I have an article up at Cotton Xenomorph today which lists the six elements of flash fiction for me.
Writing advice is tricky. I struggled approaching this article because some part of me was adverse to the idea of the word "Manifesto." It seems so apart from what I understand flash fiction to be. So let me just say that this is just how I read and write flash fiction and not some grand set of rigid rules.
We are all humans and we write in our own ways. I know this especially from working as a freelancer. I work with authors and I have to come into their space of writing gently because everyone is different. Some writers wake early in the morning to write before taking their three kids to school. Some stay up late chatting with friends online while revising. We fit writing into our lives, but we rarely sit down and think: What am I really doing here? How does this fulfill me and how can I nurture that feeling? For me, this list is how I nurture my writing of flash fiction and how I understand the genre. But it's just my own experience and understanding.
The most important rule on this list to me is #1: Empathy. I think this also applies to our own work. I see so many emerging writers, marginalized writers, women writers, who are afraid to put their work out into the world. I wish I could say to all of you, your voice matters. Because putting your own vulnerabilities on the page creates empathy. We are humans who need to live in a shared world of experience.
I have a new post up at Curious Fictions, an essay on writing flash fiction. Subscribers also get a free eBook of my story "Mermaid Hunt."
Curious Fictions is a website similar to Patreon where I post occasional content, essays, and other random stuff.
I've got a new post up at Curious Fictions for subscribers. This one's about how we can learn to love ourselves as artists. How do we negotiate the market and the successes of others? Once you start publishing your work, where do you go from there?
I was interviewed by the SFPA - Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association about my writing background, my favorite trends in poetry today, being a Texas writer, and my love of dragons.
Read it here!
As 2016 draws to a close, I think many in the writing community are thinking the same thing as me: good riddance. It’s been a rough year among my writing friends, but there have also been triumphs. People I love were in turmoil, and others celebrated life-goals met. The bitter mingled with the sweet. Personal troubles were briefly outweighed by writing milestones. Even now, I’m clinging to the holidays like I haven’t in the past, letting myself enjoy them for the simple love of candy canes and sugar cookies. I feel a sense that things in 2017 may change, but I can’t tell where they are going. All I know is that I want so badly to recenter, refocus, recharge. As the New Year approaches, here are a few of the things I’m resolving to do with my writing.
In 2016 I wrote over 120 poems and roughly twenty or so short stories. I have been told by fellow writers that this is a large output. Yet Some thing in me continues to insist it is not enough. Perhaps this is because these works were squeezed out in early mornings and late nights, rarely at my desk in the comfort and solitude of my home office. When I look back on this year’s writing accomplishments, they still feel metered, as if I’ve stolen them from the ether. The appropriate goal may instead be, “Revise more” or “Make more space to write”. At any rate, my hope is to approach writing with even more seriousness in the New Year.
It’s rare that I find myself writing to a trend, so this goal may be more about aligning my expectations. There are times when I find myself so drawn to conversations in the writing community that when I come back to the page I’m paralyzed – have I written a character appropriately? Is this story one that I should tell? Should I be this personal, this dark, this honest? There’s a difference between questioning a work after it’s done to make sure it’s done right, and quitting halfway because of fear. That’s when things freeze up. This year, I want to unthaw my imagination and try to focus on what I love in my own work, what excites me. There are very many times when I read work out in the world and wonder what the editor was thinking to publish it. However, I have to learn to turn this critic off in my own work.
Building on #2, I’d like to see the writing world challenged more. I’d love to see more new voices in SFF and realist fiction. I’d love to see the SFF and speculative community embrace new forms. In my own work, that means letting myself do strange things. Letting form reflect content. Letting my mind go crazy with ideas.
Writing is hard. Friends make it better. In 2017 I want to foster better relationships and be more aware of toxicity in my community. I want to listen, not speak. I want to do what I can to help the writers around me.
What are your New Year’s writing resolutions?
In the past year I’ve observed there are people who come to writing for life and people who come to writing for a moment in their lives. Neither are wrong but when the latter occurs I find myself unsettled. Is writing something that falls away after a period? Perhaps it’s the natural fear of any creator: Will my well dry up? Will I one day not love this anymore? How could they move on?
Seemingly there’s an uncanny place as a writer where you start to realize you have to give yourself goals, deadlines, and edicts in order to keep going. For a while as a new writer you meander through stories, having stops and starts. You throw things out, only to retrieve them from the trash the next day. You get a few acceptances but then a wasteland of rejections and you get a bit disgruntled with the world. A friend decides writing isn’t the career they thought they wanted. Another celebrity publishes a bestselling novel, and you wonder whether you’ll ever make this writing thing work. This is the stage where some people move on. But for others, they learn to write better, to goal better, to plan better.
