Since my book, How to Throw a Psychic a Surprise Party, came out, people have consistently asked me – so, how do you?
I’m not sure how to answer without giving away the themes appearing throughout the book of short stories, or to get long involved conversation about what we want to to see verses what we hope to see.
One of the basic constants in life is we are consistently surprised by things that have been right in front of our eyes. When whatever it is finally reveals itself, we are shocked and embarrassed that we didn’t know.
Some of our more dense friends will say – how could you not know? and other rude a-holes will actually claim to have known the whole time.
Life is like a magicians trick – he has all the cards in his hands, but one quick shuffle and presto – chango – the card is suddenly behind our ear, in his jacket – pocket, up his sleeve. How did it happen? How did he do that while we were looking right at him.
It’s a matter of keeping our attention elsewhere. We’re too close. Too busy. Distracted. There are signs, but they’re so easily explained away – and then, then… kind readers… it’s Pandora’s box of tragedy released on the human race. It’s what grows like weeds deep inside all of us.
That is what the book is about.
I’ve finished my Tana French detective series and didn’t want to go to bed without another book in hand. (Nevermind there are three on my bedside table).
I began browsing my bookshelf, which is semi-organized: books I’ve read and loved. Books I want to read. School books. Writing books. and, of course, Poe books
I also have something mixed in that would seem, at first glance, not to belong. Books on psychology, the law, philosophy. I assume many writer’s bookshelves are this way.
A writer needs a wide variety of knowledge.
I know we have google at our disposal; however, I find reading books about, for example, the Psychology of Marketing allows me to get an in depth look that a wikipage or a few short articles are not going to give me. This allows me to create a more realistic character or more thorough background to make the story more believable.
For West End, I needed to understand two things, the idea of an absent or unloving mother, and the different forms depression can take. Anxiety runs throughout my work from Of Strays and Exes to Life of Clouds – which features children affected in different ways by the disappearance of their father.
I’ve heard handymen say they are the jack of all trades. I think writers are akin to that. We need to learn many things in order to live many lives.
Billy Collins (poet) believes we must read to be influenced, and suggests young people mimic their favorite writers in order to develop their skills and to develop their own voice.
I think many young writers do this. It’s a natural form of development.
Other writers are afraid to read when they’re writing; they don’t want to be influenced. I think by the point you develop your own voice, you won’t so easily be influenced.
I think reading Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion was imperative for me to stumble across. I’d never attempted to intimate him – but he took my understanding of writing and voice to a whole new level. The storyline, the use of language, and the originality of his voice was unlike anything I’ve ever read and it blew my mind.
What reading Ondaatje did for me was to help launch my voice and style. I say this because at the time, I was mired in instructors and writers telling me no, no, no. They so strongly believed in their own way of doing things, they didn’t allow other writers to develop in other ways. It was limiting.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – read far and wide! Do not be afraid of being influenced – open yourself to learning something new!
Write what scares you…..
This is a poetry prompt given to me in one of my graduate level classes.
I don’t think it has to be just for poetry.
Experts tell us we should do something that scares us every day. I don’t know. I’ve done quite a lot of things that scare me – crossing the highest bridge in North America, swimming with sharks, – but those are kinds of scary that gives you a rush. Still valid to write about.
But in that assignment and poem, I wrote about a missing girl. Because those are the types of things that do scare me – when children go missing.
Have you seen her pass this way?
Shoe found, white.
Blood on the laces….
Write about what scares you….
Feel free to share!
In the morning, when I’m writing, I have a cup of tea sitting next to the computer as I write. It starts steaming hot and I sip. I set it down and if I get moving on my writing, it slowly grows cold.
My cup sees me in the morning the way no one else does, hair up, sweats on, staring at the screen with the cup pressed between my hands, sometimes next to my lips. What else does my coffee cup see?
What would your coffee cup say about you?
Imagine a story about you or your family from your coffee cup’s point of view.
I spent much of my time in grad school trying to please a certain teacher and understand the secret formula for a short story.
Up until that time, I’d only written novels (or novellas), longer pieces of work in which I developed the characters and followed a plot. These felt full and complete.
Writing one small selection vexed me.
So I read and read and researched and attempted one time after another to create a successful short piece.
I suppose there is no formula and no one right answer, which is what I was looking for – the correct answer.
Of the things written in grad school, the one instructor I attempted to satisfy deemed them mostly unworthy.
It wasn’t until near the end of graduation that an instructor said “half of that story was the best he’d ever read.”
He didn’t tell me which half.
However, almost all those stories have been pulled out, dusted off, and accepted with few edits. Hence – dear teachers – they were good! I had learned something; I had accomplished something. (I must be doing something right, over 30 published in the last few years!)
There may not be one right answer, and there’s no secret, nor is there a hidden formula. Short stories need to get to a point, need to have conflict, need to show a budding of growth – perhaps.
I hear a number of writer’s ask about how to get inspired or keep inspiration. I think they’re confusing inspiration with motivation.
We are inspired by the things around us, an odd phrase, a beautiful scene, a great idea. The motivation comes to write it down. You must keep motivated long after the inspiration abates.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where dedication comes in.
With dedication to the craft, even when motivation and/or inspiration fail you – you will not fail.
Inspiration is just the beginning! Stay dedicated. Motivation will follow.
Sometimes a flower is just a flower, but sometimes the flower is a tell tale sign, a foreshadowing of what is to come. That’s for the writer to decide.
However, I think the writer must stay consistent. If you’re using flowers in the story and use a lily to insinuate death or disaster, then you can’t just throw a carnation in later without thinking what that might mean.
Good stories have that layering that critical readers can spot and will enjoy. However, I think, too much can kill a story. As I said, if you’re using flowers as symbols stick with that. If you add flowers, the alignment of the stars, the colors of the curtains, and grandma’s foretelling – that might be too much. It’s like hitting the reader over the head with the symbolism and it’ll detract from the storytelling.
If you’ve reached a point in your story where you’re stuck, or perhaps some small thing is niggling at you, tell yourself what it is before you go to sleep.
There’s a number of things I’ve done in order to enhance or forward my writing – and the above is one of the things. Margaret Atwood recommends the same.
But I’ve gone further. I was writing a poem and I knew one line wasn’t quite right. I kept going over it and over it and could not seem to find the right words in the right order to bring the poem together. As I went to bed that night – I told myself to dream about it.
At 4am, I woke up with the line! I scribbled it in the notebook (which sits next to my bed) and turned over to go back to sleep.
Not only do I tell myself the problem I’m dealing with in my writing before I go to sleep, but I also think about different story lines for my characters. This keeps me juiced, so to speak, with inspiration. The next morning, I’m ready to hop out of bed and write.
Sometimes, of course, this backfires and I want to write then and there – which I do. But most of it can and does wait for that dreaded blank page the next morning.
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