To Segment or Not to Segment: “Baby, Baby” (flash fiction)

Today, writer Robyn Ryle told me she just had a segmented story accepted at Luna Luna Magazine. It was a story she’d changed to a segmented structure after reading my story, “Rodney & Chelsea” posted some while back here on my blog. I can’t wait to read her story and am so excited that my story inspired her to look at structure another way!

But does segmenting always work? What is lost and what is gained by employing this structure in flash fiction?

The structure suits flash fiction very well in that it eliminates the use of transitions, bridges from scene to scene, and therefore results in fewer words–a goal of flash fiction.

The absence of transitions creates a snapshot effect. The reader has to collaborate with the writer to create story within the white space. The writer is playing with the reader’s subconscious, which of course differs from reader to reader. This, to me, is what makes flash so exciting to read and to write. The individual snapshots carry more weight, or ought to carry more weight, if they’re to be effective.

Also, segmented structure allows a flash to cover a broader expanse of time (see my post about Jeff Landon’s “Thirty-Nine Years of Carrie Wallace.”–although I wrote a one-sentence flash that covered a lifetime in my flash “The Stars of Ursa Major” published many years ago in New South).

But what is lost? I would say a gentle flow or build. Flash fiction doesn’t always need to be “punchy” or “sharp” (many would disagree with me on this!). There are times when you want something smoother, slower even. Or you want to stay in one particular moment or scene. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a future post, but I will say now that segmenting something like this would diffuse the moment and nothing, nothing in flash fiction should be diffused.

Here is another of my segmented flash stories, published in an issue of FRiGG Magazine which was devoted to micro-fiction. I saw this story as a collection of micros and editor, Ellen Parker, agreed. I wanted to convey the frenetic, exhausting, exhilarating first weeks and months of motherhood, but only to focus on the sharp moments that force themselves out of the blur of it. Did the segmented structure serve my purpose? Let me know what you think…

Baby, Baby…

Everyone’s in a hurry. Especially the men, who run for the trains and sacrifice their briefcases to the doors. Men in seats, reading newspapers or paperbacks. Ling is weary of these men. She wants to stick her pregnant belly into their noses. She looks at herself in the window. She’s wearing a herringbone maternity suit with a large red bow at her neck. She looks angry and fat, but festive.

~~

Six weeks after giving birth, Ling goes back to work downtown. She pumps her breasts in the ladies room, sitting on the toilet. Co-workers come in to pee or brush their teeth and the pump squeaks and from the stall, Ling says sorry…I’m sorry.

~~

Before dawn, she buckles the baby into the Escort and sticks a bottle in its mouth. She leaves the car seat at the babysitter’s for her husband, who collects the baby when he gets off work and drives the baby home in his Toyota. The baby listens to Bruce Springsteen in the Toyota and Moonlight Sonata in the Escort.

~~

Ling hands the babysitter a half cup of frozen blue milk in a baggy. The babysitter shrugs. I’ll mix it with her formula, she says. You have a run in your stocking.

~~

Ling doesn’t sleep and becomes ineffectual in her job. She’d quit, but they are sort of broke. Suddenly, she doesn’t know what any of it means. What does it mean? She asks her co-workers. What are the codes? What are the procedures? She types a row of question marks, eats prodigiously from a bag on her desk. Sometimes she closes her eyes and dreams that the baby has been put back into her stomach. Only now, the baby is a monkey.

~~

On weekends, she takes the baby for long strolls. Once they’d gone as far as three miles and the baby got hungry and Ling had forgotten to pack a bottle. She ran all the way back, bumping over cracks in the sidewalk as the baby screamed.

~~

The husband arranges for a babysitter so they can go to a Christmas party. The party is a Vegas night and they gamble at tables and make small talk with the husband’s co-workers and their spouses. At the craps table, Ling whispers to the older woman next to her, I have a three month old. I can’t believe I’m here. The woman offers a sip of her screwdriver.

~~

Each working day at dusk, Ling runs into the house and kicks off her sneakers. She reaches up into her skirt and rolls down the band of her panty hose and takes the baby from her husband’s lap. She lies on her back, holding the baby overhead and flies the baby back and forth in her upstretched arms. She sings:

baby baby
flying all over the world
looking for toys and candy

and the baby smiles and the husband laughs. And the baby’s cheeks droop like water balloons. And the baby drops drool on Ling’s forehead.

Writing Process Blog Tour: James Tate Hill

jt-picture copyJames Tate Hill’s fiction has appeared in Story Quarterly, Sonora Review, The South Carolina Review, and other outlets. He has been a finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award and the Hudson Prize, and in 2012 he was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. His book reviews and interviews can be found at Bookslut, and he serves as Reviews Editor for Monkeybicycle. A native of Charleston, West Virginia, he teaches writing at North Carolina A & T State University.

