Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~ Stephen King

This week I did an interesting and useful assignment for my fiction writing course. You take a character from your story idea, and use the following formula: if a character was a car, she/he would be_______. Then substitute “car” with “food,” “drink,” “movie,” etc. After that, write a description of your character using these metaphors (can be a sentence for each category, or an entire scene.) So I applied this to Cassie, a main character in the story that I recently started.

  1. if Cassie was a car, she would be a Beetle
  2. if Cassie was a food she would be a pomegranate
  3. if Cassie was a drink, she would be Silk (organic soy beverage)
  4. if Cassie was a movie, she would be Amelie
  5. if Cassie was an item of clothing, she would be a silk scarf
  6. if Cassie was a style of music she would be classical impressionism (Debussy, Clair de Lune )
  7. if Cassie was a musical instrument she would be a flute
  8. if Cassie was a flower, she would be a cherry blossom
  9. if Cassie was a tree, she would be a birch
  10. if Cassie was a style of dance, she would be ballet
  11. if Cassie was an animal, she would be a humming bird

The first six categories were given by the instructor, and I added five of my own. Then I wrote descriptions, based on the above statements. Here is one of them:

With the innocence and delicacy of a cherry blossom, Cassie would wrap herself around you like a silk scarf, light as a feather, hardly even there, smooth to the touch, yet firmly in place.

And one more:

He often pictured people as musical instruments or musical pieces. When he met Cassie, he instantly decided she was a flute, and the airy aura about her made him think of silvery moonlight reflected on water and Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy. (now you know what inspired my previous post :-))

I enjoyed doing this exercise (while listening to Debussy, of course) and I think it’s a great way to flesh out my characters and bring them to life.

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I’ve been so busy with “stuff,” I almost forgot to post about the beginning of a new course that I am enrolled in. It’s Fiction Writing through Gotham Writing Workshop, led by the same instructor as my previous Creative Writing 101, Chip Livingston. It’s week two, in which we learn about CHARACTER. This week’s assignment is to list five personality flaws I see in myself, pick a flaw, then give this flaw to a fictional character, who may or may not be similar to myself and show the flaw in action in under 500 words. I don’t like the word “flaws.” I rather prefer “idiosyncrasies.” So, I picked one of my idiosyncrasies and gave it to one of the main characters in a story that I started last week. I exaggerated and tweaked it, of course, since it’s fiction writing. I would greatly appreciate if you, upon reading the scene, could tell me if I succeeded in showing the unnamed idiosyncrasy(ies). What do you think my character is struggling with?

Her phone rang. “Yes?.. At the toy store… No, I am not done yet… I don’t know. The freaking store is full of ’em and I’ve no idea what to buy… Why don’t you join me and we’ll be done and over with… Of course, you can’t! How could I forget: You never have time for such mundane things…Gotta go. Bye.” Grimacing as if she swallowed an entire lemon, Alys returned her cell phone in the pocket of her jacket and resumed her quest for the perfect toy. Toys, actually. Her sister, Lisa, had triplets: three adorable baby girls, three cute objects for doting by their parents, relatives and friends alike. What do you get for the babies who want for nothing?

She heaved a sigh and continued along the endless isles filled with dolls, transformers, Lego sets, small soldiers, cubes, stackers, puzzles, toy cars, toy trucks, ducks, teddy bears, winny the poohs, piglets, tigers, lions, kittens, musical boxes, books with pictures… With all the bright colours screaming at her and making her head spin, Alys slowed down in the baby section and froze at the sight of an enigmatic blue monster reminiscent of an octopus with a crazy eye attached to each of its eight tentacles and complete with an eerie toothless grin. Are you kidding me? Is this horror meant for babies? She grabbed the toy and squeezed it lightly.

The monster squealed.

Alys winced, threw the toy back on the shelf and spun on her heels. Maybe instead of trying to pick the most attractive toy… She smacked herself on the forehead. How could she possibly know what toys babies find most attractive? She kicked at the bottom shelf in frustration and glanced around surreptitiously: to her relief, toys were the only witnesses of her outburst.

