As an element of craft, time is generally regarded as a tool of setting, akin to place. Yet it is multidimensional, a voyage through past and future. Equally mysterious is the present, deemed by T.S. Eliot “the still point of the turning world.”
First, a true story.
My fourth-grade teacher, Elsie Mae Ball, instructed the class to write an essay. The topic was, What would you do if you knew you had only one more day to live? It was Friday, and the essay was due on Monday. All weekend, I worked on it, aware of time ticking by. I wrote, “I would hold my cat and watch the second hand moving around,” because that was exactly what I was doing, clutching a writhing cat and staring through tears at my clock radio, afraid I would die on Monday.
“It’s morbid,” my mother said, and I believe she communicated her displeasure to Mrs. Ball. I got an A but came away with the sense that future 4th graders would be writing on sunnier subjects. My mother had stepped between me and that sweephand. There had been an earlier episode that gave her the sense people wanted to lead me down a treacherous path. Her own mother, my beloved grandmother, “Gee-Gee,” was the guilty party. Gee-Gee had a neighbor, Mrs. Tresnon, in failing health. Gee-Gee began giving me updates. “It won’t be long,” she’d say. I became caught up in the decline of a person I had never met, who also lived on Gee-Gee’s leafy Richmond avenue, with cicadas singing on summer twilights. Even her name, Mrs. Tresnon, filled me with dreadful anticipation. One day, Gee-Gee called and announced breathlessly, “She’s gone. It just happened.” I became hysterical, laughing and crying. Mama snatched the phone away and snapped at her mother for what I believe was the only time in her life: “Don’t do that with Cary!” but it was too late. Mrs. Tresnon was dead, and I was unhinged.
Time’s shadow throws itself across every page you write. All characters are laboring under Mrs. Ball’s terrible topic, life’s brevity. And whatever is at stake, whatever the terms of the fight, time generally wins.
Readers welcome linear chronology, a straightforward presentation of events, a clock and calendar moving ahead. Linear chronology is a writer’s friend. There is so much in life that resists organization. Clear temporal markers ground a story and allow the reader to gain a foothold. It’s only natural that readers wonder, When is this taking place? How old are the characters? How much time has elapsed by the end? Make sure your story answers those questions. Make all things time-related easy for readers.
John Steinbeck’s famous story, “Breakfast,” was a sketch he wrote in preparation for The Grapes of Wrath. It takes place in only a few minutes, with a frame of a sentence or two at the beginning and end. In the story, a hungry man walks along a road and meets a family. A young woman with a baby is fixing bacon, biscuits, and coffee. Her companions, a young man and an older man, invite the newcomer to eat with them. He does, with gusto. It’s clear to the reader these wayfarers are among the many migrant workers struggling to survive the Depression. Our protagonist continues on his way, and the story concludes with his comment that whenever he remembers the encounter, it fills him with pleasure. The gist of the story is generosity among strangers, the vital spark of human connection. The short piece is impressive for just starting at the beginning and moving forward, unencumbered by backstory or exposition. The minimal frame, the looking-back with pleasure, is everything, because the chance meeting, the simple, delicious food, and most of all the companionship, have stayed with the protagonist for the rest of his life. Without his long backward glance in middle age, the story would be only an anecdote. It’s the looking-back to the meal with strangers in a time of shared hardship and struggle that reveals how much the encounter meant to him.
Students ask, “How much can you use flashbacks?” It’s a wonderfully elastic device. You can stay in a flashback for quite some time, as long as there is payoff.
From a practical standpoint, the reader is waiting to get back to the present story. There has to be something in the here and now, to create suspense. Avoid letting the character linger endlessly in backstory. Jerome Stern, in his classic craft book Making Shapely Fiction, calls this a bathtub story—a person sits idly, philosophizing, ruminating, and remembering, but the reader soon realizes the character will never get out of the bathtub. Tension in a character should be expressed in action. Have your character climb out of the tub and do things.
A few years ago I started writing the stories that became Horse People: Stories (Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, LSU Press, 2013). The central figure is Nelle Fenton, a family matriarch who is by turns hardhearted and vulnerable. Her memories of youth kept effervescing through the scenes as I wrote. I invented a technique I call continuous flashback, although other writers have surely used it too. The flashbacks create their own continuous thread. A story of Nelle’s selling a horse in 1945, with World War Two just over and her sons coming home from war, is interspersed with her memories of a strange encounter with a sailor in 1900. Whenever the story veers into flashback, it picks up moments after the last flashback left off. This technique seemed to build pressure, and to reflect Nelle’s efforts to make sense of events she had never fully understood. In “The Colored Horse Show,” it’s 1945, her husband is sick, and their sons are coming home, yet her thoughts keep returning to her first love affair on a trip to Brazil, and the return journey, when a sailor lured her and her brothers below decks to show them an iridescent sea animal. Memory is the connective tissue, and the flashbacks toggle between the worlds of her youth and her middle age. The flashback story carries its own suspense.
