Tag Archives: fiction

Braving the Slush Pile in Pittsboro!

Slush PileOur mission was brutal. The email from Al Manning, the head of Pittsboro Writers’ Morning Out went something like this:

Pretend you’re an editor of a prestigious publishing house. It’s Friday afternoon. You’ve had a busy week and you’re still staring at a stack of unsolicited manuscripts–the dreaded Slush Pile. You’re tired and you want to go home. You’ll raise your hand as soon as you hear something that would cause you to reject the manuscript in front of you.

Yesterday I had the honor of serving as a panelist (along with writers Ron Voigts and Judith Stanton) at the 3rd Annual Slush Pile event at the Pittsboro Writers’ Morning Out meeting. As we listened to the 300 words submitted anonymously by the brave ten writers who participated, we agreed, disagreed, and agreed to disagree on the elements that would cause a busy editor to move to the next manuscript in the pile.

And that’s what editors do. What I liked most about a manuscript didn’t necessarily appeal to the other panelists and vice versa. It goes without saying that writing submitted to an editor shouldn’t contain typos or grammatical errors; these are easily caught by a diligent proofreader. We truly didn’t see many of these–the majority of the manuscripts we reviewed were quite polished and free from pesky errors of this nature.

To help, I’ll share what resonated the most with our panel in terms of style. The manuscripts we “rescued” from the slush pile shared four basic elements:

  • Strong opening–and this includes the title!
  • Engaging and unique characters. What’s your character’s point of view?
  • A good blend of exposition and action. And by action, I also mean dialogue.
  • Conflict and tension. What’s at stake for your character? Why should we care?

Above all else, if you’re writing, submitting, and braving a very real slush pile, it’s most important that you NEVER despair. Don’t give up. Editors are, after all, human and have their own peculiarities as far as taste and style. So, if you find yourself drifting in a slush pile, pull out that manuscript days (or weeks!) later, and view it with fresh eyes.

And as you revise your work and prepare to share it with the world, please consider joining me for your choice of two separate workshops in 2020 on the subject of submission. We’ll talk about revisions, cover letters, markets, and much, much more.

Check out my Events page for more information and how to register.

 

Be a Shape Shifter!

little puss

What do you see in the magical coat of Little Puss? Evil snowman or smiling panda bear? This tricky feline is a shape shifter!

What’s your favorite genre, someone recently asked me. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays? My answer: All of them!

The longer I write, the more I’ve learned that the various writing genres are not mutually exclusive. The same solid idea that sparked a short story could easily morph into an essay or a poem. Especially if you still have curiosity about the topic. So why limit yourself to just one form? Be like Little Puss, a shape shifter!

Case in point. Shirley Jackson. This renowned writer didn’t just pen short stories and novels; she also wrote essays and even drew cartoons! Here’s another:  Vladimir Nabokov. He wrote stories, novels, poetry and his nonfiction memoir, Speak Memory, is a model for any writer in terms of craft. Dorothy Parker: poetry, stories, book reviews. And Tennessee Williams wrote much of the above and even took playwriting to another level by tackling screenplays.

Shakespeare was also a notorious shape shifter, excelling in every form available at the time. If he lived today, in addition to the plays and poetry, he’d probably dash out a sitcom or two, don’t you think?

Shape shifting is also more efficient. In my case, my essay “Eulogy of a Northern Red Oak” eventually turned into a poem. It’s essentially a condensed form of the same essay but with unusual line breaks and intentional omissions, the sadness of the topic–the loss of our natural habitat–is exacerbated. The poem was named a finalist in the 2019 Poet Laureate Competition and will be published in “Waiting for the Wood Thrush,” my first poetry collection by Finishing Line Press in November.

As I plunder through my old writing projects, I’m continuing to “shift shapes.” Or is it “shape shift” ? Maybe I’ll breathe new life into an old essay and turn it into a short story. And I think I have a poem or two that might work as a short story….humm….let the magic begin!

 

“Pfull” House at Pfeiffer and WOW!

phoenix2Last night I had the pleasure of reading my poem “I Like My Bagel Toasted” at the special launch celebration of The Phoenix at Pfeiffer University, and it was a blast. First off, it’s a rarity to see more than 20 people at a literary event but at this wonderful occasion, there was at least 100–a “pfull” house by anybody’s standards! And anytime I get to see my friend Ruth Moose (and Pfeiffer alumna!) is always a special occasion.

Wonderful food, a great mixture of art (poems, stories, essays and photography!) and fabulous music made for an entertaining evening. The editors, staff, and advisors did a terrific job of making all attendees and authors feel appreciated.

bagelHats off to the editors who read and considered the nearly 1,000 submissions they received for this issue! My “bagel” and I were indeed lucky to be included. It’s taken a lot of courage to write about my multiple sclerosis so this has been a big step for me.

All in all, the day itself couldn’t have been more perfect. The weather alone was magnificent, sunny and dry with a gentle breeze. Amazing. And not only did my little bare-rooted Mara des Bois strawberry plants arrive from the nursery, I found out I won first place in the WOW Q2 Essay Contest for “How to Chop an Onion Without Crying.”

Isn’t it funny how life turns out? We writers work so hard, day in, day out, and the rewards are mostly internal–the joy you get from finding just the right word, putting your words to paper and sharing what you write with family and friends. But once in a while, the world surprises you with a little recognition and how sweet it is!

Wishing you strawberries, onions, bagels (and more) as you plow ahead and make your own writing dreams come true.