Chewing on her lip, she pulled out her cell phone to check the time. Oh, crap! She had already spent two hours inside the store and was still empty-handed! Lisa would kill her if she were late tonight for the triplets’ birthday party. A hot wave of anger, anxiety and frustration washed over her. She tore her jacket off and was about to throw it angrily on the floor, then thought better of it, took several deep breaths and raised her face toward the top shelf so as tears welling in her eyes didn’t spill and ruin her makeup.

A middle-aged woman with a look of deep concentration on her face stepped into the narrow isle.

“Excuse me,” Alys said quickly, swallowing her tears and forcing the friendliest smile she could muster. “Do you happen to know what kind of toys are liked by babies?”

The woman broke off her concentration and smiled back at Alys. “How old is the baby?”

“One…I need three. Toys, I mean. They are triplets, my nieces. Today’s their birthday,” she said all in one breath.

“Oh! That’s a doozy!” the lady exclaimed shaking her head. She eyed Alys noting her dishevelled appearance. “But I am sure it can be helped.”

There was nothing special about the nice lady, but Alys could have sworn that for a brief moment she caught a glimpse of a halo above the lady’s head and heard angels sing.

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image by reflectionsinapuddle

“Today, my boy, I’ll give you your last lesson. I am getting old and frail; my health is no longer what it used to be even 80 years back; it’s time for me to move on. You want to say something? You have my leave to speak.”

“But where would you go, roshi? Isn’t this the only Sanctuary in the entire world? Why would you want to leave this magnificent mountain, with only snow leopards and eagles to keep us company?”

“What do you know of the world or beyond it, boy?”

“Whatever you taught me, roshi.”

“What I taught you is but a speck of dust on this great mountain. Don’t you fancy yourself a sage. Remember, you know nothing. But enough of idle talk. Brace yourself for your last lesson. Almost half a century has passed since you entered the Sanctuary as a brainless youngling. Half a century of hard work and learning the secrets that most mortals consider either lost or never in existence. Half a century of isolation and solitude… save for the company of this old fool… So let’s get to work. I’ll give you my final secret recipe that you must learn and you’ll be ordained to become the Great Master yourself. But first I must see what you are made of.”

“Yes, roshi. I am ready.”

“So you think, boy, so you think… Now, take a dash of the blackroot powder. Not that! The other box with a human skull on it. Right. Then add a few drops of the mountain toad venom. Slowly, don’t spill it. Very well. Now take a pinch of dragon grass and a viper’s egg, and don’t forget a good measure of snow leopard scat. Mix it all well. Good… Now you must read the incantation I taught you when the moon was full. Don’t look at me as if you have no clue what I am talking about. Just do it, or I’ll read it myself… Whisper, you oaf! You don’t have to shout it at the top of your voice for the whole world to hear…”



“What’s the recipe for?”

“Just give me the vial. Didn’t I tell you I am an old fool? Of course I forgot to tell you what it is. Nothing much. Just a recipe for disaster. As soon as it touches the rocks at the foot of the great mountain, it will bring about great suffering upon this world. But you needn’t worry, boy, for you’ll be spared.”

“Oh, no! Why would you do such a despicable thing, roshi?! Come to your senses I beg!”

But the one called roshi, a desiccated mushroom of a man, with a long white beard and gnarled limbs, left this heartfelt plea unanswered. He sprinted with the agility of a young cougar – in contrast with his withered appearance – and was already stooped over the room’s only window that opened up a vast panorama of a jagged mountain range, snowy tops blazing in the sun, an eagle soaring up high in the azure sky.