First, let me thank the wonderful Kathy Fish, not only for inviting me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour, but for allowing me, blogless and Tumblrless as I am, to post this on her blog. Her own responses from July 17 can and should be read further down the blog.

What are you working on?

I’m turning the last corner of line edits on a novel about child stars with mysterious talents. It charts the stardom and complicated romance between two orphans who grow up in an abandoned movie theater. As teenagers, their talents have faded, and the former stars struggle to pull themselves from downward spirals. Seeing similarities in their stories, they wonder if more than fate and their own bad choices are behind their demise.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

The novel has speculative elements in the tradition of books like Geek Love and Never Let Me Go, but I don’t—I can’t—write prose like Katherine Dunn or Kazuo Ishiguro. In fact, the novel’s coming-of-age structure might place it as firmly in the category of Young Adult as so-called Literary Fiction. I’m certain the work of writers like Kevin Wilson, Stephen King, and Shirley Jackson, ostensibly writers for an adult audience, helped to shape this novel, and I hope my work has a fraction of the psychological complexity of theirs. But as I forge my own complicated romance with more and more Young Adult fiction, I’m finding complexity is more a function of writer and story than genre.

Why do you write what you do?

All my writing projects, or the ones that work, can be traced to an obsession. Since early childhood, I’ve been obsessed with fame, show business, celebrity of just about any stripe. Why I’ve been so interested in this topic is a question for another day—I have my theories—but as far back as my early twenties, I noticed the stories I enjoyed writing most invariably involved a character, not necessarily the main character, in the public eye. Inevitably any story about fame takes place in the gap, small or large, between perception and reality, a space every writer probably explores on some level.

How does your writing process work?

In the fabled showdown of tortoise v. hare, I’m definitely the tortoise, although I’ve yet to win any races. I began the first, altogether different version of this project eight years ago, a few days after the death of the novel that came before it. I had been fortunate enough to find an agent for a love story set in the wacky world of professional wrestling, a novel whose myriad shortcomings are better left unmentioned. But the rejection of that more traditional narrative led me pretty far in the other direction—a little too far, as it turned out. Fast-forward a few years. I had just completed a mystery and had written twenty-five pages of a new novel that weren’t bad, but sitting down to work on it felt like creating a human being, cell by cell. When I heard a faint heartbeat, it wasn’t coming from the new project; it was coming from the figurative drawer in which I had buried the child stars project years earlier. An idea took shape pretty quickly, a story that ran from page one all the way to the end, which is to say a genuine plot. Only the heartbeat, i.e. the central conceit, of the earlier drafts lives on, but after eight years the book seems to be what it wanted to be all along.

The following writers have generously agreed to continue the tour next Thursday:

Valerie Nieman is the author of three novels, the most recent being Blood Clay, winner of the Eric Hoffer Award in General Fiction and a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Prize. Her 1988 novel Neena Gathering was returned to print last year by Permuted Press as a classic in the post-apocalyptic genre. Currently a North Carolina Arts Council Fellow, she has received an NEA creative writing fellowship as well as grants in West Virginia and Kentucky. Her debut poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake, will be joined by a new book, Hotel Worthy, forthcoming in 2015. Her poetry has been honored with the Greg Grummer Prize and the Nazim Hikmet Prize. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, she was a newspaper reporter and editor for many years. She now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University and is the poetry editor of Prime Number magazine.
Find out more at http://www.valnieman.com

Ariell Cacciola is a writer based in New York City. Her writing has appeared in various magazines, journals, and anthologies. She also translates from German to English and is finishing her first novel. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Florida State University and an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she received a merit fellowship and a literary translation fellowship in 2011-2012 to Leipzig, Germany.
Find out more at http://www.ariellcacciola.com

Robert Long Foreman is from Wheeling, West Virginia. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared most recently in Hobart, Fourth Genre, the 2014 Pushcart Anthology, and Another Chicago Magazine. He teaches creative writing and literature at Rhode Island College.
Find out more at http://www.robertlongforeman.tumblr.com

My Writing Process – Blog Tour

Many thanks to my friend and amazing author, Myfanwy Collins, for inviting me to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour. (If you haven’t see it, here is her terrific post.)

1) What are you working on?

Two things: I’m pulling together a new collection which may turn out to be a novella of connected flash-length stories. It is moving in that direction and I’m excited about it.

I’ll be a little coy about the second project and just say it involves an invitation to teach flash fiction and I’m extremely excited for the opportunity.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure my work fits into any specific genre. I do write a lot of literary flash fiction, as well as prose poetry and regular length short stories. Sometimes I go a little experimental with my writing. I’m not really sure what distinguishes my work from other literary writing beyond my own style, which of course is unique to everyone.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I was recently asked this question for Flash Fiction Chronicles. And while I write things other than flash, much of the answer pertains to all of my writing so I’ll just link my answer here: “Why I Write Flash Fiction.”

