Friday Fictioneers – Expedition

photo-15
Photo Prompt © Douglas M MacIlroy

They found me of course. Writing my journal by the light of the oil lamp. I fancied a wave of warmth tickled my chilled body as the leather and paper blazed-up on the fire. The flag’s crack in the Arctic wind howled despair.

Petrie’s tone was that of a disappointed father. “You know only the official record is permitted. It says so in your contract. No individual tales.”

“You think you can own the past?” I said.

“No.” He laughed. “With my account of muscular purity and heroic suffering, I will own the future.”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

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Friday Fictioneers – Vanishing Point

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Photo Prompt © Dawn M Miller

Hattie couldn’t remember the point when men stopped noticing her, when construction workers no longer whistled and catcalled. Bur one day, while she was out buying a newspaper, she noticed a sense of ease, a relaxation of the shoulders.

Then she discovered she could deftly extract strangers’ wallets. Nobody saw her.

She tried lifting a diamond tiara from Johnstone’s Jewellers. Nobody saw her.

Governments began to offer contracts of extraordinary delicacy. It was dangerous, of course, but paid lavishly.

One spring afternoon, her grandson walked right through her.

“Well, bugger me,” she said. “I’ve passed on and nobody told me.”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

 

Friday Fictioneers – Oil

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Photo Prompt © Nick Allen

Mirrors glittered in the great hall, images of his opponent marching away in regiments to the ends of the world. Yet Henderson was not overawed by the infinite Vizier, for a similar legion marched at his side.

On the table between the statesmen, pleasant valleys, ripe fields and great cities. And a pen. The Vizier drew a line around a spired settlement. Henderson took a bustling port. Watching counsellors sighed like wind in the forest.

The Vizier said, “Let us sup and be at ease, Excellency. It’s going to be a long day.” He clapped his hands.

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Subject and Object

dales-waterfall
Photo Prompt © Dale Rogerson

Ki warbles. Ki croaks at the edge of a pool, green-shaded by ki’s overhang. Kin everywhere.

The warbling hopping on the earthing seeking seedlings under the shading.

Old menning stroking beardings, separating once and for all “this is the subject, and this the object”.

Now I am he, and all you kin are its.

I gather them, name them. I have dominion. The oak falls to my axe.

Where now are kin?

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

This piece is an experiment. It uses the suggestion of Robin Kimmerer that the division of pronouns into personal (he/she) and impersonal (it) in English reflects a worldview of dominion rather than stewardship of nature. She

Friday Fictioneers – Malkie

under-bridge
Photo Prompt © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Malkie weren’t bad, not really. Unlucky, you might say. He could have been somebody. At least, I can say he were good to me. Shared his bottle, when he had one, and his blanket on a winter night. I seen the TV pictures of them world war cemeteries for the boys who died afraid in the mud—shade trees and white headstones in neat rows like soldiers on parade,.

Malkie died in the mud here in our trench. But no bugger gave him a pretty grave. I did me best with a rock. Lest we forget.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – The Last

js-brand-tree
Photo Prompt © J. S. Brand

It was the last. The very last tree. Arboriculturists exerted their best efforts. Gardeners mulched. Museum directors curated with a cordon to keep woodpeckers at bay.

I knew it was special, sure. But it seemed so ordinary. The world’s final tree should look amazeballs. Arms hugging the trunk’s girth, I put my ear to the bark and listened to its soul. The creature spoke to me of age and pain. Sculpting with a chainsaw, I revealed that soul, its whorls and hieroglyphs.

“Umm, dude,” Bobby whined, “You didn’t strip the bark all the way round? Right?”

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

110. Writing densely: layers and motifs

I’ve read a lot of stories recently, as part of sifting submissions to Freeze Frame Fiction. Many are okay. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the memory of them blows away in the wind. I reject around 99% of the submission, and I’m becoming aware that the stories that give me pleasure have a quality which I’ll call density.

Perhaps I can best explain what this quality is by describing yarns that don’t have it. There is a character. He or she has a problem. As they try to solve the dilemma other characters help or frustrate them. There is a final resolution. So we have a general storyline. And some tales don’t go further. The writing is only one layer thick.