Holding the corked vial with the potion in his left hand, the old man reached out, unclasped his gnarled fingers and unleashed the vial on the unsuspecting world. At this very moment, his apprentice flung himself at the window, like a flash of lightning, and dove headlong into the cool air. The Great Master must have gone mad, but I can still catch the vial, he thought plummeting toward the earth, cutting through freezing air like a hot knife through butter, his cloak flapping violently in his wake. He could see the vial; he could reach it… There! He caught it and squeezed it in his half frozen palms, then shut his eyes so as not to see the sullen visage of rocks below barreling toward him. In a matter of seconds his body will become one with the somber landscape. And what about the evil potion? I can’t allow it to touch the rocks and obliterate the world! If only the Great Master taught me the magic of flight! If only I had wings!

At which moment his free fall slowed down and finally came to a halt, when his face nearly touched a massive boulder at the foot of the mountain. From this vantage point, it didn’t look as despondent as from above, covered with cheerful green moss and all. Still hovering over the rocks, the apprentice whirled himself out of his topsy-turvy attitude, and began to ascend, spiraling higher and higher, as if on a pair of invisible wings. And as he  took in the resplendent views around him, reveling in his newly acquired ability, he turned his gaze to the top of the great mountain, where the Great Master, still looking no bigger than a horsefly from down below, was bursting in paroxysms of hilarity.

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Credit: Melissa Nucera

If you more or less follow my blog, would you be surprised that this cute little creature lured me into yet another reading adventure? Not only is the image adorable, it also reminds me of my longtime desire to reacquaint myself with one of the best fantasy stories I’ve ever read, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I read it so long ago that I hardly remember anything from it except that there was the Little Prince, the Fox and the Rose, and that the book had an aura of magic  that lingers in my memory until this day.

Thanks to 50 Year Project, I got introduced to the Once Upon a Time challenge today and couldn’t resist the temptation to sign up for it. The challenge is hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings  and runs between March 21 and June 19.

“This is a reading and viewing event that encompasses four broad categories: Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, including the seemingly countless sub-genres and blending of genres that fall within this spectrum.”

There are different levels of participation in this event. At this point, I’ve chosen the Short Story Quest. I’ve got this wonderful book called “Bedtime Stories” that includes 18 short stories — all written by great writers of the past two centuries. Every Sunday I will write a post about a story from the book. I would also like to include The Little Prince on my list of readings and other books in the fantasy genre, simply because I am a big fan of it and will read these books any time of the year, reading challenge or not. 🙂

If you would like to join the fun, please visit Stainless Steel Droppings and sign up.

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Chip Livingston

Chip Livingston

Chip Livingston  is the author of the poetry collection Museum of False Starts. His fiction and non-fiction are also widely published, in journals including Ploughshares, Cincinnati Review, Potomac Review, Court Green, Subtropics, and Crazyhorse. He holds a BS in Journalism and a BA in English from the University of Florida, an MA in Fiction Writing from the University of Colorado, and an MFA in Poetry Writing from Brooklyn College. He teaches creative writing, poetry and fiction at Gotham Writers’ Workshop, where I am currently taking creative writing 101. I asked Chip if he could do a short interview for my blog, and he kindly agreed. Some of you submitted questions for Chip; they are included in the interview. I appreciate your participation very much. I would also like to thank Chip for his insightful responses.

Natalie (reflectionsinapuddle): Do you write for a specific audience? If so, how would you describe your ideal reader?

Chip Livingston: Usually I don’t write with a specific audience in mind. With poetry, I keep in mind that not all my readers are poets or even poetry readers. I don’t want to deny anyone access to my work, so I hope I am making myself as clear as possible.

There are times when I’ll see a call for submissions from a literary magazine I admire having a special themed issue, and sometimes this will spur me to come up with something appropriate to the theme, but that’s not a common inspiration. Usually I just try to write what I think will translate to the page.

N: What are you working on right now?

ChL: Right now I’m proofing the layout of my new book of poetry, “CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK,” which will be published May 1, 2012 by New York Quarterly Books. I’m writing new poems for the eventual third poetry collection. And I’m trying to revise an old novel manuscript to see if it’s salvageable. And constantly working on short fiction. I’ve always got a couple of stories in process.

N: Could you tell us more about CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK?

