Flash Fiction Facts

I admit, I’m addicted. Here’s why I love flash fiction: 1. It’s short 2. It’s fun 3. I like having a new category on my blog. I’ve been blogging since 2002 so this is a refreshing change.

My Florida writing group, particularly our leader Doraine Riley (pictured with me above) is the reason I started posting flash fiction. She brought in an article that referenced John Dufresne, author of the book Flash! Writing the Very Short Story and challenged us to try it. I was flummoxed. I didn’t know the shape of flash fiction. I wasn’t sure how to start or for that matter end a very short story.

So I bought Dufresne’s book and not only does he explain what to do, and how to do it, but he has loads of examples of flash fiction by some of the best writers working in the genre. I fell in love with those stories and wanted to try it myself.

Which is the short version of why I have been posting flash fiction.

Plotting a Thriller

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I’ve had the idea for a psychological thriller for almost a year now. The minute I finished my latest novel (on my editor’s desk as I type this) I started planning the new one. I quickly realized there would be a LOT more research than usual. I had a new genre, a new setting, a new profession, which has since turned into several new professions. I almost said “maybe not.”

But my critique group meets next week, and a month ago I’d promised them a first chapter of the new book. I’d already done quite a bit of research on the setting and I knew the character since I’d written about her in two previous novels. Also, I had read How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey when I wrote Sweet Melissa, so I knew some stuff. Enough for a first chapter.

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I had also done “research” of a sort when I attended Sleuthfest in Miami last month. I picked up a few books, read a couple of them, skimmed the reference text I knew I’d wear out before the WIP is finished. I’d attended workshops and even had an enlightening talk with an editor who gave me some names of agents who might be interested in the type of story I was planning to write.

Sometimes writing gets interrupted by social media. Occupational hazard. I “somehow” saw a post by Tim Baker yesterday, a writer I follow on Twitter.

Tim’s guest post had the word “research” in the heading. Because I finished my first chapter and realized I had a lot more research to do, I clicked the link. And learned a lot. Inspired, I got out James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and started taking notes. It turns out that a thriller does not have to be a mystery! It ONLY has to be “nonstop action, plot twists that surprise and excite, settings both exotic and vibrant, and an intense pace that never lets up until the adrenaline-packed climax.”

I sort of knew I wanted to write an action packed page turner. I wanted to challenge myself to write at that intense pace. I have the exotic and vibrant setting (just hope I can bring it to life). I didn’t know I’d need a high concept that can be contained in one sentence, not more than thirteen words. So I thought about all that and got some ideas. I actually wrote my high concept sentence! And then outlined a few of the twists coming up.

I found out that some high concepts are cliches. Like 9/11 terrorist stories. Oh. That was one of my first ideas…because of my setting. But I had another idea, so I went with it. James N. Frey says the goal of a mystery is to catch a killer, but the goal of a thriller is to stop evil. Makes sense; the page-turning thing would be easier to execute if the stakes are higher than just “catch a killer.”

So thanks for giving me some timely reminders to do my research, Tim, as it is already paying off. And thanks to Sonya for hosting Tim on her blog. It takes a village (of authors) to write a book.

How To Find Writing Ideas

Where do you get your ideas? For writers, that is the most frequently asked question. It seems to vex many of my writer friends, but I’m not sure why. Maybe they don’t want to admit that they do nothing to produce ideas, that ideas simply float into their heads. Well, anyway, that’s what happens to me.

It starts with one little thought and builds from there. Does that sound difficult? It is.

For example, Sister Issues. I got the idea for my first published novel, an indie, while driving down a charming, winding river road in my town. I noted, not for the first time, that the quaint old Victorian houses were being torn down and cheap chain restaurants, strip mall drugstores, and branded coffee shops were replacing them.

I noticed this with some dismay because the house I was passing, one of the few actual homes left on that road, had always been a favorite. The lawn in back sloped down to the river, where the delicate leaves of an ancient willow tree trailed in the stream. What would happen to that house, it’s gingerbread architecture and flower gardens so lovingly painted and trimmed?

