension, my creative process) because I couldn’t yet focus my imagination, which is what I truly feel is the definition of creativity.

Ambition is certainly not a bad thing, but it must be harnessed with a well-developed sense of direction.  If I spend all of my time developing interconnecting rabbit-holes between my short stories instead of focusing on their plots, I’m missing my mark as an author, which is to entertain readers while delivering a memorable experience of a specific story.  As a young writer, I would often preoccupy myself with how the big picture fit together in my little literary universe.  The problem with such distraction, however, is that the enormity of the forest can easily take focus off of the beauty of each of its trees.

Now I spend less time erecting secret architecture between stories and more time guiding readers to their strange hearts.  I use ambition as a map, not a compass, and I’m ever so careful not to stray too far from where my instincts are drawing me.  I slow down to let the story tell itself to me before my imagination can interrupt the process with noisy belligerence.  I try to be creative, not imaginative.  I seek to focus my ambition to manifest a story never told, one that stands at the heart of its own world.

I still make nods to past stories, of course, and the occasional wink to those to come, but my writing process has become much more streamlined since I’ve ditched the over-analysis and meta-everything of my stories.  Now I can clearly hear my stories when they speak to me.  I can feel each setting and come to know each character.  I kill my darlings in appropriate moderation.  So I once was blind but now can see.

Notes From Purgatory: To Live and Be Alive (on the Blank Page)

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Ever since I first began writing stories in my mother’s basement at the age of eight, I’ve been infatuated with the blank page.

I still remember the thrill of punching black letters onto the white with her typewriter because the act represented true, organic creation to me.  Anything seemed possible when I began a new story.  In fact, I’ve worked hard to preserve such awe when sitting down to a new idea.  It still fuels my need to translate the strange thoughts beneath thoughts in the depths of my mind.

To me the blank page represents potential.  It is the one place where all writers are equal.  Before we all set that first word into existence, we are given the opportunity to create greatness.  We are at the same starting line as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or any of our other successful colleagues.  Sure, at their level they are almost guaranteed to deliver something wonderful, but through refinement of our craft (not to mention countless attempts at peeling away the blank page), are we not privy to the same potential of a great story?

Well, maybe.

See, the blank page is a window of what could be.  Even so, success isn’t a guarantee.  And it shouldn’t be.  Professional success is earned by those who stare at the void of the blank page and accept its challenge.  Being a successful writer means bleeding away the white with precision of craft, confidence, and talent.  Was it not Michelangelo who freed angels from blocks of marble?  Are we not doing the same with black letters on a white canvas?

To tell true, writing is making something out of nothing, imprinting the DNA of our thoughts on the very void until something new has been manifested.  We must learn to accept the challenge of the blank page, to be confident in its defeat at our nimble fingers and the sharp points of our pens.  After all, isn’t writer’s block really just confronting the nothingness with nothing to say?

So we must be fearless, alive.  We must stare into the abyss with our steaming cups of coffee without flinching.  We have to laugh.  We have to love.  We must live and be alive on the blank page.

My point here is that with any blank page there exists raw potential and, as writers, it is our duty to do the best we can with what we have.  Each cut we make into the blank before us is a history that we author.  We who write are fortunate enough to create records of who we are through our stories and that, sometimes, people want to read them.  And it is all afforded to us by the promise of a blank page.

The void will always be there and so, too, the desire to fill it with creation, to accept the challenge of “what if.”  And we must be guides through the nothingness, to bridge the void with the architecture of imagination, to say “follow me” through space and time.

Notes from Purgatory: Forget the First (an Exercise in Restraint for New Writers)

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Recently I was thinking about where I am in my development as a writer (I believe it’s important to take stock every so often to ground yourself and better define your goals) and I noticed an aspect of my trajectory I’d overlooked for years.

In a past Notes from Purgatory article, “Brevity. Soul. Wit.,” I detailed a time in my development where I was trying to impress my readers with verbosity and was (thankfully) rebuked by one of my university teachers.  After that experience, I remember going back to my dorm room and looking over a manuscript for a surreal adventure novel I’d been writing.  And then I remember putting it aside both physically and mentally.