ChL: CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK is a project I’m really proud of. It’s poetry, and the book is divided in two sections, Crow-Blue, which covers the southerner’s experience in New York City, and Crow-Black, which covers the experience of the North American in South America. The first section is strongly influenced by the New York School of poetics, whereas the second section is more influenced by Native American and South American literature.

Catherine: What are  your suggestions on getting published. In your experience, what was the best route to take? What were some of the challenges you faced?

ChL: Catherine, the best way for an unknown writer to publish a book is by getting it in the hands of someone who would seriously consider it. In poetry, the typical route is through “first book contests” run by small, independent or university presses.

Usually, the manuscripts that win these contests contain poems that have already been published in literary magazines, and especially when sending a manuscript to a press for publication consideration in a non-contest scenario, being able to mention that you’ve previously published some of the contents of the manuscript individually can help you get your work a more serious look. The best way to get individual poems and stories published is to read and submit to literary journals. There are many hundreds, if not thousands, of literary journals in print and online that accept submissions from writers, and these are usually the first places beginning poets and prose writers “emerge.”

Catherine: How do you feel about self publishing now that companies like Amazon and Apple make it possible to do?

ChL: Another good question. I think electronic books and the ability to distribute them through Amazon, Apple and other outlets allow for a lot more writers to have access to sharing their words/works, and there are several well-known examples of these self-published titles getting such a record of sales and recommendations that they catch on to big presses and get the book put into ‘print.’

The drawback [of self-publishing] is advertising and distribution. If a writer self-publishes, how does he/she let the world know that the book exists. Traditional press publishing comes with some plan of media promotion and the press has contacts at bookstores across the country or world as well as access to online and electronic sales.

If you want your book to change the world, you need an agent or publisher with a network of connections to get your book to the world.

Malena: My question is about the roles of writer and author. When is it that one can say he/she is an author?

ChL: Malena, the way I think it’s generally accepted is that an “author” is a writer who has published a book. I think of the ways authors and writers are written about in bios in literary magazines and blurbs, and if they have published books, the bio will generally refer to the writer as “The author of __.”  Or “Jane Doe has authored five books of poetry.”

N: You travel a lot. Do you find your inspiration in discovering new places?

ChL: I absolutely attribute much of my inspiration to new places and new things in new places, new perspectives. And learning and speaking Spanish has also given me a lot to think about in terms of sentence structure and the ways words can combine to modify each other.

N: Have you ever experienced being “chased” by a poem or a creative idea?

ChL: Yes, there have been times, even with the writing of “Yesterday my father was dying,” where the words themselves rattled in my head over and over until I had them on paper, though the initial impulse was witnessing the ants carry the cricket like pall bearers carrying a coffin.

And I had the experience of having the ghost of a poet follow me around and whisper poems to me. It was a once in a lifetime occasion. A professor loaned me a poetry collection by Tim Dlugos because she said she saw something similar in my recent work to his poetry. I became obsessed with the poet, felt like his presence was literally following me around, and I asked the poet Kenward Elmslie, who was the owner of the building I lived in, if he knew anything about Dlugos, and he told me that Dlugos had lived in my apartment twenty years earlier.

N: Sounds like a great idea for a novel! Speaking of which, your first novel is unpublished, but won numerous awards. Can you tell us more about it?

ChL: Yes, it’s the project I’m thinking of returning to. It won a contest from University of Arizona Press, but the press had a very similar manuscript under contract (two gay Creek Indian novels) and they worried the two titles would compete with each other. My agent at the time didn’t want me to sell it to a university press, so we agreed not to publish it with Univ. of Arizona. It won another contest as a short story collection, because much of the novel had been published as short stories, but the contest press said they thought it was a novel and not a story collection, so they withdrew it from consideration. I took a lot of the material and turned them into poems that went into my first poetry book, and lent its title, MUSEUM OF FALSE STARTS. But I worked so hard taking it apart that when Univ. of Oklahoma asked me if they could read and consider it a few years ago, I felt it was unpresentable. Now I have it in mind to see if I can put it back together again. Wish me luck.