I felt a pang in my chest. Not for the first time. But what to do? People have to shop and eat and so forth. It’s progress. Which I cannot stop. But I can, in my head, put a young woman in that house and have her open a coffee shop on the main floor. She lives upstairs. Cher’s place is called the Sugar Shack because that song, from the early 1960s, floated into my head once the woman was up there getting comfortable.

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An early cover from Sugar Shack

Sugar Shack eventually became Sister Issues

And so on. From the first idea comes setting or character and before I get too far down the page I start thinking about conflict. Which also comes out of the character and setting. I’d just been feeling conflicted about suburban sprawl, so that’s the larger issue, or the theme, as we former English teachers like to say. So the original idea bursts and flowers and then I pick it apart and arrange it in a vase…I mean a novel. I arrange it all into a novel. And there will be lovers because there just always is—I like to see people happy together. Well, first they have to suffer a little bit. That’s conflict, too. Then maybe they’ll be happy together. At least some of them.

So much of my novels come from my life. Not one word or deed in any of them is taken from my own experiences, but every single emotion of all the primary characters is something I’ve felt. This is not alarming, I’m just telling you the real answer to the question. Happily, I have never written from the point of view of a psycho-killer, at least not yet.

But I have had evil characters. Just like there is evil in life, and I have observed it, so too do my flawed, imperfect (but not psycho-killer) characters observe the evil around them. Frankly, they’re as baffled and dismayed as I am by all the hate and mayhem. Sometimes there are unexpected grace notes, too. You need them in life and in fiction. For example, soon after I self-published Sister Issues, The Wild Rose Press offered me a contract for my second novel, The Paris Notebook.

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Library at USC where my son matriculated from grad school

At the time I came up with the idea for novel number two, I was teaching, it was my very first day, at a university. Before that I taught at a community college and before that I taught high school. So climbing the rungs of academia was a bit daunting for me, but I was a good enough teacher of English to muddle through. Except in my very first class on my very first day we heard The Simpsons coming through the wall. And another class laughing and laughing. I was teaching these young people how to write a college essay, and writing is not easy, and nobody was laughing.

My students looked at me like “Why aren’t you showing us cartoons and making jokes?” I did apologize for our rather dry subject matter, but I was curious. What was that other professor teaching? So being the questioner that I am, after class, I went over, introduced myself, and asked him. Turns out he was teaching the same exact course as me. He just did it different. We became friends, despite the fact that he was younger than I was and single to boot. And we still see each other once a year or so. He’s a Shakespeare scholar now.

And I write novels. That little story of meeting John set the first scene (later cut, alas) for The Paris Notebook. Two English teachers, with wildly different lives and at-odds ambitions, share an office. Sparks ensue. Also mayhem and evil. You know, I have to take my former comment back. I did delve a bit into the mind of a would-be psycho-killer in that novel. Just a bit, but the way I did it was to take that Super Ego “it’s all about me” part that is in all of us (but perhaps larger in myself than in you) and enlarged it to Big Box store size.

That’s how you find your way into a psycho-killer. Ha! Also, I read a couple of books for research. One was called The Psychopath Next Door. Evil becomes much less bewildering when you understand that most murderers and bad people simply have no empathy. They are born without a conscience. And they learn to hide this fact very early in life. They are charming and you probably love some of them, at least the ones who are not evil psychopaths. The gentler form of folk who lack empathy are simple sociopaths. Most sociopaths are not murderers or evil. They just don’t have the “I care” gene. Or, they only care about themselves. There’s more, and it’s fascinating and creepy, but I read that book a long time ago so I don’t want to muck up the authors’ research any more than I might have already done.

I love research. Usually non-fiction books. I like social science a lot, neuroscience and psychology, but I’ll read anything if it makes my story better. I’m a reader after all; most writers are. All writers should be. I read everything, including every genre of fiction. I like strong female characters in fiction. I also like strong females in real life. I once knew a strong woman who invited me to her place on Lake Huron up north.

She and her husband had bought these beat up hunting cabins. There were six of them. Together, they renovated these places, just as they had their historic home in our town. Then, the strong woman, who could plaster walls and refinish wood and hammer nails, also decorated these now sturdy cottages in the most adorable shabby chic style.

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I’m from Michigan, so I love big water. 

