Flash Fiction Writing Tips

Fellow blogger (and someone you all should follow if you haven’t already) Jennifer Pendergast regularly writes short articles on the art of writing. Her work and several interactions on critique forums where I participate have inspired me to compose a how-to article on flash fiction. Click here to read more, and follow me on HubPages in order to keep up with my most recent essays on writing, critique forums and other author-centric topics.

Copyright Marie Gail Stratford, 2014

Copyright Marie Gail Stratford, 2014

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Blog Tour

Shortly after I reuinted with my friend Rochelle Wisoff Fields, she asked me to participate in this blog tour. Sounds fun, so thanks to Rochelle and her fine blog Addicted to Purple, here I am.

 What am I working on?

I’ve been working primarily as a freelance writer for over two years. Recently, I’ve begun working on more short fiction writing. I have a collection of jazz poetry that might be picked up shortly by a publisher. Meanwhile, I am also growing my collection of short stories. Who knows what the future holds? Given my adventures thus far, I’m certain it will involve healthy doses of creativity. Beyond that, I look forward to being surprised.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My poetry relies heavily on the rhythms of jazz and American roots music, a quality that I haven’t seen frequently in modern poetry. I’ve been asked if I count syllables. That’s a definite “no.” Instead, I often listen to music for hours before beginning to compose.

My short stories come from my life experiences and family stories that have become legend. Of course, I’m always careful to take my dad’s sister’s advice and “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Why do I write what I do?

I write because if I stopped my heart would stop beating. Writing is to me as important as breathing, and it has been since I first picked up a pencil to write a Chronicles of Narnia fan fiction in the second grade.

 How does my writing process work?

I’ve mentioned how music inspires my poetry. For short stories, I often jump from a prompt given in a forum or writers’ group. Getting cold or taking a walk for some fresh air often prompts my muse when I have writers’ block. Most of my best work comes out all at once because I usually write the first few drafts in my head before putting pen to paper or fingers on a keyboard.

The end of my post is supposed to introduce three new bloggers who will be doing the tour next week. Unfortunately, I’ve had some difficulty locating participants, and my computer also died (a sad death) while I was preparing for this tour. Since I’ve managed to retrieve my file, I’m posting before I get the next three bloggers lined up. Stay tuned for more.

Pages from a Writer’s Notebook

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Soon, I’ll be posting a blog entry on my writing process. It should have been up today, but I’m struggling with some final details. Have patience, and it will come.

Today, I’m working on prompts, specifically character prompts. Back in high school and college, my writing instructors recommended that I never leave home without a notebook. In it, they encouraged me to put notes about the interesting people and things I saw. My memory is such that I generally just filed the things I observed into my cranial files. Now that I’m pulling those files out more often, I thought I’d like to create a database of sorts in which to organize them. Then I thought that maybe other writers might like to see some of the characters I’ve encountered.

Over on Bubblews, I’ve started a series that plays on the pun of 400 characters (the site’s required length for any post). This will be a series of 80 posts, each of which includes descriptions of five different people that I’ve encountered. Feel free to pop by, read, and even use a few of the characters as prompts for your own creative works.

Here are links to the first two sets of five:

http://www.bubblews.com/news/2627980-400-characters-people-iamp039ve-encountered-part-1

http://www.bubblews.com/news/2628212-400-characters-people-iamp039ve-encountered-part-2

Interacting with Other Bloggers

Most of my followers know that I’ve only been active here at WordPress for about six weeks. My blogging prior to that, both here and elsewhere, has been spotty at best. Frankly, since I write web content for a living, I haven’t always allowed myself the luxury of indulging in creative writing pursuits. Either I’m too tired after writing blurbs for dentists, chiropractors, plumbers and fashion designers, or I’m too focused on paying projects.

All this changed significantly when I was laid up for over a month with mono just after this past holiday season. When my brain wasn’t sharp enough to reliably produce web content for picky clients, I had time to create some short fiction and a small collection of poetry. Many positive things have resulted from the change in focus this downtime brought about. Now that I’m back in my home office, cranking out orders for paying clients, I’m also taking the time to work on creative pieces.