N: Good luck with your novel! I would really like to read it some time.

N: We often hear that a writer has to “show-up” to do his or her work. But what about talent? Do you think it can be taught?

ChL: I think talent can be taught. Ideas can be nurtured and texts can be studied as examples. I don’t think any writer starts out great. It takes practice and practice and practice and practice, and then editing and editing and editing and editing. I don’t think it takes any special gene or gift to make something artful, but it’s not easy. It takes showing up for the work and the prewriting (of reading) and postwriting (of editing). I absolutely believe that everything I know about writing has been either taught to me by my mentors and professors or has been taught to me by the authors of the books I read.

N: What was the best piece of advice you received from your mentors? And what is the best piece of advice you can give to your students and aspiring writers?

ChL: The best piece of writing advice I received was from poet/novelist/memoirist Linda Hogan, who remains my all-time favorite writer in any genre. She told us in a fiction workshop to always try and “write two pages past what you think is the end of the story.” I particularly had the tendency to end the story right before the punchline, so it was good advice for me.

My advice to aspiring writers: Read good literature and study it. Don’t give up.

N: Once again, thank you very much for the interview! Maybe you could share with our readers one of your favourite poems by Chip Livingston?

ChL: My favorite poem so far is from my first book. It was first published in Ploughshares literary magazine.

poem by Chip Livingston

That owl was an omen
Driving home from the airport
Not once but twice
It rose in my headlights
From rain black asphalt
Great white wings nearly touching
Windshield wipers    that low flying escort
Stretching sixty miles toward Alabama
The owl was always right
Something died and something else
Was just about to
I checked my daughter’s red-eye slumber
In the rearview mirror
No need to worry her with divination
An hour drive delayed by rain
And now this trepidation on the slick black road
Certain as miscarried fortune
Her coming home to Mama in an autumn storm
And no such thing as California
Just a red clay creekbed down the road
From the house I birthed her in
Filling up to bathe away a sorrow
Blinking lights behind us
Before I hear the sirens
Firetruck passes on the narrow bridge
Then Crabtree Church in flames beyond the graveyard
My daughter wakes and guesses lightning
But I never heard the thunder crack
And only saw the lightning white of dreaded wings
I pull in   step out   open an umbrella
Stand with the firemen    watch the frame fall down
The Marshall asks if we saw anything
Like kids driving away in a four-wheeler
They found tracks in the mud
Whiskey and beer bottles    a gas can
Burn!  All those years of homecoming
Annual dinners on the grounds
Hymns around a weather-warped piano
Burn!  My granddad’s Indian education
Walls that heard a thousand lessons
A thousand prayers in high soprano
Burn!  Fifty paper funeral parlor fans
Cokesbury hymnals and sixteen pews
Reduced to flakey carbon tamped with rain
The death of wood and glass
And half a baby’s ashes in my daughter’s pocketbook
All the little names we’ll never sing
I aim to find that messenger again and scare him off
Litter the road with his insolent feathers

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Photo credit: Mait Jüriado (Creative Commons)

Have you ever killed a story? A story that you are trying to tell. I bet you are thinking, why on earth would I want to kill my story? Really, WHY? Yet, many people do that every day. They write their stories (articles, news releases, novels, reports, essays, blog posts etc.) and kill them on the spot.

There are so many ways to kill a piece of writing, it would take a book to discuss all the killing implements and methods. But the most common one is death by drowning. Drowning in verbiage.

Guess, how I know that. Correct. Guilty as charged. 🙂 My excuse is, or rather, was – I tend to overwrite. In the creative writing course I am currently taking, my weekly assignments are limited to 500 words, and sometimes 250 per piece. Up until now the very idea of a word count limit in creative writing made me cringe, because like many beginners I mistook verbosity for eloquence.

From discussions with my classmates, I gathered that most of them were also wrestling with the word count limit. So I decided that “overwriting” wasn’t such a big deal and my pieces were fine. Then I read a comment from another classmate who said,”I am actually enjoying the challenge of the word count.  I am finding that the word count pressures me into finding the “best” word possible.  Additionally, I suspect that it mirrors how writing for publication in the real world works!