The story, The Somnambulist, was supposed to be a multi-layered metaphor upon metaphor for the futility of the modern human condition as told through a quest of a suicidal man who finds his true self in a fantasy world he creates to save himself.  The idea came to me after first hearing Agaetis Byrjun by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros.  It came in vivid images that meshed so well with the music I’d been hearing that night as I drifted off to sleep.  I had to write it.  The world had to know.

The problem was that I hadn’t refined my tools enough to properly tell the story.  After hearing my teacher’s advice (“don’t sacrifice precision of language for flash and a few extra syllables”), I stopped penning The Somnabulist and waited in an effort to gain perspective.  Not writing something sounds easy, but I was crushed because it made me reevaluate my passion for storyteller.  I felt like all my hard work had been for nothing.  But now that I’m older and a bit wiser I understand that those doubts are natural and must be overcome to succeed.

A year or so later, I found the almost-completed manuscript for The Somnambulist I’d set aside and do you know what I saw?  Self-absorbed drivel.  I saw the unbalanced work of a novice, though one who’d had a budding command of the language.  Although I was embarrassed by a lot of what I read there (seriously, it’s like a thesaurus vomited all over my word processor), the act of self-evaluation put my development into perspective.  In short, The Somnambulist should have been abandoned because it was actually a sacrifice of both time and ego, a sacrifice that helped shape my craft for the better.

So my advice for writers of prose is to stuff away your first long, lofty composition.  Forget that first novelette or short story for a year.  When you revisit that story, may it grant perspective and clarity on your path to becoming a better writer.  You might be embarrassed by what you find in those old pages, but look past that to the potential you had.  Then look at how much better you are now.

Forget the work. Forgive the work. And see how great you’ve become.

Notes From Purgatory – In But A Few Choice Words

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The Internet, as wondrous as it can be, has clipped our attention spans to the blink of an eye.  In some ways, we’ve become creatures of impatience and in such a short time.  So in a bustling world where we angrily click away from webpages that take more than three seconds to load, how is a writer to tell a story?

Enter flash fiction.

Flash fiction, short short stories, microfiction… these are all blanket terms for a complete, concise story comprised of but a few words.  The key words in this description are, of course, “complete” and “story.”  Read any market for flash fiction and you’ll quickly find editors want a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  They all require the same conflicts, characters, tension, action, and payoff as a longer piece, but told in a page or two… or less.

Wait, how the hell is that even possible?  Well, before we dive in, let’s take a look at what microfiction entails.

As previously mentioned, a short short story is literally just that.  The range of flash fiction varies, but a word count of under 1000-1200 is generally considered the cutoff point before you enter the world of the “short story.”  1000 words?  Flash fiction.  500 words?  Flash fiction.  250, 100, 50, 5 words?  Flash fiction.  There are disagreements, of course, but length is not that important, to be honest.  The actual story and the craft required to tell it is what really matters.

The first rule of flash fiction is that it must follow all requisites for a story.  We’re not going to get much of a connection with our readers if all we give them is a vignette without any real substance.  Instead, we need to have a fleshed out plot that is driven by conflict and that reaches a conclusion.  There must be a character, a setting, motivation, and all the other components that make up a story of any other length.  The challenge is to achieve such a fleshed out story in as few words as possible.

This leads us to the second rule: every word matters.  This rule rings true for all prose, of course, but especially for flash fiction.  At such a limited word count, every single word becomes important.  This includes commonplace words such as pronouns and articles like “a” and “the.”  We must be conscious of our word choice and shortcuts like contractions if we are to write as minimally as possible.  This isn’t to say that the shortest version of a story is the best – after all, we have to preserve the flow of a piece.  We simply have to be conscious of what we’re saying and how we’re constructing a story to say what we want it to.

Because we’re dealing with constraints in length, we must be sure to optimize each word, sentence, and paragraph.  Each word should enhance the next just as each sentence should build onto what is to come, and so on.  We (and our readers) don’t have time to become muddled in long descriptions of settings or superfluous word choice.  We have to give our audience the full story by only supplying the bones.  But how?

The third rule: implication.

