Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

A Remedy for When You’re Stuck: Inserting the Unexpected Detail

unexpectedOne of the many reasons we find ourselves getting “stuck” when drafting a new story is that we have unwittingly written ourselves into a very boring place. How did this happen? We had such a great idea!

The answer likely resides in your descriptions. 

Consider your “go-to” descriptions of settings and characters. What do you think of when you see the words “hospital room” for example?

“antiseptic” smells

the beeping monitors

a nurse in a “starched white uniform” (not sure they even wear those anymore!)

How about a waitress in a diner?

She’s wearing a name tag, of course. Maybe her name is Candy. She has a pencil behind her ear and she is chewing, no “smacking” a piece of gum. 

Do you see where I’m going with this? These descriptions write themselves. In the process of drafting, if you find yourself falling into these clichés, the rest of the writing will likely follow suit. You begin to bore yourself.

I urge you to make every single part of your flash fiction so fresh and new and interesting that your reader (or slush pile reader) sits up and takes notice from beginning to end. With fewer words at your disposal, the description you do include needs to be strong, palpable, and carry a lot of emotional or narrative weight.

With this in mind, you should also consider how you describe ordinary things. Can you look at those things with fresh eyes? In Susan Minot’s connected collection of stories, “Monkeys,” she shows a character plunking down a crumpled up napkin and saying that it “bloomed” on the table. Can you see that? I can and it’s perfect. What a thrilling, fresh description!

The following is an exercise I use in my online workshop, Fast Flash, and it always results in strong, fresh, original pieces of writing that surprise even the writers themselves. We writers need ways to overcome our natural tendency to write scenes in the way they have always been written. This exercise is designed to give you a new way in to your material.

I want you to imagine a scene in a commonplace setting. One you’ve seen in fiction many times. A hospital room, a bar, a dining room, a park, a school yard, whatever. No doubt your brain already conjures up certain images and descriptions just by reading those words.

Now, I want you to insert some unexpected detail. Don’t give this too much thought and don’t worry about making sense, just insert the strange detail.

Examples: a clown at the train station, a daisy growing out of the sidewalk, an old man walking backwards, an animal in a hospital room, etc. 

Perhaps the odd detail will drive the scene forward or perhaps it will remain in the background, but what this exercise does is trick your brain into writing a scene in that setting that has, I promise you, never been written before. You have given yourself permission to write outside the box. You have “primed the pump” of your subconscious and now all bets are off.

***Consider also describing something ordinary within your setting in an extraordinary way (like the napkin that “bloomed” in the Susan Minot story).

You might also try this on a story you’ve been stuck on! Have fun!

~Kathy

 

Nancy Stohlman

Brilliant New Collection by Nancy Stohlman: Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities

“Step right up and meet a woman so determined to be a star she’ll try anything, including spray on Instant Fame! Meet her reflection, who dreams of a life of her own and manages to find love on the Internet! See the man desperately trying to earn a world record in the most bizarre way possible! Learn the origins of the Four-Legged Woman and the Human Skeleton! Clown mothers, suicidal ringmasters, cult leader who teach the cha-cha and Alaska Jackson’s Traveling Medicine Show…each one takes center stage in this vaudeville of flash fiction. Flash fiction, microfiction, short-short stories… regardless of the name, it’s all the same—a compressed story that packs a punch. Enter a cabaret of the weird, the absurd, and the bizarre with this bold and bawdy new collection.”

Well, readers, I promise you this collection is like none other you’ve read and I’m thrilled that Nancy’s Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, published by Big Table Publishing, releases to the world October 26th. This latest is “pure Stohlman,” as Pamela Painter so aptly puts it.

Told in a series of connected flashes (actually microfictions, some as brief as one sentence), this book tells the story of circus clowns and sideshow performers, with Nancy’s inimitable style and wit and what James Thomas describes as “brilliant performance art on the printed page.”

The pieces are so inventive and daring, with a voice that leaps off the page. Nancy deals with deep truths in a way that bucks straight realism. As she puts it, she feels most comfortable telling her stories “slant.” One of my favorites is this mind bender:

Future Self

I was backstage. The crowd was applauding. I peeked

through the heavy maroon curtains and there was my Future Self

in the spotlight. She saw me and her face opened like a flower to

the sun.

I walked on stage and sat next to her. Then I noticed I was

sitting in a chair labeled “Before” as the audience clapped and

whistled.

I love what Steven Dunn has to say about this collection:

“Nancy Stohlman’s writing is so damn sharp here. And each of these shards that make up Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities is connected by this silly-sad-hopeful-absurd-melancholic web that catches everything you do not want, and you’ll find yourself longing for what’s not caught. But you will end up caught in the web too, with all of that mess. I’ve never read a book like this, and I’m excited to hear all of the conversations surrounding it.” ​~Steven Dunn, author of Water and Power and Potted Meat

If you’re in the Denver area, why not treat yourself to the book’s official release and performance on Friday, October 26th at the Mercury Cafe ballroom? 

Read more about this collection in Nancy’s interview at Pen and Muse.

Watch the trailer!