I spent the day in awe of her and a few years later I wrote the novel that would become the first in my Blue Lake series for The Wild Rose Press, Blue Heaven. My husband gave me the idea for Luke’s #1 Rule, the second book in that series. We’ve literally been married half our lives, but back when we were still newlyweds he said “I only had one rule when I was dating.” He kind of chuckled ruefully when he said this. But I was intrigued. “What?” I wanted to know. “No single moms.” He looked at me with his big blue eyes and we had a good long laugh because he’d married me, a single mom, and we were both pretty happy about it.

Our wedding almost didn’t happen. We broke up for a minute after we were engaged. But then we got back together and it was quite romantic and we went on in this fashion for more than twenty years before I remembered that remark and asked him if I could use his “one rule” idea to write a book. He wasn’t thrilled with that plan. But I begged and he said yes as long as absolutely nothing in the book resembled our real lives in any way. I promised. Then I asked my sons, who were little boys when we married but were now grown up men. “It won’t really be you and it’s not about us.” They didn’t mind, so I went ahead and wrote that book.

Husbands aren’t the only givers of ideas. Writers sometimes have critique groups that help. My critique partner gave me the final scene of Luke’s #1 Rule. She read my final scene and said, oh no, you don’t want to do that, do this instead. So I did. And then I had to turn in my next novel and I didn’t have the right title because hate and mayhem had ensued and it wasn’t the sweet little love story I thought it would be.

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The largest writing group I belong to is Detroit Working Writers.

They’ve been around for more than 100 years.

I emailed my partner and said “Any ideas?” I listed all my bad ones. She felt so sorry for my broken brain that she sent a list, and down that list a bit was the perfect title. That is the name of my next book: Love and Death in Blue Lake. I hope it comes out sometime this summer, but you never know. I’ve had lots of writing partners through the years. Really, I can’t get by without them. And then there is my editor. She’s lovely. Having an editor is one of the best things about working for a publisher instead of going indie.

I have a couple of indie novels too. Sister Issues of course, with my daughter-in-law and her real life sister as cover models. Then I wrote a couple of indie paranormals and one of them, Sweet Melissa, actually does have a segment that is from my real life when I was a young hitchhiking hippie. Everything in that one section where Melissa’s friend talks her into hitching to Colorado really happened; I just moved it from a short story I’d written years ago. So writing is also about being willing to break your own rules for a story idea’s sake. And just following thse ideas wherever they lead you.

Why Write?

People write books for mysterious reasons. They think they “have an idea.” But for me, it turns out to be a bit more complex than that. My latest release, at least in part, was written as a do-over. I was once a single mom. I keep the true story of that time here. It won a local award and was published in a national anthology because being a single mom is not easy and overcoming hardship makes good story.

I got the idea to write a novel about divorce and how difficult it can be on children (and the adults who are supposedly the mature ones). It would have a happy ending like my own story did, but it wouldn’t sugarcoat the devastation of divorce. When I added an addiction subplot, my publisher wisely decided to market the book as “contemporary fiction” and not romance like my other books.

Divorce is not romantic. Neither is addiction.

Before I embarked on this project I asked permission from the men in life: my husband and two sons. Not because there would be one true detail in this novel but because there would be an eventual husband and two little boys figured prominently in the single mom’s life. That is where reality stopped and imagination took over.

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The relief of writing a better journey than my own was immediate and lasting. Healing, even. Of course fiction needs conflict and the small problems of the lovers were supplemented by an equally fictional ex-husband, who I made a terrible addict. That was not something I’d wish on my own ex-husband, who hardly takes a drink of alcohol let alone any other substances. Sure, the real guy, the father of my children, might not like the fictional ex-husband’s role in my book, but it had to be done for the sake of the story.

I’m pretty sure my ex does not read my books anyway. And no, I didn’t ask his permission. This is fiction I’m writing, although in the thick of it, it feels very real. I used real feelings. My own and and those I could clearly read on my sons’ sad faces those many years ago. Writers use emotion the way actors do. It’s a tool and we manipulate it.

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That doesn’t sound very nice, but then there are zillions of articles that talk about how writers aren’t good people, that they’ll use anyone and anything if it serves their story. I take exception to that idea. It’s because I don’t want to hurt the real people in my actual life that I don’t write memoir. I make up the people in my novels.