4) How does your writing process work?

I’m constantly going over the same material. Most things I publish now I can trace back to some embryonic scribbles in a notebook from months, if not years, ago. That’s why I always describe myself as a slow writer. There is some feeling that there’s something there in a line or an image that keeps drawing me back to it.

Another part of my process is a tendency to weirdify my past (which is weird enough already). I like to look for the strangest aspect and just run with it. And I love to write down weird bits of overheard dialogue. I love to listen to strangers’ conversations. I love to watch people in airports. All pretty typical writer stuff.

I have asked the following terrific writers to go next. Look for their responses July 24th (James Tate Hill is going to honor me by posting his response here on my blog):

Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer whose stories have
appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Birkensnake, and other
places. Her short story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was
published by firthFORTH Books in 2012, and her novel, Une Ville Vide,
by PublieMonde in 2013. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart
Prize, the British Science Fiction Award, and included in the Wigleaf
top 50 longlist. Find out more at http://beritellingsen.com.

Rebecca Meacham is the author the flash fiction collection Morbid Curiosities, which won the 2013 New Delta Review chapbook contest. Her story collection, Let’s Do, won University of North Texas Press’s 2004 Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Read more at: http://rebeccameachamwriter.com

James Tate Hill’s fiction has appeared in Story Quarterly, Sonora
Review, The South Carolina Review, and other outlets. He has been a
finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award and the Hudson Prize, and in
2012 he was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.
His book reviews and interviews can be found at Bookslut, and he
serves as Reviews Editor for Monkeybicycle. A native of Charleston,
West Virginia, he teaches writing at North Carolina A & T State
University.

Flash Fiction: The Blue of Milk

Asked by the editors of Blue Fifth Review to comment on the writing of this piece, I said, “La lecture huile sur toile is such a beautiful and ghostly painting. It evoked in me a terrible sense of loneliness. From that feeling, I created this gauzy scene with two characters: A naked woman walking in the moonlight and a small boy trailing behind her, dragging a white blanket. I wrote various observers into the story and finally settled on a man walking his dog. I wrote the story with the repetitions and flow the way it felt and sounded to my ear. Later, in revision, I found myself trying to wrestle the story from its strangeness into something safer, but it just wouldn’t take. I wrote a new ending, went deeper into the strangeness, and finally the story felt exactly true and right.”

The Blue of Milk*

There was a woman who went to the park at night and swung on the swings and drank from a bottle in a paper bag. When she became dizzy she would stand and remove her clothes and walk the perimeter of the park singing low.

There was a man who walked his dog, who saw her, but kept to the other side of the street and never entered the park. When the moon was out and shining she looked blue he thought a naked blue or silver or the blue of milk but he tried not to look at her.

There was a small child who lay in bed waiting for his mother to return. He decided one night to follow her.

The man saw the boy trailing far behind the woman. The boy dragged a blanket. The man kept to the other side of the street and didn’t enter the park.

All the nights after this were the same with the woman taking off all her clothes and circling the park and drinking from the bottle in the bag and the boy trailing behind like a ghost and the man walking his dog and seeing them both but keeping to the other side of the street and not entering the park or calling out to the woman and the boy.

The nights grew colder. The woman persisted with taking off her clothes and the boy persisted with following her in just his thin pajamas and the man persisted in walking his dog but the man began wearing a coat and the dog too wore a coat that matched the man’s.

One night the man’s dog, a terrier growing old and blind, started to bark at the woman as she passed by and the woman and the boy trailing behind her were startled and for the first time noticed the man and his dog and the woman stopped and the boy stopped and the woman cried out and the terrier strained at his leash and the man felt now he had no choice but to cross the street and enter the park and apologize for his dog and get the woman to put on her clothes and maybe help her and her son back to their house and God knows what else but now he probably had to do something as they had both seen him.

The terrier stopped barking and the man bent to pick him up as he crossed the street and entered the park and approached the woman who was crying and patting the head of the boy whose arms were wrapped around her naked legs.

The man said I apologize if my dog frightened you I don’t know what got into him but see he’s very sweet really and you can pet him if you’d like. The man knelt and the boy reached out his hand to let the terrier smell it. Both the boy and the woman petted the terrier and let him lick their hands and the man tried not to look at the woman.

Ma’am he said you seem to have misplaced your clothes can I help you find them? The boy looked up to his mother now embarrassed but the mother only said yes let’s find my clothes and she set down the bag with the bottle in it in such a way that it would not tip over.

Her clothes lay on the ground near the swings and the woman pulled them on. They were only pajamas and it had gotten quite cold now and the man took off his coat and put it over the woman’s shoulders and his stocking cap he put on the boy’s head and now everybody looked quite normal and it seemed okay to walk them home which he offered to do.