When I get a bit baffled as to my next steps, I reexamine the following rules for my writing. This is a list I drew up when I started to realize I wanted to be a writer-for-life recruit. When one doesn’t help, I move on to the next one on the list. So what are your commandments?
1. Write More
“And I have this little litany of things they can do. And the first one, of course, is to write – every day, no excuses. It’s so easy to make excuses. Even professional writers have days when they’d rather clean the toilet than do the writing.” --Octavia Butler
"If you’re waiting for the perfect moment you’ll never write a thing because it will never arrive." --Margaret Atwood
"I want to write short stories even when I don’t like writing them. I don’t actually like writing. But I want (and wanted) to write short stories enough that it seemed worth doing despite how awful and difficult and uncomfortable it can be, figuring out how to make a short story work." --Kelly Link
I think this might be my favorite piece of writing advice. It applies to all avenues of writing. Revising a story that doesn’t work? Write more, don’t cut. Having a hard time thinking through an idea? Write an outline. Writer’s block? Do a free write. That word “free” seems essential to this rule. Writers develop all kinds of methods, from laying down on their couch with a kitty on their feet, to heading to the local coffee shop, to writing on bar napkins. Some writers daily. Some write months at a time. None of these matter. What matters is getting the words on paper. I know what you’re thinking. “But friend, I don’t have time to write more.” The honest truth is you probably do, you just aren’t allowing time in. Or, a concealed kernel of resistance is inside you. I’ve learned I will write if you give me a prompt. I’ve written in the bathroom, on buses, while driving, before bed. I have preferred places/times, but they change, and that’s okay. If you are currently reading this at 2 a.m. in order to avoid writing, please stop reading and go write. You can sleep when you’re dead.
2. Read More
"For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading." --Eudora Welty
"Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You'll find what you need to find. Just read." --Neil Gaiman
I’m encouraged by the authors and stories I read. During my morning writing sessions I sit and read until an idea strikes me. My to-be-read pile is constantly threatening to bury me in my office. But it’s not just about reading and learning from the authors you love. It’s also about reading things you don’t like—because those teach you what not to do. Literary journals, poetry, YA, romance, magazines, newspapers, all of these are fodder for your brain. You don’t even have to read classics (although I say why not?). The beautiful thing about reading as a writer is that it counts towards writing time! That’s right, what you are doing in reading IS writing.
3. Edit More
"I love that part; that’s the best part, revision. I do it even after the books are bound! Thinking about it before you write it is delicious. Writing it all out for the first time is painful because so much of the writing isn’t very good. I didn’t know in the beginning that I could go back and make it better; so I minded very much writing badly. But now I don’t mind at all because there’s that wonderful time in the future when I will make it better, when I can see better what I should have said and how to change it. I love that part!" --Tony Morrison
There was a time not too long ago when I thought my writing didn’t need a lot of revision. So much of the revision techniques I was taught in school were entirely useless to me as a writer. And my processes varied too—I found I was hand-writing my poems to revise them versus scrolling and rereading stories to revise them. Lately I’ve changed my tune and have begun researching more involved methods of editing. While it may or may not have changed very much of my writing process, the act of looking at different ways writers revise in itself is useful. Isn’t it crazy how we pin down our minds into boxes? When you realize editing is writing too, it’s a whole new world.
4. Research More
"I spend a lot of time planning. I’m quite a deliberate writer in that way. A lot of writers I know just work with kind of a blank canvas. They feel it out and improvise on it and then they look to see what kind of material they’ve got. I’ve never been able to do that. Even at the start of my career, when maybe I would have been a little more reckless. I’ve always needed to know quite a lot about the story before I start to write the actual prose." --Kazuo Ishiguro
"I also wrote about a hundred pages of the Olondrian sacred text, the Vallafarsi, before I started the novel — origin myths and so on. I made charts of Olondrian deities and a family tree showing generations of kings and queens. All of these reference materials became resources I could draw on while writing. I probably spent about six months doing this kind of world-building work before starting the book." --Sofia Samatar
"I do a lot of research any time I write a book, and often the research takes me into difficult places." --Karen Joy Fowler
Wikipedia is my new best friend. Twitter is a resource made of real people. Books have things called facts in them. The writing world is justifiably concerned with authenticity right now. It’s very easy to go off track, forget to look up a nagging question in your story or novel, and end up offending an entire group of people. I’m learning research translates to details—sure, I may write about whales, but did you know they communicate as a group and hear individual voices? Your google search history should look like a crazy person lives in it. Because that’s the truth: telling other people about a thing you know nothing about is crazy.