 

How to behave at a holiday party

Ever go to a pabeerty and feel like you don’t quite belong? Not sure about where to sit? Is that a cheese ball or a centerpiece? Is it edible? And what do you talk about when you find yourself balancing a glass of punch with strangers?

Now, imagine that you used to be a a blue orchard bee….a praying mantis….or even a monarch butterfly.  It’s even more befuddling.

Holiday Party Etiquette for Insects Recently Transformed Into People,” a flash fiction up today at one of my favorite literary magazines, Okay Donkey, was inspired by my own shyness and angst at holiday parties. The story bloomed when I discovered a link on Reddit for a support group for former insects and an article on etiquette in Southern Living. I’m so honored that the donkey — himself a fan of “the odd, the off-kilter, and the just plain weird”– made a space for this little story.

Writers actually relish writing about things that make them feel uncomfortable. It’s cathartic and oddly, it can also be easier. Your emotions are already stirred up and accessible, ripe for the picking. For fun, try your hand at turning a real-life situation into speculative fiction. And if you were an insect, what kind would you be?

 

 

A New York City Ghost Story!

cropped-new-logo-no-wordsMany thanks to the guest judges of The Ginger Collect for naming my short story, “Saturday Night at the Swannanoa,” a Runner-Up in their first-ever Halloween contest. These kind folks also published it online in the just-released Halloween 2018 Mini-Magazine!

If you like eclectic and imaginative stories, I hope you check out this issue for yourself.

This story wouldn’t have been possible without generous input from my son Dashiel, another talented writer, who also happens to be my favorite New Yorker!

Yes, it’s Halloween, but it’s never too early to start on your own spooky stories for next year. Draw some inspiration from the other stories in The Ginger Collect or from your own favorite writers.

 

Stuck in a rut? Try something new!

buster1.jpgFor Halloween, Buster, our little corgi-mix, decided to try a new look. Born with a hastily-tied white “Ascot” around his neck, he decided to switch things up this year. So he’s preening around in a hot dog bun. Hold the onions, please.

Buster’s transformation got me thinking about the myriad possibilities for writers. Are you stuck in a rut? Is your scarf askew? Sometimes, as we enter a new season–especially after a productive summer of writing–I start getting a little antsy. What’s next?

Like Chekhov, who loved wandering the cherry orchard, it helped me to go outside. On Whale Tail Road, we’re continuing to clean up brush and debris from two hurricanes. And Nature, as always, helped push me out of the rut. And it might help you too!

peppersOur jalapeno peppers truly hit their stride this fall, blessing us with a bountiful crop, even in October. So why not put a little kick in your own writing? When I think of the unexpected, Shirley Jackson always comes to mind. In her short story, The Daemon Lover, the protagonist takes the reader through a labyrinth of suspense. Does her mysterious fiancé exist at all? Can you take your reader on a similar journey? No need to veer into a thriller or horror (unless you want to!), you can actually do a lot by putting the familiar into a new context. Does the trip home, a short walk she has always taken, look a different to your protagonist today? Humm….

loofahGardening constantly surprises–with “volunteer” crops springing up in the most unexpected places. And this year, we had a volunteer loofah plant! When the seeds of last year’s crop fell through the deck, a new vine entwined its way up the retaining wall.

We’ve always loved loofah for its exfoliating qualities, so this, too, sent me on a detour. Like the loofah, all writers should feel free to “scrub off” the dead skin and start anew.

Can you give new life to a dead short story by turning it into a poem? And if that doesn’t work out, consider taking it back to a flash story, a shorter version of what you started with. I’ve had a lot of fun recently working on a short story of mine, “Lost and Found of the Dead,” which has turned into a poem, and then back into a story again.

Writing is the ultimate metamorphosis, when you think about it. What other profession allows you to “slip” into a costume and enter the mindset of someone else? No strings, no responsibilities, and it doesn’t cost a penny. So try something new this season and finish your 2018 writing year strong!

So from Buster and all of us at Whale Tail Road, Happy Halloween, er, make that Happy Transformation!

 

 

 

 

Fiction and Celebrity Sightings at CCCC

submission-class-photo.jpg

Dahlias, Courtesy of Ruth Moose

 

Yesterday, a group of fiction devotees met at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro to delve further into a favorite topic: flash!

We talked about revision and the necessity of tantalizing titles and edgy diction (special thanks to Arthur Plotnik, author of Spunk & Bite). Then we covered publication opportunities, including contests, which are great avenues for beginning fiction writers offering prize money…. plus publication!

And of course, back by popular demand, we made time for new writing sessions.

Drawing from a favorite prompt in The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell (“Aunt Dottie Catches the Hankerchief Tossed by Elvis from the Stage of the Sands in Vegas”), we imagined an interaction between a relative and a celebrity and wrote a story about it. From a beloved uncle meeting St. Peter in heaven to a girlfriend running into a famous rock star at Linens N’ Things while buying a toaster, our writers truly soared with this prompt.

So…next time you’re in line at Harris Teeter, and you think the woman in the big sunglasses behind you looks a little like Ann-Margret, don’t waste the moment asking for an autograph. Get out a pen and make notes for a flash fiction instead!

Many thanks to the attendees of all three flash fiction workshops this year (spring and fall). I hope you had as much fun as I did! And whatever you do, be sure and stay posted to this blog for news of future workshops on the exciting and evolving topic of flash fiction.