In longer prose, we have the time to fatten up the story, building our world brick by brick and giving our beloved heroine an awesome back-story where she learned how to fight demons from her days as velociraptor nanny.  In flash fiction, however, we have to hint at such.  The best microfiction leads the reader to possibilities that go beyond the text.  This use of implication can be seen in the famous “six-word novel” usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn

The story isn’t so much about what is written here (though the word choice is certainly fundamental), but what is implied.  These six little words are ominous in nature – implicitly mysterious – meant to force the reader to ask questions.  Why are these baby shoes for sale?  Whose were they?  And, the most obvious question we’re meant to ask: why were these baby shoes never worn?  There’s a story in there, although in this instance, the reader is tasked with constructing it themselves.

I’m not sure how successful this piece would be if submitted by a contemporary writer because its a rather unique example, but it illustrates the thought-process behind the creation of short prose.  As writers, we must facilitate our readers’ imaginations, giving them enough narrative to satisfy the plot while still allowing the story to progress in the minds of our audience even after the last word has been read.  A great writer can craft a flash fiction piece that’s self-contained, but still has a developed, directed sense of what lies beyond the story.

That’s a lot to consider given only a few hundred words with which to work.

Flash fiction requires a lot of practice just like any other prose.  Editors and readers are looking for hard-hitting stories that are written with such brevity that it impresses.  Microfiction isn’t just some shortcut to getting published quickly.  Crafting a great story in the span of a page is difficult and requires precision and a real grasp of the elements of a story as well as solid narrative flow.  But when you finally have your great story idea whittled down, each word polished and necessary, you’ll find that you’re left with prose that not only delivers, but inspires.

And all in but a few choice words.

 

Notes From Purgatory: The Story And The Teller

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A few years ago, a friend called me saying her creative well had run dry, that perhaps her muse had drowned itself somewhere in her stream of consciousness.  My friend was concerned because she wanted so desperately to write something (in her case, poetry), but the spark of inspiration just wasn’t there.  Writer’s block had come down hard on her, an inconvenience I knew all too well.

To jumpstart her creativity, I had her close her eyes and describe a room.  She chose a small kitchen and, when I asked for a tour, she included a stove, cabinets, and a dining table.  I asked her to show me another room.  She told me about the hallway leading to a living room with hardwood floors and shelves packed with book (go figure).  I could hear the focus in her voice as she imagined this quaint little house and it thrilled me because I was sharing in her creative experience.

Suddenly she told me about the raindrops she could hear on the roof.  I asked her to take me outside, which she did with a tone of wonder.

She described the feel of the drops, how they were light and cool.  She told me about the clean smell of foliage and flowers.  She even told me about the pitter-patter of the drops on the sidewalk around us.

“What’s that on the sidewalk?” I asked after a moment.  She asked me what I’d meant and I asked, “that thing there on the sidewalk… do you see it?”

“A blueberry,” she replied without a beat.  The answer was strange, but satisfying because it was a centerpiece to this mental tour of ours.  I didn’t ask her why a blueberry was on the sidewalk in the rain or the Freudian implications of such imagery, I merely let her take in this world she’d created from nothing.

“You created this whole place,” I told her.  “And you said inspiration had left you.”

She was silent for a moment before laughing and thanking me.  She said that, although she hadn’t found an idea for a new poem, she was overjoyed in having been reminded how powerful creativity could be.  I was happy that she had found light at the end of the tunnel.  Sometimes that’s all we need to see, just a crack in the roadblock to remind us that we don’t work in vain and that we have the power to create and renew.

Although I prodded my friend on, she was the creator of her own little world.  Sometimes we need to be reminded of how powerful our imaginations are, a fact we all took for granted when we were little kids running through the streets with our pretend swords and make-believe steads.  Imagination is a rejection of the malaise of adulthood, a means to escape the everyday blandness of work-eat-sleep.  We need to remember this as creators of stories.

So, we just need to step back and let the story tell itself.  We are lightning rods of creative energy, translators of the internal ether.  But in the grind of creation, we often forget to just sit back and imagine.  The secret heart inside each of us is always speaking of the fantastic and bizarre, but we don’t often shut ourselves down long enough to let the voice be heard through the chaos of “everyday.”  But if we pause and listen, we can pick up the story asking to be told.  We can save our muses from the torrent of thoughts inside and the maelstrom of the mundane within.

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