 

Interviews

Nancy Stohlman Interviewed at New Flash Fiction Review

Meg Pokrass recently interviewed Nancy at New Flash Fiction Review regarding her two stories in the New Micro anthology, her terrific, soon-to-be released book, Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, our flash fiction retreats, and more.

Below is an excerpt:

MP: Congratulations on your new collection, MADAM VELVET’S CABARET OF ODDITIES! Can you tell us why the world of circus life, the world of clowns, and side-show oddities and performers became your focus?

NS: Thank you! And so many ways to answer this question! So, I’ve been on stage since I was very little in one way or another. Actually my very first memory is of being wheeled around the Barnum and Bailey circus ring (with some other kids picked from the audience) by clowns. I remember the feeling of spotlights so bright I couldn’t see my parents in the audience at all, and I remember the clowns talking to each other like regular people and it occurred to me that they were regular people. Then when I was about 10 my mother actually became a clown (she was nothing like the clown in the book) and used to recruit us to come “clown” with her: at the retirement community, at the town picnics and parades and such. I loved recognizing my friends from school and realizing they had no idea who I was when I was in clown makeup.

But maybe the biggest impetus to write this book was the years I spent traveling with the Renaissance Festival. It was a weird and wonderful American pastoral time—I was in my early 20s, I lived in a van and traveled all over the country, city to city—I’ve been to 47 states. And I’ve tried to write about those years many times—I wrote a bad (unpublished) novel called American Gypsy years ago. But as I said earlier, I have an aversion to telling a story straight—I have to come at it slant. And considering the reality of this/that life is pretty crazy to begin with, it took me a long time to find the right back door into the material.

You can read the rest of the interview HERE.

Interviews, Kathy fish, Nancy Stohlman

Karen Stefano in Conversation with Nancy Stohlman & Kathy Fish

Many thanks to the amazing Karen Stefano, author of The Secret Games of Words and a forthcoming memoir, Vigilance, for inviting Nancy and me to take part in her wonderful podcast series. Here, we talked about all things flash fiction, about our flash fiction retreats, and did a “mini workshop” of our own flash stories. Have a listen!

Karen Stefano in Conversation with Nancy Stohlman & Kathy Fish

Interviews

Writing & Striving for a Happier, Healthier Lifestyle: A Chat with Lucy Merklee

Lucy Merklee will be joining Nancy and me (along with her husband, Bill) for Writing Wild in Costa Rica! Lucy comes from a corporate background and looks to explore creative writing, particularly the flash fiction form, with us this January.
Hi Lucy! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Have you ever visited Costa Rica before? What interests/fascinates you about that part of the world?
I have never visited Costa Rica, but I have heard so many wonderful things from friends and family that have been. It is supposedly gorgeous and has wonderful weather year-round, so I am very excited to travel there with my husband for the retreat.
You are relatively new to creative writing. What got you interested? What do you enjoy writing about?
What interests me as a writer is anything that helps me grow as a person and enables me to get inside and really feel whatever the character is experiencing.
What comes to mind when you think of the word “retreat”? And how do you find ways to make time for yourself and your own creativity in your day to day life?
Two years ago as I was approaching my 50th birthday, I decided that I wanted to make healthier choices and live a happier lifestyle. So I engaged a life coach and he really helped me see things from a different perspective. I have lost 70 pounds and have never felt better. I still do have some weight to lose before I get to my goal, however my clothes fit and I feel great.
I really enjoy coaching other people on how to change the way they look at things, because then things change the way they look. I also love to give unsolicited advice, but no longer take it personally if people aren’t open at that moment to what I’m saying. Sometimes all it takes is the right person, saying something in exactly the right way, at the right time when you are ready to hear it. I strive to be that for everyone I encounter.
Now that my kids are grown, I am able to focus on what I want my second chapter to look like. I volunteer every week for two hours at the local animal shelter working with the dogs and the cats, and I absolutely love it. It’s incredibly fulfilling. I also mentor at risk high school students via a program through work, and I have received the president’s volunteer service award for the past three years because I volunteer over 100 hours a year.
Most of the writing I have done has been corporate in nature, as I have a Masters Degree in corporate communication. I also dabble in shorter stories and have an idea for something I want to work on while at the retreat in terms of flash fiction.
Oh, I’m excited to see your flash idea come to fruition in Costa Rica, Lucy! Can you share something about yourself (a memory, anecdote, coincidence, special/weird talent, etc.) you’d like to share with us?
I enjoy all forms of exercise including swimming (we have a pool, so I usually swim about a half a mile every day at lunch), walking, running (in the cooler weather I usually do about two miles a day), yoga, tennis, pickle ball, you name it, I am up for it! I also enjoy needlepoint, Reading, gardening, and can hold my own with the best of them on most TV shows.
Thanks so much, Lucy!
BIO: Lucy Merklee is a full-time working mother of two amazing adult children. She has worked at AT&T for 28 years in a multitude of roles and will stay as long as they’ll have her. Lucy lives in Wanaque, NJ with her wonderful husband Bill and two awesome cats. If anyone is looking for three hermit crabs, she would be very happy to rehome them with all supplies, as they were left behind by her daughter when she moved out.
Note: Does Writing Wild in Costa Rica this January sound appealing to you? A very few spaces remain! Find more information HERE.