5. Find Your Voice
"You do you." --Chuck Wendig
"I suspect that for most writers, the first reader one tries to please is oneself. I think it’s inevitable that the ideal reader you have in mind is pretty much like yourself in terms of knowledge base, experiences, and so on." --Ken Liu
"When I first started to write people started telling me you have to choose, you have to do one thing or the other. Or this story has to be one thing or the other. I knew that no, in fact, I could do whatever I wanted. Maybe no one would buy it, there was always that possibility, but that didn't mean I couldn't do it." --Karen Joy Fowler
Not sure if I’ve figured this out yet. I think there’s a tendency to tell new writers they have to write one thing—poetry OR fiction, literary fiction OR genre, etc. In reality, there are no boundaries to your writing, just that it be yours, your voice, your story. And that doesn’t need to mean the old adage of “write what you know.” I often write stories that end up in-between, and I’m starting to realize that in itself is a voice. I think this applies to living as a writer, too. Sure, that friend of yours seems to be rolling in the acceptances and gee, did they really write that prize-winning story in an hour? That person is not you. You do you.
6. Get Feedback
"A workshop is a way of renting an audience, and making sure you're communicating what you think you're communicating. It's so easy as a young writer to think you're been very clear when in fact you haven't." --Octavia Butler
"You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up." --Margaret Atwood
Feedback is essential for me as a writer. As I’m learning my voice, I’m discovering how what I hear on the page is not what others hear. My process involves making my husband read me a story so I hear it in his voice. Then I send it on to other writers and get their thoughts on it too. I’ve been lucky to find a group of writers who are working in the same vein as me who I can share work with, but I’m always looking for new partners. I get a strange joy out of reading other writers work-in-progress, especially when they revise it and it gets better.
7. Find a Community
"I don’t write on a daily basis. I don’t have enough stick-to-it-iveness. But I am often hanging out, on a daily basis, with people who manage to get a great deal of writing done day in and day out." --Kelly Link
I feel like the above quote from Kelly Link sums up the importance of having a writing group or community. Yes, you have access to critiques and readers, but more importantly you get to see what other writers do, how they work. Being around a diverse group of writers opens your eyes to how your way is not the only way. I’m learning community means different things to different writers. To me, it’s the rich literary atmosphere of Houston, Texas. To others, it’s the intersection of voices on Twitter.
8. Submit More
"The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story." --Ursula Leguin
So far this year I submitted 330 poems, short stories, and flashes to markets. I’m fine-tuning my submissions process to target places I love. I’m reading more journals so I know where to send work. My goal is to double that number next year. When I say publishing is a numbers game, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone, but to all you new writers out there: I’m 100% certain you’re not submitting enough. Submit more. Now. Go do it now.
9. Accept Failure
"The rejection letters I’ve collected over the years can probably make a book of their own. Learning to deal with rejection (and to know when to change course) is one of the hardest lessons about being a writer." --Ken Liu
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” --Stephen King
Wait, didn’t Ijust say submit more? That’s right friends, submitting is a double-edged sword that wants to poke out your innards and wear them as a hat. The saying “guts for garters” comes to mind, because the rejectomancy in submitting more often feels like literary journals merely exist for that purpose alone. Trust me, they don’t. That doesn’t make it any better though. You will obsess. You will get a rejection that stings on the story you thought was perfect for that venue. You will receive many “Maybe, but no” rejections and more “Thanks, no thanks” rejections. You’ll cling to each and every “In the future please send us more of your work,” and when a nice comment comes from an editor, however how small, you will tattoo it on your eyeballs for when you close your eyes to sleep at night. You will not, however, by God, give up. You will not stop writing. You will write more. You will edit more. You will email me when you are feeling like this writing thing is just you crying for attention and I will tell you to go write more, now.
10. Hold On To The Magic
“There’s no way of knowing in advance what will get into your work. One collects all the shiny objects that catch the fancy — a great array of them. Some of them you think are utterly useless. I have a large collection of curios of that kind, and every once in a while I need one of them. They’re in my head, but who knows where! It’s such a jumble in there. It’s hard to find anything.” --Margaret Atwood
"Some parts of [writing] really are so mysterious, like the forensics of how a story came to be. It’s just such a funny labor. I feel like I understand sentences sometimes in a way that’s more intuitive. I’m finicky about them." --Karen Russell
I’ve saved the hardest for last. We need goals as writers, and deadlines, and all those strict rules, but we also need to love writing. I’m learning how to hold onto the magic. I’m building up a thick skin. I’m letting myself play around, try new genres, experiment with structure, read new authors, take risks. I will not self-reject myself. I’m cultivating joy. I’m poeming the mysterious. I’m putting things in words that don’t make sense, but that’s okay, they will.
