Flashy Fiction

(I do beg pardon for the short, flashy post. (Haha, get it?) I’m on deadline for 4 nonfiction pieces, and I’m running out of words!)

Flash fiction is hard work. It isn’t for the faint of heart, either. While it seems to be to short stories what speculative-fiction is to literary snobs, flash fiction takes at least as much work as a short story, and far more care.

So why write it?

Aside from its literary value, it is an excellent training tool. Every single word must count, without becoming overblown.

Proper flash isn’t a scene, or a snippet, it’s a micro-story. Beginning, middle and end. Conflict and resolution. Tension and release. Think of it as that twenty-minute snooze on lunch break: you have to go to sleep, sleep, and wake up. None of those things can be missing for a proper nap. (Bonus nap-points for a nice blanket and good dreams.)

Seeing the entire story on one page tightens up plotting, and allows the writer to judge flow and coherency better. It is a good chance to play with style, endings and surprises.

Flash needs depth, as well as beginning, middle and end.

Flash also allows for a higher output. When I started seriously trying to hone my storytelling, I wrote almost nothing but flash. Piece after piece of it, trying to learn how to put words together more clearly, how to raise the stakes and tension. I was able to keep a short turn-around between writing and editing, so I could also see how the drafts changed. (We won’t discuss the fact that I over-corrected and started writing way too lean.)

Besides that? It’s fun. Setting a challenge of a new piece a day stretches muscles. It’s a good warm-up if you’re working on longer pieces, or a way to get out of the all-consuming novel.

So go for it. Have fun. Write mini-myths for your novel, or an event from a character’s past, or the birth of a new species. Push a boundary, take a few minutes to explore the shadows.

Think of it as a tasting menu of fiction: a dozen stories, each with different ingredients, expanding the palate and mind.

On Research

Writing is make-believe, plucking characters and settings from your head and dropping them onto the paper like Rorschach blots, hoping the reader will see a coherent image. But if you want to write something convincing, your story has to be rooted in reality. And if it’s a reality you know nothing about, there’s only one thing to do about it—research.

Oh, hey. I’ve got this, you say. Pull up Wikipedia, copy and paste, and voila.

Not. So. Fast.

The internet is a wonderful thing and it makes research easy, but according to Merriam Webster, the definition of research is: careful study that is done to find and report new knowledge about something.

Careful study.

That implies a little more than copy and paste, doesn’t it?

This isn’t to say that you can’t use the net, but you have to be willing to dig deeper than the first link you find, to pick through the mounds of information and find the good stuff, the right stuff.

(Did you know that the first seven astronauts did their survival training in the Nevada desert? Before I wrote this post, I didn’t. Thanks to some research, I now know that those seven astronauts were left for four days with a spacecraft mockup, a parachute, and a survival scenario. Pretty cool, eh? And yes, I got that information from the net; however, I’m pretty confident I can trust www.nasa.gov.)

If you want to write a story about a cellist and you know nothing more than the music the instrument makes is so beautiful it makes you cry, you better do research because you can bet that at least one person who might read that story will know more and will spot your errors a mile away. That isn’t to say you need to root everything in truth. Maybe your cello is a space cello with magical wormhole properties. In that case, you have a little more leeway, but still, you can research how instruments are played in space and wormhole theory. At least I hope you would.

But research isn’t just to make that one reader smile and nod and say yes, this author got it right. If you’re writing a story about a cello, why wouldn’t you do research? Why wouldn’t you want to know the lowest note a cello can play? (Two octaves below middle C.) Why wouldn’t you want to know that when Yo-Yo Ma plays, his instruments of choice are a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice and a 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius? Even if you’re not a fan of the cello, you have to admit that a musician using a 300-year old instrument is pretty damn interesting.

You might spend days researching, slipping from one rabbit hole to another, picking up bits and pieces of information along the way. And maybe you won’t use those things in your story. Maybe you won’t even finish your story.

That isn’t the point.

Better to do the research and not need it than leave your story full of holes you should’ve filled. You owe it to yourself; you owe it to your readers; you owe it to your story.

The Fear Factor

Chris A. Jackson is the author of the multiple award-winning Scimitar Seas novels published by Dragon Moon Press, and the Pathfinder Tales, RPG tie-in novel, Pirate’s Honor, by Paizo Publishing.  His independently published novels have also won multiple awards, and his current series, the Weapon of Flesh trilogy, has earned a widening fan following in the US, UK and Germany.  His nautical fiction comes from 35 years of sea experience coupled with a vivid imagination of what lies beneath the waves, and his action scenes consistently earn high praise from readers and reviewers.  He is currently sailing and writing full time aboard his floating home, Mr. Mac, somewhere in the Caribbean.  For a look at his works of fiction, visit www.jaxbooks.com, and for a peek into his sailing lifestyle, have a look at www.sailmrmac.blogspot.com.

I’d like to talk about fear.

Not the fear you feel when you watch a scary movie, read a truly frightening book, or during a really good roller coaster ride, that healthy, thrilling fear, but a “Fear Culture” fear that is an oppressive, negative force.  Sometimes I feel that we (not just the SFF community but that’s what I see most) are working ourselves into a Fear Culture of our own.  For me, this is more than a “skin deep” fear, more than a “Maybe I shouldn’t have posted that on Twitter” fear, but a potentially career-paralyzing fear.