That little comment hit home and got me thinking. I re-read what I’d written and found that my stories were not that interesting after all. They lacked panache. They were ridden with run-on sentences and wordiness, and I’d exceeded the word count limit before bringing the story to its conclusion. So, I re-wrote my pieces cutting ruthlessly everything that didn’t add to the story or the character and found better words and metaphors. Doing just that improved the flow and made the narrative a lot more entertaining and dramatic.

As I am not ready yet to share my pieces here, I thought I’d share a short short story that our instructor posted on the discussion board, to demonstrate how much can be said with fewer words. Enjoy!


by Etgar Keret (700 words)

She said, “Don’t touch that.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s glue,” she said. “Special glue. The best kind.”

“What did you buy it for?”

“Because I need it,” she said. “A lot of things around here need gluing.”

“Nothing around here needs gluing,” I said. “I wish I understood why you buy all this stuff.”

“For the same reason I married you,” she murmured. “To help pass the time.”

I didn’t want to fight, so I kept quiet, and so did she.

“Is it any good, this glue?” I asked. She showed me the picture on the box, with this guy hanging upside-down from the ceiling.

“No glue can really make a person stick like that,” I said. “They just took the picture upside-down. They must have put a light fixture on the floor.” I took the box from her and peered at it. “And there, look at the window. They didn’t even bother to hang the blinds the other way. They’re upside-down, if he’s really standing on the ceiling. Look,” I said again, pointing to the window. She didn’t look.

“It’s 8 already,” I said. “I’ve got to run.” I picked up my briefcase and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be back pretty late. I’m working –”

“Overtime,” she said. “Yes, I know.”

I called Abby from the office.

“I can’t make it today,” I said. “I’ve got to get home early.”

“Why?” Abby asked. “Something happen?”

“No . . . I mean, maybe. I think she suspects something.”

There was a long silence. I could hear Abby’s breathing on the other end.

“I don’t see why you stay with her,” she whispered. “You never do anything together. You don’t even fight. I’ll never understand it.” There was a pause, and then she repeated, “I wish I understood.” She was crying.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Abby. Listen, someone just came in,” I lied. “I’ve got to hang up. I’ll come over tomorrow. I promise. We’ll talk about everything then.”

I got home early. I said “Hi” as I walked in, but there was no reply. I went through all the rooms in the house. She wasn’t in any of them. On the kitchen table I found the tube of glue, completely empty. I tried to move one of the chairs, to sit down. It didn’t budge. I tried again. Not an inch. She’d glued it to the floor. The fridge wouldn’t open. She’d glued it shut. I didn’t understand what was happening, what would make her do such a thing. I didn’t know where she was. I went into the living room to call her mother’s. I couldn’t lift the receiver; she’d glued that too. I kicked the table and almost broke my toe.

And then I heard her laughing. It was coming from somewhere above me. I looked up, and there she was, standing barefoot on the living-room ceiling.

I stared open-mouthed. When I found my voice I could only ask, “What the hell . . . are you out of your mind?”

She didn’t answer, just smiled. Her smile seemed so natural, with her hanging upside-down like that, as if her lips were just stretching on their own by the sheer force of gravity.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you down,” I said, hurrying to the shelf and grabbing the largest books. I made a tower of encyclopedia volumes and clambered on top of the pile.

“This may hurt a little,” I said, trying to keep my balance. She went on smiling. I pulled as hard as I could, but nothing happened. Carefully, I climbed down.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll get the neighbors or something. I’ll go next door and call for help.”

“Fine,” she laughed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

I laughed too. She was so pretty, and so incongruous, hanging upside-down from the ceiling that way. With her long hair dangling downwards, and her breasts molded like two perfect teardrops under her white T-shirt. So pretty. I climbed back up onto the pile of books and kissed her. I felt her tongue on mine. The books tumbled out from under my feet, but I stayed floating in midair, hanging just from her lips.

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