To revisit something in fiction, that is, to write again about an earlier episode in a story, is to enlarge upon it and to gain deeper understanding of a character’s inner life of memory, yearning, and reflection, filtered through the sieve of time’s passage.
Even as years leap forward, memory preserves moments in their clarity and fluidity. To write about a character’s memory is to open up a seam in time, to probe the heart and the psyche for a secret, a wound, or a marvel.
Cary Holladay’s new book of fiction, Brides in the Sky: Stories and a Novella, will be published in early 2019 by Ohio UP / Swallow Press. She is the author of seven previous books, including Horse People: Stories (Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, Louisiana State UP). Her awards include an O. Henry Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A native of Virginia, she teaches at the University of Memphis.
Author Photo Credit: © University of Memphis. Trey Clark.
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South 85 Journal is relaunching Converse College MFA program’s Julia Peterkin awards, starting with an all-new summer flash fiction contest. Like past awards, the contest will honor Julia Peterkin, an 1896 graduate of Converse College. In 1929, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Novel/Literature for her novel, Scarlet Sister Mary.
We will accept submissions for the Julia Peterkin Award for Flash Fiction June 25 through August 15. We will announce winners in October. One winner will receive a cash prize of $500, and we will name four runners up who will receive no prize. All five stories will appear in the Fall / Winter 2018 issue, which we will release December 15.
Submit your previously unpublished fiction of 850 words or less. As always, we are especially interested in stories that demonstrate a strong voice and/or a sense of place, but we consider all quality writing.
For more information or to submit, visit our contest page on Submittable.Read More »
The Spring / Summer 2018 Issue of South 85 Journal is now available online.
We are pleased to present work by the following contributors:
• Artwork – Roger Camp, Richard Corso, William C. Crawford, Ann Schlotzhauer, Louis Staeble, Mauricio Paz Viola, and Bill Wolak
• Fiction – Lawrence Cady, Matthew Fairchild, Sara Grace Salley, and John Vanderslice
• Non-Fiction – Brandon Daily, Mariam S. Pal, Christine Taylor, and Mary Jane White
• Poetry – Nina Bennett, Micki Blenkush, Katarina Boudreaux, MéShelle Fae, Erin Jamieson, Sean McQuinney, Jessica (Tyner) Mehta, John Nizalowski, and Charles Rafferty
For some great summer reads, check out our Reviews section, featuring reviews of:
• The Truth About Me: Stories by Louise Marburg (Fiction)
• The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam by Max Boot (Non-Fiction)
• Milk and Vine and Milk and Vine II by Adam Gasiewski and Emily Beck (Poetry)
Upcoming Submission Opportunities
Coming soon, we will open submissions for an all-new summer flash fiction contest! In addition, our next official reading period begins August 1. Stay tuned for more information. In the meantime, keep reading our blog about writing! You can even submit an article for our blog. We’d love to hear from you.
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Mindfulness is about living in a very conscious way so that we can devote full attention to whatever we are doing. Mindful writing is a good way to escape from the chaos of our daily lives, and can also help us uncover our authentic voices and inspire the writer within.
Most of us write mindfully, in that we’re writing what we’re feeling at the time we’re writing. Certain practices, such as meditation prior to the writing process, can increase our sense of mindfulness. When we write from a mindful place, we are transporting ourselves into a deeper place in our psyche. Writing mindfully means that we are also self-aware. Being mindful means intentionally being present in any given moment. Rather than thinking of your past or future, being mindful is about focusing on what is happening right now. In other words, as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass says, “Be here now.”
For many people, writing is a spiritual practice that opens up a connection with the divine. It’s also a way of letting go and making sense of yourself, your loved ones, and the world in which you live. Through journaling, you can cultivate self-awareness. There are two types of journaling. The first type is stream-of-consciousness journaling where you write for 15-20 minutes non-stop about whatever comes into your mind. There’s no beginning, middle, or ending to your writing. The second type of writing is prompt-directed writing. Both these ways of journaling can elicit the flow of creative juices. Here are some prompts to get you started. Use each prompt to write for at least 15 minutes.
1) At the top of the page, write: “I remember.” Begin by writing down the first memory that emerges. Keep writing without lifting your pen off the page. See where your subconscious mind brings you.