In establishing my blog here, I’ve learned a lot in a short amount of time about engaging other bloggers and growing my audience. Today, I published an article on the finer points of participating in a blogging community. Click here to learn more.

Sharpen Your Writing Skills with Online Critique Forums

Ten years ago, at the prodding of a library patron, I first started participating in an online critique forum. The group of poets I met helped me tremendously. While I know not everyone has such a wonderful first experience in online forums, I’ve come to believe that these forums are of great help and importance for helping writers today both improve their quality of work and network within the global writing community.

I’ve written a guide to getting the most out of such forums. Click here to read more.

If you want to participate in online critique forums, there are several excellent places to learn and grow.

Poets can learn, play and critique one another at Wild Poetry Forum. Those more interested in reading and writing poetry than critiquing it will enjoy the House of 30 at Blueline.

Short fiction writers can join in the fun with Friday Fictioneers, hosted here on WordPress. The Writer’s Hangout, a group on LinkedIn, has an excellent weekly challenge with several quality writers who have become a source of inspiration to me.

Do you participate in any other online critique forums? I’d love to hear from you.

Enjoying Valentine’s Day: Tips for Singles

“Write what you know.” How many times have we heard that advice? One thing I know is what Valentine’s Day is like when you’re single. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of Valentine’s Days since puberty I have spent with a significant other. Interestingly, most of them have been enjoyable anyway.

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As I get older, more of my friends are now widowed or separated, and some of them have been sharing the struggles of being newly single. While the “newly” part doesn’t register with my psyche, “single” resonates well. What better time of year to give tips on navigating this society that my friend Ruth refers to as “a couples’ world” than on the day pop culture focuses intently on romance?

Pop culture is not to be trusted.

Pop culture is one of the most unhealthy places to get information about the “norms” of life. Unfortunately, in the 21st century it is difficult to escape. We have just navigated through a holiday season in which we have been bombarded by images of perfect families in their matching Christmas sweaters, children joyfully opening the perfect gift and being perfectly excited by it, sleigh rides in perfect winter settings, and perfect smiles on the faces of perfect shoppers who have not only money to buy the perfect gifts but also the perfect people in their lives to whom they will give those gifts. While most of us are intelligent enough not to expect this silver-screen perfection, we cannot help but feel envious of those around us who appear to be significantly closer to achieving perfect holidays than we are.

Just as we have pulled through the last disappointing minute of the old year, we crash into a display of candy hearts and jewelry at a local department store. Above, smiling into one another’s eyes is a perfect young couple, clearly anticipating a lifetime of “happily ever after.” It is almost more than anyone can bear, all this staged happiness, all this perfection we see but cannot attain. For the single people in society, it is especially cruel.

Where is the meaning?

Looking for meaning in pop culture is likely to be disappointing at best. It has never been popular to look at suffering. It will never be popular to show the mundane on television or in the movies. While extraordinary suffering may sneak its way onto the occasional talk show or the rare art house film, day-to-day emptiness of singles, widows and the divorced just isn’t interesting enough to turn heads.

With all this unacknowledged aloneness, how is it possible to enjoy a day so devoted to romantic love as February 14th in modern society? The answer doesn’t come easily; but where pop culture fails, I often find that a look at history and ancient tradition provides a more satisfactory solution.

The year I became Catholic, I received the most beautiful Valentine’s Day gift of my life. My sponsors sent me a card with a message indicating that a mass would be said for me at a nearby basilica. The gesture and the gift were inexpensive. I think they got the card and requested the prayers for a $5 donation. However, the love that came to me from that experience was unparalleled by any box of chocolates or bouquet of roses that I might have expected from some significant other.

The gift and a conversation with one of my sponsors started me thinking about the true meaning of St. Valentine’s Day. The celebration of Valentine’s Day is over 1,500 years old, an age which causes many facts to be replaced with myth and some facts to be presumed myth.

Any history that long becomes twisted and cloudy. What we can verify is this: February has been celebrated from ancient times as a month of romantic love. Fertility rites, parades and more have been a part of cultural observances of the month of February for well over 2,000 years. Additionally, there were a number of early Christian martyrs named Valentine, at least one of whom was martyred on February 14th.

