Author Archives: Ashley Memory

Tantalize with a title

chekhov2We discussed first lines already, but we ought to back up a wee bit. Let’s talk about story titles.

When you finally finish that first draft of a story, don’t slap a thoughtless title on top. You’ve worked hard already, so why not invest just a little more time to hook your reader from the very beginning with a tantalizing title?

Take a look at the titles of the books featured in the picture to the left. Don’t they tempt you to at least open up the books?

As a former judge (I judged a high school literary contest for three years) and as a writing instructor, I have seen far too many stories saddled with ho-hum titles. Such as “The Table”, “The Painting” or “My Family.” While not offensive, these titles suffer from an extreme case of “run-of-the-mill-itis.” They could be the title for hundreds of similar stories. They don’t make the reader want to read them.

In contrast, take a look at some titles below, all from recent stories, most of which are available online.

“Howard’s Girl” ~ Jane Zingale, New Flash Fiction
“When Gorillas Sleep” ~ Frankie McMillan, New Flash Fiction
“Mr. Switzerland” ~ Marguerite Floyd, New Flash Fiction
“Sleepwalking in Texas” ~ Nicholas Cook, New Flash Fiction
“All the Sea in the Fish” ~ Rob Bockman, Tin House
“My Co-Worker’s Obituary Photograph” ~ Annie Hartnett, Tin House
“Christmas Alligator” ~ Reiser Perkins, Tin House

All of the above titles immediately drew me into the stories. They took me from the world of the general to the specific. Not surprisingly, the stories themselves did not disappoint. Below is a story title for the record books, one of the longest titles and most intriguing stories I’ve ever read.

“A Perimenopausal Jacqueline Kennedy, Two Years After the Assassination, Aboard the M/Y Christina, off Euboea, Bound for the Island of Alonnisos, Devastated by a Recent Earthquake, Drinks Her Fourth Bloody Mary with Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr.”
~ Michael Martone, Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction

A snazzy title is even more important for poetry and flash fiction, which are defined by brevity. Every single word must pull its own weight….and then some. And an exciting title is as inspirational to the writer as it is to the reader. A writer who can write a tantalizing title will undoubtedly work harder on that story, don’t you think?

 

Advertisements

Wrapping up the Story a Day challenge

I did it! Foblack raspberryr each day of May, I drafted a story every morning. This means I ended up with 31 rough drafts, more than enough to see me through a summer and fall of solid writing.

It wasn’t as easy as picking black raspberries, but I’m so glad I did it.  Most of the stories are still rough drafts but I now have at least 10 viable starts to longer pieces. And yes, looking back, there’s a little bit of “chaff” that may never see the light of day. Uh, what was I thinking?

So how did I do it? In the beginning, I leaned heavily on writing prompts from other sources. One of my more finished pieces is based on a mythological story–a love triangle resolved through clever debate (Thank you, Fred White, author of The Daily Reader.). Another one is based on a prompt from Story A Day, Write a Letter (Thank you, Julie Duffy).  I also pulled out a few latent ideas of my own that I’d been hoarding. Many ideas, however, seemed to just spawn themselves, a freaky synthesis of my own experience and writing mind, if that makes sense. One idea ended up yielding two separate stories!

Having worked on longer pieces for so long, I was a little out of the habit of generating new ideas. So I found the discipline of this effort extremely useful. As they say, we first make our habits, and then our habits make us. Not surprisingly, the more you write, the more ideas you get.

I also managed to make a little jam (strawberry and early peach). And yes, as another reward, I’ll  be treating myself to William Trevor’s collection of last stories very soon. And for now, I’ll be revising, revising, revising….

 

 

Another evening of story-telling…

scuppernong books

I’m reading “The Dave Department” — my short flash about waiting for a call-back from a service tech who seems to always be at lunch. (Photo credit: Anne Anthony)

Last night was rich with literary delights: writer-reader connections, stories galore, and scintillating conversation all within the charming Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro.