2) Write about the part of you that feels most alive and joyous right now. Does your mind or your body feel most alive and why? Consider writing about an event that lead to or caused this joy. Explain in detail what you’re feeling. Use all your senses.
3) Write about something in your body that you carry from one of your ancestors. It can be a physical, emotional or mental characteristic. Describe this in detail and tell how it binds you to them. How does this connection reveal your emotional and spiritual connection?
4) Bring someone into your consciousness who has been on your mind. Perhaps it’s a loved one who has passed away or someone who needs healing. Write this person a letter. You don’t have to send it, but it’s fine if you choose to do so.
5) Write down how you feel about the past year. Imagine you have a ledger book and you need to write down all the significant things that happened. What would you write? Think about what you received from others. What did you give to others? If you’re so inclined, write down your goals for the next 12 months.
Remember that writing is a process. It’s important that you enjoy the journey and not always think about the destination. Using mindfulness during the writing process means that you’re giving full attention to your writing without self-judgement. Enjoy your mindful journey!
Diana Raab, PhD, MFA, is an award-winner writer, speaker, and workshop facilitator. She is the author of nine books including, her latest, Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. She facilitates workshops in writing for transformation and empowerment, focusing on journaling, poetry, and memoir writing. She believes in the importance of writing to achieve wholeness and interconnectedness, which encourages the ability to unleash the true voice of your inner self. Visit her at dianaraab.com
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Short stories are the bread and butter of the writing industry. They are easy to pick up and read in one sitting, easy to teach in one semester, easy to edit and comment on in a reasonable amount of time. That’s doesn’t mean they’re easy to write. A lot of blood sweat and tears go into the best short stories. But, when considering word count, they are more digestible than novels. Still, the novel hangs over writers like a mountain that’s got to be conquered. If you feel like you have a good hold on short stories, the jump to a novel shouldn’t be intimidating. Many of the same elements apply.
In a novel, just as in a short story, character development is key. You need well rounded, well planned, realistic characters that entice your reader to follow them down the rabbit hole. The cool thing about a novel is that you have the space to develop more of them. You can explore the strange aunt who lives around the corner, the neighbor with the creepy house, the best friend who might not be “the best” after all. Many novels even contain more than one main character. But, for a first novel, it’s probably best to focus on one main character and use strong supporting characters to help move the story along.
Along with all those new players, you have the opportunity to expand your plot and explore subplots. Short stories can sometimes weave in one subplot. A novel can take the time to indulge in multiple subplots. Maybe the main character’s aunt is interested in going back to school while the focus of the story is actually on the main character finding love again. The best plots weave together and add to one another. The aunt could meet someone at school that she introduces to her nephew inspiring true love. But just like adding characters, you need to be careful about adding too many sub plots. Make sure your main plot is solid and your main character, fully-formed. Only add subplots that deepen and add to the original story. If another plot is calling out to you for more attention, maybe you have another novel on your hands.
Not everyone enjoys reading or writing pages and pages of scenery or exposition but a novel definitely gives you more space to explore physical descriptions and setting. Your reader is settled in for the long haul. Hopefully they are already in love with your characters, so you can lead them through the rooms and sights of your world at a slightly slower pace than you would in a short story. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in that freedom. We only need to know so much about what everyone is wearing and if you’re going to mention Chekhov’s gun, then you better shoot someone.
In short, all you have to do is think long. Spill more time, more imagination, more blood sweat and tears, and definitely a lot more words onto your pages. Eventually you’ll have it. Plan accordingly as you write. Find others who are writing novels and are willing to swap beta drafts with you. Asking someone to read an entire novel, especially a first novel or a rough draft, is a major request. Be respectful of other people’s time and be ready to give back when they need similar support. Explore different methods of plotting. The internet is full of different ways to organize all the information needed to create and maintain a coherent novel. Find one that works for you or try out several until the magic falls into place. Give yourself reasonable deadlines. Yes, it’s a lot of work, yes it’s hard, yes, it could take years, but if you write every day, and don’t let yourself get lost in an outlining maze, you’ll have a novel before you know it. After all, nothing that feels better than writing “The End” on 60,000+ words.
Gwen Holt was raised in the wilds of rural Idaho but found her heart in New York City. She worked at many interesting jobs before settling in as a mother and writer. She now resides in North Carolina with her husband, four children, eight chickens, a fluffy dog, and two suspected serial killer cats. She has an MFA in Young Adult literature with Converse College and has served South 85 Journal as a Fiction Editor. She is the winner of the Southeast Review 2016 Narrative nonfiction prize for her short story, “The Ditch Bank and the Fence Line,” and will publish her fourth novel for young adults, Imani Unraveled, this fall with Owl Hollow Press.
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