Bring on the Drama, Mama!

I don’t keep up with the news as much as I should but occasionally a little sound bite from the living room, where my husband watches TV, invades my study. The snippet “Less Drama, More Mama” recently made its way into my head, and as rhymes do, it lodged there.

Giving up the “drama” of politics makes sense for Kellyanne Conway, a mother of four, but the opposite is true for fiction writers. Our mantra should be “Bring on the Drama, Mama!”

When we pen short stories, drama is absolutely essential. It raises the stakes for our characters and magically captivates our readers. For example, if we’re writing a story about a young mother coping with a painful separation, we can’t make her circumstances too easy. Suppose she holds out hope that her husband will come back. The worst thing in the world would be for Sam to just walk back into the house with his suitcase and say: “Mary, I’m home!”

It’s not that we’re being cruel. It’s not that we want to watch Mary suffer. But we have to be realistic and understand that in real life these things don’t work out so perfectly. We want our reader to care about Mary and root for her. The best thing we can do for Mary is to increase the drama even more. We should have her discover that Sam has not only been cheating on her with his secretary, they’re now living together. And although Mary dreams of helping support her two kids by opening a bakery, her loan application gets turned down. To make matters worse, the bank repossesses her car! Poor Mary.

Not so fast. Because we’ve seen glimpses of Mary’s extraordinary baking talent and her compassion for making muffins for an elderly woman in the neighborhood, we don’t feel sorry for her. In fact, the reader has every reason to believe that Mary has it in her to survive these events. We like Mary and because Sam is a selfish lout, we believe she deserves a good life without him.

The fiction writer increases admiration for Mary by watching her react to events that might crush the average person. For example, when Sam refuses to co-sign a new loan, we show her react by baking more muffins. That’s when it dawns on Mary that due to the pandemic, a business in a public building would be a very bad idea right now. So she decides to start her bakery at home, and not only does she make enough money in one weekend to get back her car, she’s far too busy to miss Sam anymore.

For the writer, the act of adding more tension to our story makes it fun to write. We don’t have to worry about “blank-page-itis” anymore because we’re suddenly enthralled with helping Mary develop the qualities she needs to thrive. The reader gets to see a little of herself in Mary, and grow along with her. The world is suddenly a better place. So bring on the drama, Mama!

Drama is just one of the topics that we’ll cover in my upcoming Charlotte Lit online workshop: Let’s Write a Short Story: Studio. What makes this course different is that every student gets a special “Story Worksheet” created by me just for this course. As we go along, I’ll be helping students fill out the worksheet step-by-step. This will enable students to thoughtfully construct each of the five essential elements of the short story before writing it. That way, when students start writing, which is the next step, they’ll have all the elements in place to captivate their readers, page by page. And they’ll receive help from me every step of the way. These lessons will help students generate even more stories well beyond this course.

“Let’s Write a Short Story” Studio starts on Sunday, September 13 and runs through Saturday, October 10. Enrollment is limited to just twelve students, so sign up soon to reserve your spot. What are you doing this fall? Raking leaves or fretting about COVID? I hope you’ll be writing along with me.

Learn more and sign up here.

New Online Class on the Short Story Starting September 13!

Great news! For several weeks this summer, I’ve been at work with my friends at Charlotte Lit designing an exciting new online class–my first ever. This class is what we call a “Studio,” which means that it offers deeply engaging, content-rich online modules and a combination of pre-recorded and Zoom live course instruction through a really cool platform called Wet Ink. The course runs from Sept. 13 – October 10, which will give students the rare opportunity to draft a full-length short story AND receive detailed feedback from me. It’s unlike any course I have ever taught, so I am really excited!

Most short story workshops throw students into the open sea without a life ring. What makes this course different is that students have the benefit of using a “Story Worksheet” created by me just for this course. As we go along, I’ll be helping students fill out the worksheet step-by-step. This will enable students to thoughtfully construct each of the five essential elements of the short story before writing it. That way, when students actually start writing, which is the next step, they’ll have all the elements in place to captivate their readers, page by page. And they’ll receive help from me every step of the way. These lessons will help students generate even more stories well beyond this course.