More satisfying stories are multi-layered. They have a past. Like geological strata, they speak of deep forces. The surface layer is the simple storyline—what the protagonist wants and what happens to him or her. But below the skin may be layers that are shaped by the protagonist’s identity and world they inhabit. These strata create subplots. Perhaps what the protagonist wants is not what they really need. Perhaps their station in life or the times into which they’re thrust constrain what they can do. And so, the storyline is supported by an underpinning of other meanings.

strata.jpg

Density is the connection between things and the way events and places and objects resonate with each other. This is inherently satisfying to a reader because we respond to worlds that are saturated in meaning. Narratives lacking density feel insubstantial as candyfloss.

Stories are powerful not because they are a chain of events, but because they show us connections. They tell us what goes with what, what is important and what’s unimportant, who to praise and who to blame. They’re not just about what happened, but about what those happenings mean.

A sense of density can be fashioned in many ways.

  • The way a plot embodies a bigger issue or message
  • Layers. The structural element of density is created by adding layers or subplots
  • Motifs. These are recurring ideas or images which resonate with each other and create a satisfying experience of connectedness. This is partly achieved by structure and partly by wordcraft.

An example

I wrote a 100-word flash fiction story, called Short Circuit, about a monk in a medieval scriptorium. His task is to scribe an illuminated manuscript. As the sun’s rays reflect off the gold leaf, he has a revelation. He believes the words on his page picked out by the sun are a message–meaning is created by a short circuit of the manuscript.

The story went through 16 drafts, growing to 2,066 words. In the second draft, I added a Viking attack just at the moment of revelation. In subsequent edits, I gave the monk an interest in researching the alchemical skills of the ancients, a passion that flirts with heresy. There was now an obvious theme of the conflict between knowledge and spiritual authority. Quite intentionally I began to craft this to echo modern debates about truth and its denial.  The metaphor of fire was coming to play a major role—the fire of insight and the fire of pillage. I decided that the abbey was on the holy isle of Lindisfarne at the time of first Viking raid in 793.

And that led me to the monk’s backstory. He had been an apprentice blacksmith before a local chief slew his parents. Iron can make tools, but it also makes weapons, and the boy abandons iron in a quest for tranquillity and learning. Under attack from the raiders, the monk turns back to his cell to save a valuable letter from a correspondent in Byzantium.

The ending remained elusive. Again, I returned to blacksmithing for the answer. The monk reinterprets the words picked out by the sun to mean he is commanded to be the destroyer of the invaders. Breaking his vows, he takes up the iron again, seizing a weapon.

 

How to use the concept of density

The elements below roughly correspond to stages in the writing process

  • The seed of the story. This is the writer’s animating purpose. It may be an idea you want to explore, a situation, a moral, a dilemma–stories can emerge from anywhere. Note, this is not the same as the basic storyline. Give the seed time to put out roots before you start drafting. My story, Short Circuit, originated from a comment by a writer arguing the literary meaning is a short circuiting of the world.

roots

  • The chess board. This is where the storyline exists. There is a location and a cast of characters, a set of pieces that move in distinct ways. At the beginning, you may not know exactly what they will do. You may discover this as you let them interact. My chess board for Short Circuit was the Viking interruption of the monks’ life in Lindisfarne Abbey. The protagonist has conflicts with the Prior about his pursuit of knowledge, and an inner conflict about the brutal killing of his family.

chessboard

  • The mountain. Beyond the moving, mating and slaying on the chess board, there’s an over-arching destination, the distant mountain. This may only come into view slowly for you as you write. In Short Circuit, the monk puts his own life in danger to save the valuable letter. He puts his soul in jeopardy by taking up the sword.

mountain-tree

Everything that happens on the chess board should move the story closer to the mountain. The mountain is both the resolution of the story and the achievement of the writer’s animating purpose. It is the fruit of the gambits on the board and of the seed’s flowering.

  • Polishing in the infinite hall of mirrors. This is possible only when you’ve completed the first draft of the story. It’s part of the editing process. In that process, you check for comprehension, flow, clarity, coherence. Often, the first draft is just the bare bones of the story. Now you tighten it up and make the prose sing. But the editing stage may also be where you discover what the story is about and add additional layers.

hall of mirrors

Finally, you look for ways to connect the layers, making them resonate with the same underlying meaning. Recurring motifs, reflecting each other in the hall of mirrors, help to create this effect. In Short Circuit, the recurring motifs were good iron and bad iron, good fire and bad fire.

