External Events and Internal Reactions

I’ve written before about taking on the Ray Bradbury 52 stories challenge. I learned a lot in that 2017 experience, including why it’s important to balance external events with the characters’ internal reactions.

Fill a story with too many external events and the characters can end up flat and stereotypical. Focus on emotions and thoughts to the exclusion of action and–uh-oh–where’s the story?

When I’m drafting a piece, I tend to stick to what’s happening. For me, rewrite is the time to ask what’s going on inside the characters. Even then, I sometimes miss those all-important emotional beats. As a fix, I play a little mindfulness game, blending the external and internal. That’s what I did in my flash fiction, The Wishing Stone.

A story with simple bones, the main character is gifted with an heirloom pendant that grants her wishes. When things start to go wrong, she moves from intrigued to worried to terrified. In under a thousand words.  

Since the physiological responses often need naming to mean anything—think sad and happy tears—I concentrated on the character’s experience of the world. In this piece, the character’s terror is shown when the pendant becomes a live coal on her chest. Her nightgown smokes when she inadvertently wishes her mother dead.

Staying mindful of how the external and internal worlds play on each other, helps me maintain that balance.

Make Something Happen

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A little more than a year ago, I started reading slush for an online flash fiction zine. I expected to learn tons about writing short stories and flash in particular. And I did.

Those of you who have followed me for a while know that in 2017, I took up the Ray Bradbury challenge to write 52 short stories. Bradbury says it’s not possible to write 52 bad stories, and I aimed to prove him wrong.

Honestly, my first five or six stories looked like 52 bad stories was a possibility. They were only good for the trash heap. But, with a little—okay a lot of—help from Anna Yeatts and my experience reading slush, I had five stories accepted for publication last year.

The main thing I learned about writing short stories was that something has to happen. It’s fine to have dark and stormy nights or bright and sunny days. Lovely prose is a delight. But if nothing happens, you ain’t got story.

This is where I think a lot of writers (based on my slush reading) get a bit lost. They have a great premise, but nothing happens.

For example, I wrote a story called “The Stain on the Wall” about a mother and son who move into a house where a tiny stain on the staircase wall keeps getting bigger. But there it stopped. All premise, no story. What’s behind the stain? Ghosts? Poltergeists? A doorway to hell? And what happens to Mom and son?

Never figured it out—at least not so far. So not a story. Yet.

Speaking of stories, my query saga for my completed novel, The Last Summer Queen, continues. Eight queries out the door with a ninth tomorrow. Two “not interested” replies. Notice, I’m not calling them rejections.

Please keep on sending lucky vibes my way. Fingers crossed.