During our time together, we’ll also study model stories by masters such as John Cheever, Shirley Jackson, and Alice Walker, but we’ll also cover excerpts by contemporary authors such as Tessa Hadley and Ralph Hart. I’ll also share how this same technique helped me write “Golden Delicious,” a short story which earned first prize last year in the Starving Writers Competition sponsored by the Franklin County Arts Council. Studying the work of other writers will give students the opportunity to learn how to read a short story like a writer, another exercise that will deliver practical dividends throughout their lives. Even better, the principles we learn can easily be applied to the novel as well!

“Let’s Write a Short Story” Studio starts on Sunday, September 13 and runs through Saturday, October 10. Enrollment is limited to just twelve students, so sign up soon to reserve your spot. What are you doing this fall? Raking leaves or fretting about COVID? I hope you’ll be writing along with me.

Learn more and sign up here.

Are You Ready to Write a Short Story?

We’re counting down the days until Saturday, March 7, the day of my special workshop, “DIY – Write a Short Story in a Day,” at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, and I could not be more excited!

Some people say that the best way to write a short story is to take advantage of that first burst of passion and write it all at once. We know that this is how Shirley Jackson conceived and wrote her beloved and intriguing story, “The Lottery,” and I suspect that many other writers use this same approach. We’re going to try this method ourselves, with the help of a one-of-kind short story writing kit I designed just for this class. From story triggers to the five essential elements of a classic short story, our students will have just what they need in one convenient (and cute!) little box. Everything but the typewriter (or pen and paper, if that’s your preference)!

I’m currently assembling all of the kits, and being an amateur “crafter” of sorts, I’m relishing every moment. When it comes to sewing, for example, it’s very important for me to have all of my materials — machine, rotary cutter, thread, fabric, thimble, even my ripper– by my side. Why should writing be any different? My hope is that our students will take these “tools” with them beyond the class and use what they learn to generate and pen an endless array of short stories.

There are only 2 slots left in the class, so if you’re interested, don’t miss out! You can easily sign up by registering online or by calling (919) 545-8044 during regular business hours.

And if you can’t get enough writing inspiration, on April 25, I’m leading a workshop on Share Your Writing with the World – Revision and Submission, also at CCCC, which will be the perfect follow up to our March class. We’ll talk about markets for short stories and more, including flash fiction, creative nonfiction and essays, and poetry.

Hope to see you soon!

Golden Delicious in Franklin County!

On SatuAshley-Franklin (2)rday, December 14, I had the pleasure of attending the launch of County Lines: A Literary Journal (Vol. 7).

I joined a number of talented writers who also had work published in County Lines. I was deeply honored to read my story, “Golden Delicious,” which was chosen by writer Nancy Peacock as the 1st Place winner in the Starving Writers Fiction Contest. I particularly enjoyed meeting Jackie Dove-Miller, Contest Chair and a celebrated poet in her own right.

A theme quickly emerged among the work read that day: the twin poles of grief and the joy that our loved ones bring us.

My own story was inspired by my sometimes disastrous pie-baking adventures  and girded by memories of my beloved grandmother Wilma. “Golden Delicious” was written in letter form, but follows a traditional short story structure that we’ll cover in my Central Carolina Community College workshop in the spring: DIY Kit: Write A Short Story in a Day. More to follow, but in the meantime, I hope that your holiday season is filled with your own favorite apples, whether that be cider, pie, jam, or more!

golden delicious

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Short Stories at Pittsboro Writers’ Morning Out!

ashley at pmoOn Saturday, I had the pleasure of spending an hour with the distinguished writing group known as Pittsboro Writers’ Morning Out, (sponsored by our friends at the N.C. Writer’s Network) in Pittsboro. We met in the backroom of the Greek Kouzina restaurant and discussed the outlook for the modern short story in today’s literary landscape.