 

Do you enjoy density in stories? If so, what do you mean by it?

Friday Fictioneers – T is for taunt

chess-eyes
Photo Prompt © Jeff Arnold

My name is HT Smith.  The Smith, of course, is commonplace, and the H stands for Harold. The T name may never be spoken aloud. Call me Harold or Harry and I will send people after you to break your limbs. If you’re foolish enough to use the T name, older creatures will do much worse.  So just call me HT and we’ll get along fine.

We both know the T is a taunt. You will never be able to ignore the search for its secret. And you lust after the power over me you believe it will offer.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Incubus

rogers-skylight
Photo Prompt © Roger Bultot

There’s a stranger in my womb, a cuckoo in my nest. I’m great with another woman’s child. I know I should feel grateful she donated her egg for me, but it seems like I’m incubating it for her.

Will I learn to love this thing spawning inside me? They say every mother does, but that’s not true. Some never bond with their child, even when it’s natural. I feel you in me, demon. The end days are here, and I have nowhere to run.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

109. Complexity or intensity: is sentimentality bad fiction?

Much has been written about the sin of sentimentality in fiction. But is it really so bad?

What is sentimental writing?

It has to be more than simply writing that inspires emotion, a sensation of tenderness. Writing is supposed to move the reader. Sentimentality, as apposed to sentiment, is something shallow that cheapens or simplifies that emotion in order to tug at the reader’s heartstrings.

If it makes you go “aww” it’s probably an example of sentimentality.

If a story contains these stock themes, it’s likely to involve sentimentality (though these themes do also occur in deeper fiction):

  • A child’s tears
  • A sick pet
  • The forgiving father
  • The individual who stands up for right
  • The kind and wise grandparent
  • A triumph over adversity

puppies

Is it elitist to abhor sentimentality?

There was an interesting debate on sentimentality in the New York Times between authors Zoë Heller and Leslie Jamison. Heller argued that “Sentimental fiction is a kind of pablum: Excessive amounts can spoil the appetite for reality, or at least for more fibrous forms of art.” Jamison responded that “I would argue that one of the deep unspoken fears beneath the sentimentality taboo is really the fear of commonality, the fear of being just like everyone else or telling a story just like everyone else’s.”

Jamison’s point about elitism is interesting. “We all have the same stories to tell,” she writes. And it’s true that the accusation of sentimentality tends to be levelled by intellectuals at writers of pulp fiction.  Perhaps they’re just sneering at emotions they disagree with.

John Irving, writing in the New York Times, points out the hypocrisy of context. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is among the best-loved works in English. Yet its theme of redemption is arguably sentimental, as is the tear-jerking ending where Tiny Tim says “God bless us, every one”. And yet the indulgence we afford tales of kindness at Christmas time doesn’t extend to other seasons. Critical fire greeted Dickens late grafting of a happy ending onto Great Expectations.  And I’d probably agree with the critics.

Some say the sin of sentimentality is that the author manipulates the reader into feeling certain emotions. But I think that’s true of all writing. The events on the page of a story don’t really exist—the writer simulates them to create an effect.

The reader’s collusion with sentimentality

Maybe the most useful definition of sentimentality is Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that it affords “the luxury of having an emotion without paying for it”. This definition emphasises the cheapness of the effect. But, interestingly, it also makes the consumer share responsibility for the sin with the producer.

So perhaps the issue is less to do with the emotion evoked than with what we’re enabled to do afterwards. Tropes and clichés are poor art because they confirm stereotypes rather than challenging them. In the same way, perhaps sentimentality is poor art because it denies us an understanding of how to cope with real loss or engage generously with others. If the writing doesn’t surprise and elucidate in some way, can it be good?

Jamison, in another essay, makes a similar point. She argues that sentimentalism strokes our ego by titillating our capacity to feel while simultaneously denying us genuine emotion.

I guess I’m arguing in favour of the pleasure of complexity and against the pleasure of simple intensity. Sentimentality irons out ambiguity. Whether you enjoy complexity or intensity may be no more than a matter of preferences.

What do you think? Is sentimentality a writing sin? Or is this just an elitist prejudice?