It was the final official leg of the book tour for The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory. I read two stories and we heard from six other authors, including our dynamic co-editor Anne Anthony. Each one of us had the opportunity to speak about what inspired our stories, which made the event particularly interesting. Want your own copy?  Order it here.

Interested in learning more about the exciting form of flash fiction? Sign up for one of two daylong workshops I’m leading this fall at Central Carolina Community College.

September 22, 2018: Flash Fiction Bootcamp. Think you don’t have time to write? Anybody has time for flash fiction, and by the end of this class, you’ll have five finished pieces. Bring your favorite writing gear (notebook and pen/pencil or laptop) and get ready for some prompts, new inspirations, and instant feedback. Atten-hut!

October 13, 2018: Flash Fiction: Revision and Publication. Now that you’ve written your first flash fictions, you’re ready to show them off! Bring a story of your own and learn how to revise, prepare and submit it for publication in online or print magazines, and how later to create a book-length collection and find publishers.

We’ll talk more about craft elements soon, such as the importance of a title…..

First cherries, first lines

cherriesOut of our four young cherry trees, we ended up with just a handful of tart cherries this year. Our Montmorency tree (left), the first one we planted three years ago, yielded the most fruit.

The first line of a story should be as memorable as the taste of a tart cherry–tangy, sweet, then tangy again. It’s almost lemony, but there’s something else–the flavor of early summer, morning breezes, balmy nights, the eerie song of the wood thrush in the hollow.

“One fine evening the no less fine office manager Ivan Dmitrich Cherviakov was sitting in the second row of the stalls, watching The Bells of Corneville through opera glasses.” (Anton Chekhov, The Death of a Clerk)

“Miss Matt was at least partially conscious that she looked like the teacher everyone has had for English in first-year high school; she was small and pretty, in a rice-powder fashion, with a great mass of soft dark hair that tried to stay on top of her head and straggled instead down over her ears; her voice was low and turned pleading instead of sharp; any presentable fourteen-year-old bully could pass her course easily.” (Shirley Jackson, The Sorceror’s Apprentice)

“Hazel Morse was a large, fair woman of the type that incites some men when they use the word ‘blonde’ to click their tongues and wag their heads roguishly.” (Dorothy Parker, Big Blonde)

Does your first sentence sing with vivid language? Mystery and intrigue? Does it draw your reader deeper? As I revise the stories I drafted this past month, I’ll be cognizant of the work of the masters in the first sentences of their stories, as quoted above. There’s a trick here, and these authors do it. That first sentence must hint at the plot and the universal truth (or unique vision) that caused the author to write the story in the first place.

As we approach the end of my story-drafting blitz this month, (three more to go!) I was delighted to receive a note from the editors of  The Birds We Piled Loosely, a hip online literary magazine, that they accepted two of my short humor flashes: “Etymology in the Neighborhood” and “We Are So Very Sorry” for their July issue.

Come to think of it, submitting work for publication is also a bit like growing cherries in the south. It’s unpredictable, a little scary, (will a late frost hurt those flower buds?) but the scarcity makes the few cherries you do harvest that much more delicious. So keep it up…both the cherry growing and submitting!

 

Inspirations from a Quilt

What could be more soothing than the sound of the washing machine churning, churning, washing away….my dog’s tail thudding against the wall when he hears me walk back into the room…wind chimes, almost from another world, clanging in a gentle morning wind….and the touch of a new quilt, softened by the work and care of a dear friend.

Tquilt.jpgoday I reflect back on yesterday’s visit from my beloved writing friends Mary and Ruth, who came for lunch but brought a cornucopia of my favorite things  — a book of stories from Shirley Jackson, articles, their own precious stories, clean jars ready for canning, and the highlight– a beautiful quilt designed and hand-stitched by Mary herself.

I’m still both awed and humbled. It’s made from squares of heathered purple and accented with strips of beautiful complementary fabrics, modern and traditional with botanical accents. Each of the purple squares is accented with four French knots, which reminds me of my mother, who used to crewel and first showed me that stitch. Mary says the quilt is a marquis-inspired pattern and it is truly unique and something I will cherish to the end of my days.