The good news is that the short story appears to be stronger than ever and with distinguished publishers such as W.W. Norton and the vibrant community of online lit magazines publishing more short stories than ever before, the time has never been better to write stories! Bolstered by the recent surge of flash fiction, new markets for short fiction appear every day.

We also awarded the WMO’s own “Ultra Flash Fiction Award” to the talented and distinguished writer Judith Stanton, and I was very happy to be the one to read it aloud. Her “Life is A Tale You Write As You Go,” was lyrical, evocative, and utterly spellbinding. My hour went by way too fast, but I did so enjoy spending time with both old friends and many new ones.

On our way home, we stopped by and visited our good friend Lee Calhoun, who is a national expert on the southern apple, and interestingly, is featured in the August-September issue of Local Palate Magazine.  Crazily, and doesn’t the short story show up in unexpected ways, but on the way home I learned that I won first place in the Starving Writers Contest sponsored by the Franklin County Arts Council for my own short story titled “Golden Delicious.” Talk about apples to apples! It will be published in County Lines magazine in November.

The good news for you is that there are many places to submit your own stories, from Women on Writing and Mental Paper Cuts (both with deadlines of Aug. 31) to Okay Donkey and The Disappointed Housewife, which accept stories on a rolling basis. These are a few of my favorites, and they are just the tip of the iceberg!

So keep sending your own “apples” out there! You never know just where they may end up.

 

 

 

What makes a successful writer?

flowers.jpgIn this particular order….

1- Love of language

2 – Internal burning desire to write, write, write….no matter what’s going on in their lives

3 – Abiding curiosity (obsession!) for the human experience

4 – Significant body of work to draw from so there’s always something in circulation — plenty of pieces to submit and re-submit when the times are tough.

What do you think? Am I missing something? It’s entirely possible!

Flash fiction takes a direct shot

“Going at such a pace as I do, I must make the most direct shots at my object…no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.” ~ Virginia Woolfclassroomshot

The above quote, shared at my Central Carolina Community College workshop last Saturday, does more than express the intensity of flash fiction; it also illustrates how quickly the time passed!

Our Flash Fiction Bootcamp II did indeed end far too quickly! In fact, we were still writing when the security guard at Central Carolina Community College came around and politely tapped her watch. But me and the seven devotees (eight if you count my trusty assistant, husband Johnpaul) of creative writing could have kept writing for hours….

We opened with an inspirational reading of Liz Wride’s terrific flash, Painted, published April 11 on Milk Candy Review.  For our first prompt, we riffed on her evocative first line (“They passed a law that everyone had to…..”) as a spark for our own stories. The results were both pithy and magical, ranging from “be kind to each other” or “own a Komodo dragon.” So much fun! Thank you Liz!

Other prompts included writing a flash from a favorite pet’s point of view and taking a cue from the Twilight Zone. One of our students shared a link to the opening narration so you can try this prompt on your own. We also played around with the French technique known as “N + 7″ which involves writing a couple of sentences and substituting nouns with every seventh you find in the dictionary after the original. This mode is particularly helpful when you find yourself stuck in a rut on a story. A new world can be just one word away.

The comments I received were far more than I deserved but very welcome, and the students kindly gave permission for their inclusion on this blog. “This was my first writing class,” said Mary T. “The encouragement received from Ashley was priceless and spurred me to write even more.”

“Ashley Memory is a great teacher – positive, affirming, inspiring. Love the quotes, writing tips, book recommendations.” Jeannie D’Aurora

And from Anne K., a veteran of the program, who is working toward her certificate in Creative Writing, a unique offering of the college:  “Ashley’s classes always provide a terrific combination of practical information, positive encouragement and hands-on experiences. She is both a talented teacher and writer and students get the benefit of both in her classes.”

As a departure from the norm, for my next CCCC workshop, we’ll tackle a cousin of flash fiction. On Saturday, September 21, 2019 at 9 a.m., we’ll explore the exciting world of flash essays. We’ll also talk about ways to expand short memoir-style pieces into longer formats, taking cues from Susan Shapiro’s The Byline Bible.

Hope to see you in September, but in the meantime keep writing and delighting!