So why write? For the pleasure of a do-over. For revenge. For absolution. To right wrongs, to dive deep into my peculiar fascination with the human psyche, to create order from chaos, to control the actions on the page so I can let go in real life, where there is no such thing as control, or anyway very little of it. And maybe, to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes and learn, through this exercise in empathy, how to love a little better.

What about money and fame and glory?

Nah. I wouldn’t bet on those things if I were a young writer. They may come, but the odds are not in your favor. The odds of becoming a happier person, content in a world of your own building, now that is a distinct possibility.

Make Love Happen: Post-Romantic Stress Disorder

unnamedMy writing critique partners looked skeptical when I talked about falling in love as being a kind of hijacking of common sense by our own bodies and the hormones they produce. I wouldn’t have believed it either if I hadn’t read Post-Romantic Stress Disorder and other books and articles with information, fact-based, provable stuff. fMRI brain scans have revealed to science the hormones that produce the feeling of being in love.  Scientists, psychologists and researchers have been tracking those effects for a while now. But I wrote all about it here.

And then I promised to write about what to do when those hormones calm down and the “in love” feeling goes away and you think you don’t love your partner anymore. Not true! And the same brain that produced those hormones is capable of helping couples stay together to create stable, mature love. We just have to make new pathways, cultivate new habits, and retrain ourselves from certain prevailing myths about what love is and what it is not.

First, recognize the signs of trouble when they start. Next, do something to subvert the process. Here’s the breakdown. The first sign is criticism. Do you criticize your mate or does your mate criticize you or do you both pick on each other? Stop it! Learn how to disagree constructively instead of destructively. Let go of nastiness and instead try for empathy and compromise. Don’t discuss when angry or tired. Wait until you are well-rested and ready to play nice. Then calmly say your piece with “I” statements so feelings don’t devolve into contempt and your partner doesn’t feel defensive and withdraw from communication.

Those bolded words are the steps in the process of walking away from intimacy. There’s a final warning sign, but by the time dissmell happens, it’s too late. Your relationship is doomed. Dissmell is a severe reaction, a disgust of your partners’ body odor. It could be a mouth like an ashtray, sweat that stinks, feet that make you faint when socks are removed, whatever the odor, if it offends you to the point of criticism, it needs to be addressed. Or you need to hire a lawyer. Because disgust can’t easily be turned around.

Hell, none of this is easy. But dissmell and disgust really are the death knell to a relationship. I should know, because it happened to me. I thought my partner (not my husband, but a former partner) was right and there was just something wrong with me that only he could see. I blamed myself. That’s a shame response and it happens when a relationship is out of sync because of childhood trauma. It’s all so buried and unconscious and insidious.

I’m well out of that relationship and have since done loads of work on my self-esteeem, which really for a relationship with anyone else to work, you have to be right with your own self first. You have to love yourself and out that shame that may be holding you back from true intimacy. Because intimacy is more than sex and cuddles. It has to do with trusting your partner with anything, including the things that have shamed and wounded you. Sharing these things builds intimacy, which puts the marriage back on the right track.

Here are a couple of other intimacy builders: make time for each other. My husband recently started taking off one day a week to spend just with me. Try new things. Be adventurous in ways that appeal to both of you. Listen, we are both 59 and there are still so many things we want to do. But we came up with something really wild, something so out of my comfort zone, but something I really want to do. We’re going to take lessons together. I can’t say what kind because my friends who don’t like guns will shoot me (hint).

Be spontaneous. Friday night a note popped up in my mail about a concert for one of my favorite bands. Problem was it happened to be the next night. And my husband had to work the morning after. And we were sure tickets would be sold out. And we already had a perfectly good plan to go out to dinner. But I thought about that spontaneous thing: getting excited about new and different things actually releases some of those same “in love” chemicals our souls crave. So we went for it. And we had a great time.

I’m not going to tell you the obvious things like to be kind and considerate because you know that already. It’s really easy to hurt the one you love because they are always there, right? But what if you develop some interests apart from each other? Everybody needs alone time and everybody needs something just for them. So build that into the relationship and suddenly your partner seems much more intriguing. Like someone you could really fall for all over again.