As writers, how do we get inspired?
Poet David Biespiel advises that the entry to an idea starts with an irritation – something triggering our minds as writers and making us approach, even with caution. It could be a news story about a lost child, the opening of a flower to the sun, or the way the light looks in the afternoon. The fact that we keep returning to the same irritations means that while we become more successful, more accomplished, oft-published writers, within our dark hearts the artist-as-creature still resides.
I spent last weekend in my home town, Austin, Texas, at Poets & Writers Live. The event, hosted by Poets & Writers Magazine, carried the theme of “Inspiration.” I returned to my new city of Houston refreshed and reminded of how significant connecting with other writers is to my life as a writer. We are not solitary monsters, burrowed in our holes with our pincers clenched. We are vessels, waiting to be filled, waiting to overflow.
I was impressed by the variety of writers participating as speakers. I found several new names that I plan to follow down a rabbit hole (probably adding to my TBR pile, which is so high it threatens to smother me in my sleep, but hey, it’s not a bad way to go.) Among those names I include Elizabeth McCracken, the self-proclaimed “crabby” keynote speaker, whose words made me remember that not every writer is cut out of the same cloth. We are different, and that is magical. As McCracken proclaimed, “Cultivate your own universe.” This should be our theme for 2016 writers! As Chuck Wendig often says, “You do you.” I find this advice particularly vital for speculative writers. Many new spec lit writers I meet are daunted by the task of world-building. I say – build your own writing life alongside new worlds.
Other treats of discovery included Ben Percy, who sounds like a mix of Darth Vader and the guy who voices movie trailers, and read an essay about creating suspense that as my friend noted, did what it suggested (it managed to be suspenseful and also fulfilling). And oh yeah, he used a picture book as an example.
Naomi Shihab Nye, guardian of the daily poem, believes that as writers, we need to use what we have given our time. I’ll be posting more on this topic soon, as I am fascinated by the range of “techniques” and “practices” different writers employ.
Further writers I discovered include Saeed Jones of Buzzfeed, whose personal experience of finding the self in memoir gave me hope for the genre, and David Searcy, a CNF writer that I surprised myself by loving.
The event culminated in a reading by Texas Slam Poet, Ebony Stewart. I had the pleasure to share the stage with Stewart at Write About Now's recent ladies mic, where she hosted with grace and hilarity. The experience of seeing her read her work in front of a crowd of people who may have never heard spoken word performed live felt exhilarating. Electricity filled the room as a group of writers responded to her work with a standing ovation. It was a moment I will not forget. (Video of her reading at Write About Now below for your viewing pleasure.)
I was reminded that quotations are not just for Tumblr and cloud-background memes. The wellspring of quotes at this event, not just by the speakers, but also by their mentors and the writers that inspired them, dazzled me. Here are a few that stuck with me:
“I am really two poets: The writing poet, and the editing poet.”
“I am afraid I must insist upon desperation.”
“Each thing gives us something else.”
The more I visit writer’s conferences, the more ornaments of motivation I find within them. I think it’s an amalgamation of absorption within “the craft,” giving one’s self space to address writing as a career and a “thing I do,” but also the importance of relationship with the writing community. This idea of absorption brings me back to Biespiel’s thoughts on the approach to the creative process of writing. As a life practice, I’m trying to come closer to my imagination and inspiration. The closer you come to letting yourself live writing, the more clamorous the creative process will be. Listening to prosperous writers talk about their work reminded me that the process itself doesn’t get easier, but I believe that developing a writing identity can.
I develop customs for writing events: I take copious notes. I save whatever folder I’m given, and I keep any notes and mementos all in the same folder so I can return to them later. I make note of people that interest me. I try to be less of a wallflower, sometimes without success, bringing home new business cards and handing out a few of my own. My latest habit is live tweeting (you can find my live tweets in the previous blog post.) If all else fails, I have a beer at lunch to clear my mind. It works best if it’s a local tap.
Lastly, I try to approach the irritation with less caution. I tell myself that not every writer is the same. If my curiosity is peaked, I let myself plummet down the rabbit hole, with any luck dragging a few friends with me.
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor and author of poetry, flash fiction, and short fiction. Find her on Twitter @HollyLynWalrath
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Holly Walrath's books on Goodreads
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Our Space: Shorts & Poetry from the Houston Community
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In Medias Res: Stories from the In-Between
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The 2017 Rhysling Anthology: The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Poetry of 2016 Selected by the Science Fiction Poetry Association
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