 

Flash Fiction Bootcamp II Coming Soon!

IMG_20190402_121354815_HDRIt’s snowing in the Uwharries today, on the second day of April no less! Big sloppy flakes drifting down like tiny snow angels. Or, according to my husband, who sees “Dick Tracy snowflakes with big black lines around them.”

 

Whatever you see, these little bits of wintry precipitation (mixed with sleet) are a bit of a surprise this spring. They’re coating the surface of our bamboo like a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.  No yard work today after all. Instead, I’m dreaming ahead to Saturday, April 13, when I’ll lead round 2 of our Flash Fiction Bootcamp at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro.

I’m especially excited about this class because we’ll have a special guest! My son Dashiel, named for a writer himself (minus one “l” in the name) will be visiting from New York and sitting at the table with us. It will be fun to see what stories he conjures up, based on the singular experience of living in the “Big City.”

Our prompts this time will be brand new and guaranteed to fire your imagination. From writing from a dog’s (or cat, to be fair) point of view to using the innovative N + 7 French method of writing a couple of sentences and replacing every noun with the seventh in a dictionary, these story starters may just be the creative nudge you need for that latent story swimming around in your head. And as usual, I’ll also share a collection of my favorite litmags and contests so that those who wish to revise and see their work in print may pursue these avenues on their own.

For more information, and how to register, see below. In the meantime, cuddle up with a mug of hot chocolate, a good book, and a notebook of your own…..

Saturday, April 13 from 9.a.m – 3 p.m. – Flash Fiction Bootcamp II Workshop. Think you don’t have time to write? Anybody has time for flash fiction, and by the end of this workshop, you’ll have five finished stories. (This workshop is a continuation of the popular Flash Fiction Bootcamp I) but is open to new as well as returning students and features entirely new prompts and readings. Atten-hut! Central Carolina Community College Creative Writing Program in Pittsboro, N.C. Register here. or by calling (919) 545-8044.

 

Enhance your writing with cherries

cherries.jpgJust today I learned that my flash fiction “Aunt Zelia’s Untested Wild Cherry Love Potion” earned honorable mention in the Fall 2018 Women on Writing Quarterly Flash Fiction Contest!

In this tale of “love gone wrong-maybe gone right-with a little magic”  I tried my best to infuse the language with highly sensuous details. It helps that the story includes cherries, my favorite fruit.

When you want to enhance your own writing with lush details from all five senses, try to include references to things that already inspire you. And when you need to add emotional tension, draw from circumstances that stir up your own angst. It’s easy for me to write about young love because I remember those times so vividly and it’s cathartic (at least now!) to return to that highly charged state of passion and bewilderment.

It’s a little early for fruit, but my fledgling cherry trees are getting ready to unfurl new leaves, which hopefully bodes well for this year’s crop. As they fortify themselves, I’ve been planning an exciting lineup of new workshops this spring and summer. With offerings from poetry to flash essays, I’m hoping you’ll find something to stoke your own imagination. Each workshop is designed to help you cull sensory details from your own lives.

Friday, March 15 from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. – Jumpstart Your Poetic Imagination at The Joyful Jewel in downtown Pittsboro, N.C. You can find inspiration for poetry everywhere—from the news to artwork to your daily life and memory. We’ll study sample poems and then participate in fun exercises meant to spark your own imagination. Not only will you end up with three new poems of your own, you’ll leave with an inventory of ideas for future works. You may even pen a poem inspired by the stimulating art work on display in The Joyful Jewel and participate in the Visions and Voices Reading on April 14! To register, call The Joyful Jewel, 833-2775, 10:30am-5:30pm Monday through Saturday or Sunday 12pm-4pm. Cost: $50.

Saturday, April 13 from 9.a.m – 3 p.m. – Flash Fiction Bootcamp II. Think you don’t have time to write? Anybody has time for flash fiction, and by the end of this workshop, you’ll have five finished stories. (This workshop is a continuation of the popular Flash Fiction Bootcamp I) but is open to new as well as returning students and features entirely new prompts and readings. Atten-hut! Central Carolina Community College Creative Writing Program in Pittsboro, N.C. Register here. or by calling (919) 545-8044. Cost $50.

