Wednesday, May 23, 2012

More from Day 1: Flash Fiction, Obituary and Myth

(Continuing my notes from the Rosemary Beach Conference for Writers...)

Flash fiction time.
The plot is often off the page, only suggested. In short stories, you begin as close to the trouble as possible. Flash fiction is the trouble. It is the art of suggestion, allowing the reader to finish the piece, to fill in the blanks, to decide what it means. It is the Zen of fiction.

Fiction writers don't need answers. They ask questions.

JD's prompt: Write an obituary for someone you know. (Recognize that sitting in this room you might not know the details of the life; make those up.) Suggest the public and private life of the deceased. (I wrote a made-up obit suggested by the life of my late grandfather, but I prefer not to share that here.)

Smith, left, with student writer.
From Laura Lee Smith's class on short stories:
The shape of the work is character>problem>conflict>resolution, the effect is a punch in the gut.
Another way to see it: Character/Desire/Complication/Struggle/Resolution (Win or Lose?)

She is sometimes asked where she gets her stories or her characters, and she uses a line she learned from John: "At Publix. And if they're out, I try Home Depot."
In fact, she will eat lunch in the local hospital cafeteria sometimes, just so she can eavesdrop. The stories just come walking through.

Think in terms of Want vs. Need. Your character wants a glass of water. His need conflicts with that.
Begin with at least a hint of the trouble. When something bad happens to your character, make it worse. Lead to a moment of truth, understanding, change or character evolution.

TIP: Read John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction."

Fiction is stuff that happens.
Get a phone call. Feel a cold coming on. Run over a squirrel or dog or cat. Throws his back out. Bank calls; account overdrawn. Old girlfriend shows up at the library or in the office. Finds an odd lump. Gets a ticket. Hit by a car. Pipe bursts in laundry room. Sees someone fall at the grocery store. Sets off a fire alarm. Wrongly accused of shoplifting.

Short fiction deals in compressed time. All in one day, all in one car drive. Don't try to develop lots of details to cover long periods of time.

TIP: Read "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver. (contained setting, limited characters, short span of time)
Check out: three minute fiction
TIP: Skip the throat-clearing and set-up. Start close to the trouble. Begin in scene.

HOMEWORK: John asked us to write a myth. Actually, he read his short story about a father and son and a tragic hiking accident, inspired by the myth of Icarus. He asked us to pick a myth or legend and use it for the inspiration for a short story.

I tried three times.

First I wrote: There are stories associated with the network of gravel lakes surrounding Century, the swampy deltas sifted by the Campbell family for their concrete business, leaving white sand beaches and soft bottoms, clear brown tannin water. Kids growing up in the 1950s talked of strange blue lights seen in the lakes...

Then I wrote, simply: The Lady of the Lake. A woman swimming. A group of boys watching. ... 
But that seemed off somehow.

Finally, I dove in:

All the kids on the school bus saw her that afternoon, Nimue in the brown tannin, floating nude, a fleshy crucifix on the surface of the fish pond. The road through these river basins was raised above the marshy earth. It looked down on the plot of grass, the house trailer, the john boat on saw horses, the pond, the woman afloat there, skin pale and pink like the flesh of a catfish, red hair spreading on the water like a stain, like blood snaking from her face, brass on copper.
The driver pulled over, unsure what to do. The children crowded the one side of the bus, jostling for a clear view, and he shouted at them to sit down, to move to the other side of the bus and be quiet while he called the county dispatcher. He would tell the first police officer to arrive that he didn't know what to do. He couldn't leave the kids unattended on the bus, couldn't go check on the woman and leave them here by the road. So he made them move to the far side of the bus and sit on the floor, and he looked away.
Some of the girls were crying. Some of the boys laughed because you could see everything, they said, over and over again. Everything. The holy grail. The golden fleece. Everything. Some. like the driver, just stared at the floor.
The officer directed the driver to pull the bus further down the road, out of view of the pond, and to wait there so he could get a statement later. He climbed the wire fence, boots sinking into the marshy ground on the other side. His steps left brown scars in the earth, sucking noises as he raised his feet. He noticed the woman's feet were clean as he waded out to meet her.
He pulled her to the shore, lifted her into his arms, carried her to the flat-bottomed john boat and set her down, covering her with his uniform shirt. He stood there in his V-neck tee and waited for the ambulance to arrive. He could hear it wailing across the piney woods, and he shivered, as cold at heart as her dead weight had been in his arms.
I watched all this from the house; put some of it together from the talk that circulated in the days that followed, but most of it I saw for myself from where I stood behind the glass of the trailer's bathroom window.

(I wrote a few other notes, questions about who the characters were and how they related to other characters I had made up for an earlier assignment. But that's the gist.)

Next: Day 2 of the conference, word prompts, scene prompts, and more.
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