This came to the forefront of my mind when I recently participated in a panel discussion at Con Carolinas titled “Getting Over Yourself”, which should have been titled “Getting Over Your Fear.”  We dealt with a lot of fears on that panel.  Some people were so paralyzed by their fears of rejection or criticism that they could not force themselves to submit their work.  I think we helped some people to recognize and confront their fears, but, for me, the discussion brought out a whole new nest of them.  When I started considering my own work, coupled with the current feeling of the genre, and a number of reviews of other writers’ work that I had recently read, I started feeling a constriction, a new set of boundaries that restricted my work.

When I read a recent review that referred to a work (and I’m talking about a work of fiction, not an article, blog, or column) as sexist, and the review read as a condemnation not just of the characters or setting, but of the entire theme of the piece, and therefore the writer, it hit me like a freight train.  I know the author personally, and know that sexism isn’t even a part of that writer’s makeup, let alone part of his fiction.  It gave me nightmares.  With this and a few others reviews plaguing me, I started to second guess myself when it came to character and setting development, and it really began to impinge upon my creative process.  I started to worry that if I created a less than strong, capable, well-adjusted female character, or a villain who is of an ethnic group, or not heterosexual, or a setting in which sexism, misogyny, or bigotry are the norm, I’m opening myself up for a sucker punch from reviewers and critics.  You might think this is a silly fear, since not all people, and therefore not all characters, can be capable, strong, well-adjusted, or even “good”, but it in my own fledgling career, I did not want to get that label.

So, what did I do?  How did I face this fear?

I remembered that writers are not what, and especially who we write.  I am not my characters.  Good writers can, and should, create really bad people, and set them in really daunting environments.  If a character needs to be mal-adjusted, weak, paranoid, sexist, abusive, or downright evil, that is who that character must be.  If that character also happens to be female, male, black, white, Asian, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or not even human, that is what that character must be.  If the setting is one of bigotry, racism, and sexism, these are obstacles the protagonists need to overcome, either in society, in others, or in themselves.  In Pirate’s Honor, one of the point of view characters is not human, or even humanoid, and she and a human male character have an intimate relationship.  My fear on this one was to be accused of writing bestiality.  So far, no hits on the review boards, but there still could be.

My point is this: if I need to create a character who exhibits politically incorrect traits, I can without being labeled.  But one thing has to be clear in my mind when I’m creating characters: What can get you into trouble is not your characters, but how those characters’ qualities (good and bad) are portrayed.  The same premise goes for creating setting elements.  If the horrific prejudices of a slave-owning society are portrayed as obstacles, I’m okay.  If I portray slavery as “how things should be” I’m probably not.  If I create a bigoted character and portray them as “good” in their bigotry, I am making a statement.  If a character is a good guy (or girl) and happens to be bigoted in some way, and I portray that as a “bad” element of this “good” character, that can work.  We are, after all, none of us perfect, and creating faults, foibles, sins, and other dark elements to our “good” characters, makes them real.  I write real people in a fantasy world.  Real people are imperfect.  How I establish, portray, and deal with those imperfections, how the characters change and grow, is what makes them real.

So, be nice…but your characters needn’t be.  Don’t be afraid to make them real, dark and brooding, sinful and wicked, bigoted and sexist, but remember to portray those characteristics for what they are.

But I still have nightmares…

Maybe I shouldn’t have tweeted that…

Impatience of the Momentary

I don’t like work. I think it’s safe to say that most people feel the same way. Generally it’s not the work itself that I oppose, but rather the time spent on it. I’m impatient, especially when I picture the intent or idea so clearly in my mind. I don’t want to wait, and I don’t want to risk having it come out differently than I’ve imagined.

The thing is, I know my first efforts are weak. I understand that any attempt to shortcut or rush a project—whatever that may be—degrades the end results, and quite probably makes the outlay of the time I did put into it rather pointless.

Part of the problem is a lack of appreciation for the process itself. In gaming terms, leveling up a character in a roleplaying game is often considered grinding—as if efforts to strengthen the character is work, boring work, and it’s only done to get to the end levels. This is in a game, something that should be fun throughout.

Finding enjoyment in the activity makes a significant difference. Back in art school, my mindset evolved from trying to create a finished piece to simply doing—painting (or drawing, etc.) for the sake of painting. It was not a mindless activity, but the goal shifted from an end-thing to a momentary experience.

I’ve found it harder to fall into this mindset when it comes to writing, though every once in a while, when words just seem to flow, I edge nearer to it. It’s quite possible that my writing habits keep me from this sense of process—I edit while I write, trying to hone words and sentences as I write them. I feel the effort, the work, and while it’s not quite a slog it isn’t really a game, either.

Of course, it also depends on what I’m writing—blog posts (like this one here) are more work than play; stories that I can’t get out of my head come much closer to an enjoyable process.

But when I struggle more than flow, I still find ways to appreciate it—or at least the gains. I anticipate the end results, and see them after the fact. Repeat this often enough and I begin to train my mind, like a Pavlovian experiment, to equate this kind of work with finished pieces (and possibly even lubricate future efforts). Along the way, I’m more aware of what I’m doing (sometimes agonizingly so), and that awareness allows me to see the flaws more clearly. This awareness also sticks in my mind, helping me see patterns I fall into, and traps I can attempt to avoid.

Ultimately, though, I need to learn how to relish these moments, to find enjoyment in all acts of writing, and bring out the game of each effort. I’m confident the secret lies in the process. I should explore other ways of working on this craft, or other environments, maybe give myself different challenges, or push my writing style in various directions. Shaking it up is good. What it boils down to is that I—and you—should enjoy what we choose to do, or choose to do something else.