Friday, July 12 from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. – Flash Fiction Bootcamp I. The Joyful Jewel in downtown Pittsboro, N.C. Think you don’t have time to write? Anybody has time for flash fiction, and by the end of this abbreviated workshop, you’ll have at least two finished stories. Bring your favorite writing gear (notebook and pen/pencil or laptop) and get ready for new prompts, new inspiration, and instant feedback. Atten-hut! To register, call The Joyful Jewel, 833-2775, 10:30am-5:30pm Monday through Saturday or Sunday 12pm-4pm. Cost: $50.

Friday, July 26 from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. – Flash Creative Nonfiction and Essay. The Joyful Jewel in downtown Pittsboro, N.C. Interested in turning your life experiences into flash memoirs or short essays? Explore this exciting  new creative form that brings your experiences to life in a variety of dynamic formats. By the end of this workshop, you’ll have two finished short essays. To register, call The Joyful Jewel, 833-2775, 10:30am-5:30pm Monday through Saturday or Sunday 12pm-4pm. Cost: $50.

Keep checking my events page as I add to this list throughout the season with even more workshops. In the meantime, surround yourself with the things that inspire you the most. Life is short so go ahead and pluck that cherry off the top of your sundae!

 

How to End a Short Story

apple pie
The ending of a story should be like a slice of apple pie after a meal — giving the reader something to savor and remember long after the story concludes.

At the beginning of every new year, writers tend to think about beginnings–new resolutions, new inspiration and new directions. But as I started new work this month–particularly a story that recently bewildered me–I found myself struggling with endings.

Why are endings so hard? To help, I studied the final sentences of stories I admire.

“She walked up the stairs, tearing the note into tiny pieces that fluttered behind her like confetti.” Laurie Colwin, from “Children, Dogs, and Desperate Women.”

“I still seem to be holding that wisp of iridescence, not knowing exactly where to fit it, while she runs with her hoop ever faster around me and finally dissolves among the slender shadows cast on the graveled path by the interlaced arches of its low looped fence.” Vladimir Nabokov, “First Love.”

“But the pear tree was as lonely as ever and as full of flowers and as still.” Katherine Mansfield, “Bliss.”

“She sat for a while longer, then pulled the curtains back and the day came in. Hers was the ghost the night had brought, in her own image as she once had been.” William Trevor, “Sitting with the Dead.”

I also studied the words of some of my favorite writing teachers. Some say you should return to the beginning of your story and pick up a loose thread there to knot at the end. Others believe you should end on a strong image. John Dufresne, in his wonderful book The Lie That Tells A Truth says this is not the time to give us a moral or a message. “We only need the problem resolved.” And later: “End your story on your best, or second best, line. Don’t write past it. This is the line that echoes in our mind when the story is over.”

Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, in their endlessly inspirational book What If, give a great exercise for endings. “Write one sentence for a story that is in its fourth or fifth draft. Then revise the story to heighten and illuminate this final meaning.”

As challenging as it can be, there is nothing like the inherent joy in writing stories–whether it’s that first sentence or even the title. And this makes the struggle worth it. Sometimes the very thing that’s holding us back IS the solution. One of my favorite philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, said it best: “The impediment to action advances the action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

In my situation, it became very simple. The ending of my story troubled me because I hadn’t gotten the beginning or the middle right. So I had to backtrack a little bit. But when I followed the crumb trail of my original conception–what the story was REALLY about, I found my way home and then, and only then, resolved my story. And then I treated myself to a huge chunk of apple pie!

We’ll be doing a number of writing workshops very soon, where we’ll talk more about endings and everything in between. Stay tuned for the details, but in the meantime, I hope you’ll plan to join me in April for round two of our very popular flash fiction workshops.

Saturday, April 13 – Flash Fiction Boot Camp II Workshop. Central Carolina Community College Creative Writing Program in Pittsboro, N.C. Register here.