Obviously, the Catholic church’s early observation of St. Valentine’s Day on February 14th had something to do with a response to other religious observances in the form of fertility rituals being observed at that same time. In fact, one of the legends concerning a St. Valentine from Rome is that he was martyred for secretly marrying Christian couples when Christianity was outlawed in the empire.

Other myths strike a deeper cord with me. It is commonly accepted that one St. Valentine suffered from seizures, possibly epilepsy, which is even today referred to as St. Valentine’s disease. This priest, however, was such a loving vicar that when he was imprisoned, the children of the village would deliver notes of love and comfort to him. This myth holds these messages as the beginning of the tradition of giving “Valentine’s” greetings to those we love on the saint’s day.

Practical Applications

This last legend has been my inspiration for years. Although I am now happily married, I still think of Valentine’s Day as a time to remember all those I love. Rather than sit around feeling sorry for myself on this most romantic of all days, when I was single, I often celebrated by exchanging paper Valentine’s with my young nieces. When I worked with mentally disabled adults, I experienced some of the most pleasant Valentine’s Days of my life. The disabled people I served eagerly brought homemade gifts, cut-out paper greetings and other items to show me their appreciation. In turn, I always made sure to have something special for each of them. It had nothing to do with romantic love but everything to do with showing someone important that I cared.

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No matter what your Valentine’s Day brings this year, I hope you can find some joy. Don’t expect to find it in pop-culture icons. Look, instead, to children, friends and the lonely people you meet throughout the day. Then, look into your heart, and find a way to bring a smile to one of them. Warm your own heart by reaching out to someone who needs you today.

On Being Sincerely Me

Earlier this month I attended a writers’ workshop that was actually the impetus for me starting this blog. Among the many things that were discussed was the idea of being yourself in online exchanges. Our host for the day, the amazing and inimitable Rachel Ellyn, mentioned that one of her guests had gotten to know her on Facebook and then exclaimed with glee upon meeting her, “You’re exactly the same in person as you are on Facebook.”

The discussion that followed was rather uncomfortable to me. No, I don’t tell outlandish tales or blatantly lie in Facebook statuses, but I’m certainly not comfortable enough to really be myself there. Now an expert in social media networking was telling me that the key to online success, particularly in business and in the business of writing in particular, was to be genuine.

I realize that the act of being genuine doesn’t have to include deep personal revelations or the airing of things none of my 500 Facebook friends want to know. Rachel Ellyn doesn’t charm people with details of her bowel habits. Being genuine does, however, bring with it a level of vulnerability I’m not sure I’m comfortable experiencing. As a people-pleaser, I know that my genuine self won’t make all 500 people that follow me on Facebook happy. In fact, my genuine self probably won’t make any of them happy all the time. My points of view contain something to offend everyone.

While I personally have no problem sharing ideas and spending time with those whose views differ from mine, I haven’t found that place in my soul where I am comfortable enough with myself to be okay when others get offended by me. For example, last night I responded to a question from one of my in-laws about a letter supposedly written by the CEO of Hobby Lobby that has been making the rounds on Facebook. He, an extreme conservative, mentioned that he didn’t know if the letter was or was not a hoax. I responded genuinely but from a factual stand point with details about incorrect information within the letter. Since I was simply pointing out facts, I figured there might be a few responses from conservatives using other facts to counter my point, but I was not prepared for the crushing emotion of what actually happened. Another relative of mine came online and posted, “You are wrong, Marie Gail Stratford.” How insulting! She didn’t give any reasons for why she was declaring my wrongness. She didn’t give me what she thought was the right answer. She simply called me out in the world’s most public forum as being wrong, and I was crushed. Then I got angry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to sit her down and make her give me answers based on facts. I did not want to be told I was wrong, especially not without the “right” answer, based in facts, being given to me.

If I can’t even handle my facts being attacked online, how on earth will I cope with the fallout of being genuine? The good news is that I did manage to sleep last night, after I calmed down a bit. The bad news is that being human I will always feel a twinge of pain when someone attacks me for being wrong. The best news is that even after that experience, here I am today writing genuinely about my experience in social media last night.