Twenty-three days into May, and with 23 draft stories under my belt, I’m over the hump but I’m grateful for the inspiration and sustenance of the idea of a quilt. What powers our stories could be considered a “virtual quilt” of its own — memories, scraps of conversation, images, noble truths. What holds the quilt together is that dynamic, fluid, yet mysterious force of imagination. Your imagination will be there in the beginning, during the heady flush of a new idea — and it will also be there as you revise, in the days before a story truly comes to life.

Not all drafts are equal but I’m hopeful that I’ll end up with at least 10 viable drafts to revise throughout the year. More importantly, however, I hope to reinforce enough good habits to last a lifetime. As a reward, I plan to splurge on the last book of stories by William Trevor, a man who might indeed be the heir to our Chekhov. In the meantime, my new quilt and memories of yesterday shall guide my boat.

A Story a Day Keeps the Doctor Away!

strawberry.jpgHappy Summer! It’s technically spring but it sure feels like summer in North Carolina! And the great news–besides a bed of strawberries now ripening daily–is that there are myriad things to write about. I decided to take Julie Duffy up on her creative challenge to actually draft a new story each day. I’m having a blast, and I hope, keeping the doctor away.

Here’s what I do. I rise first thing in the morning, and before the whirlwind of the day takes over (walking the dogs, eating breakfast, or painting shelves), I give my unconscious mind free rein. Yes, I do have an idea in mind, taken from an ongoing list, but I try not to think about it too much until I actually put words to the screen. It’s a crazy thing. The more I write, the more new ideas spring up.

As a matter of fact, we went to the flea market this morning, which is the writer’s equivalent of paradise. I often joke with friends that I’d love to one day lead a workshop where I take my fellow writers to Sophia, to the flea market off Highway 311. Among the ripe mangoes, rose and hibiscus plants, old books, movies and the strange assortment of someone else’s odds and ends, there is a plethora of random and intriguing conversation.

  • “There you go, getting all cynical again!” said a vendor, possibly to a long-time customer.
  • “She’s not really a people person,” said a little girl when we asked to pet the Dachshund puppy in a stroller. (Would it be a “people dog?” Not sure. :))
  • “Do you know where Bulgaria is?” asked a man in response to my question about his accent.

Today I bought a picture from 1908, when people printed images and mailed them as postcards. Where else can you find such a thing from more than 100 years ago? I’m sure that gem will also be a prompt of some sort in the future.

We’re almost halfway through the month, and I’ve drafted stories about a baker, a university town that pays its residents for their dreams, and two bickering sisters who accidentally leave their aging mother at a rest-stop. They may not all pan out as complete stories but as the writer Ray Bradbury once said: “Write a story every week. It’s impossible to end up with 52 bad stories.”

Here’s hoping your writer’s garden blooms with inspiration!

 

Flash Memoir!

There are so many exciting literary forms available these days that it (almost) makes a creative writer scratch her head before penning a new piece. Found poetry, lost poetry, nanofiction, six-word stories, speculative memoir, you name it.

The cousin of one of my most favorite forms (flash fiction) is the emerging form of flash memoir. And there are countless markets for these short, true-to-life stories that can end up connecting people across time and space. And the good news is that you can earn money for these stories.

Here’s one way to get started. Make a list of ten of the most exciting or momentous things that ever happened to you. Choose the one experience that speaks the most to you and recount it in fewer than 500 words. Just write it in the same way as you’d tell the story to a friend. It’s that simple.

One of my husband’s pieces (with a photo) was just published in the May issue of Carolina Country, a local print and online magazine mailed to over 2 million people in the rural electric cooperatives across North Carolina.  Ever the reluctant author, Johnpaul told me he doesn’t have time to sign autographs right now. He’s too busy installing the floor of our library.

Read the story of the paperboy and the piano teacher here.