It turned out that the woman and the boy lived not far from where the man lived, on his own with the terrier, though he’d never seen them during the day or any other place in the neighborhood. She asked him to come inside and she would make them all tea but she was unsteady on her feet. She said this is our abode and it sounded like a warble and she made a sweeping gesture with her arm and the boy started to cry. She went to the kitchen and the man sat down with his terrier on his lap and the boy lay on the floor with the blanket knotted in his fist.

The woman brought a cup of water with a tea bag in it but the water had not been heated. The man watched the brown color of the tea swirl slowly into the clear water and said I would like to help you if I can do you need some money or food do you have a job what can I do? The woman said there is nothing to be done or said we are fine you finish your tea and go please. The boy dragged his blanket to the other room and the woman said we need to sleep now and she came to the man with the terrier on his lap and gave him a kiss on the cheek. The man could see her breast through the opening in her pajamas and he touched it and mouthed it and she let him and she liked it and this is how they were for some time, the woman bent to the man, the long strands of her hair falling onto the little dog’s head and over his blind eyes, in the quiet of the woman’s abode.

*originally published in Blue Fifth Review: Blue Five Notebook Series, in response to la lecture huile sur toile by Francis Denis. Thanks to Sam Rasnake and Michelle Elvy for inviting me to contribute.

Reading & Books I’m Looking Forward To Reading

Doll PalaceSomehow I’ve been given the tremendous honor of reading an advance copy of Sara Lippmann’s forthcoming collection from Dock Street Press, DOLL PALACE. I’ve only just started, but, people, all I can say is…oh man. And here is just a sampling from the story, “The Last Resort”:

That was all it took. Phil rose up from the heat and left the water and ran for his son. His soles slapped the concrete. His body shook in the wintry air. He did not notice the cold. He ran. He drew in his elbows. He bowed his head. Like this, he ran, far away from the young one who touched the edge of his lip, the girl in the whirlpool making waves, the sweet flesh of a child whom he could almost hear whisper I love you.

I hope to write a full review when I’m finished. Releasing in September, the collection may be pre-ordered now from Dock Street Press.

if i would leave myself behindOh, Lauren Becker’s novella & story collection, IF I WOULD LEAVE MYSELF BEHIND, has just released from Chicago publisher, Curbside Splendor. I’m a fan of her writing and this book is right at the top of my ridiculously bloated to-read list.

Ethel Rohan has a short memoir out from e-book publisher Shebooks, OUT OF DUBLIN, that I’m eager to read. I’ve always admired Ethel’s fierce, brave, honest work.out of dublin

the book of laneyFurther out, I am so excited that my talented friend, Myfanwy Collins, has a new novel forthcoming in March, 2015, THE BOOK OF LANEY, from YA publisher, Lacewing Books–an imprint of Engine Books which published Myfanwy’s novel, ECHOLOCATION. This one promises to be just as stunning. UPDATE: THE BOOK OF LANEY IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER FROM LACEWING BOOKS!!!

And Lindsay Hunter’s book, UGLY GIRLS, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. Lindsay Hunter is that combination of brilliant and prolific that astounds me. And I’ve read her story “Summer Massacre” in the latest Denver Quarterly about a hundred times (okay, three times) and it’s beautiful and I’ll stop now before I start speaking in tongues.

And wow, aren’t all these covers gorgeous?

At Flash Fiction Chronicles: Why I Write Flash Fiction

my copies of TWCBIThanks to Jim Harrington, for inviting me to contribute a short piece at Flash Fiction Chronicles about why I write flash fiction. I don’t see myself as just a flash writer, but it is what I mostly write. For me, it is the art that most closely approximates the way I see the world and how my mind works. You can read my post here at Flash Fiction Chronicles. Oh and leave a comment there, too, if you’d like. I’d love to hear what brings you to flash, as a writer and/or reader.

Segmented Structure in Flash Fiction: Rodney & Chelsea

I wrote several versions of this story, but this version, told in seven subtitled micros, is my favorite. Published years ago in Mississippi Review online, the story now appears in Together We Can Bury It. I’ve talked about segmented structure before, how the story and characterization are advanced and built-upon in short, sharp bursts and how well-suited this form is to flash fiction (see my posts about Jeff Landon’s and Myfanwy Collins’ beautiful segmented stories).

Rodney and Chelsea

1. Tangerines

Rodney and Chelsea have decided this is the day. They are sixteen years old and they are in love. Neither of them has ever done it, though Rodney has come close with a girl he worked with at Dairy Queen who smelled like French fries and who had perfect, melon-sized breasts. Chelsea’s breasts are more the size of tangerines, but he likes them. He likes that she smells like Fruit Loops and that her front teeth overlap slightly. Her mouth is glossed. He slips his tongue inside.

2. Bear Spirit

“Rodney’s an old man’s name,” Chelsea’s mom says and calls him Rascal instead. It makes Rodney feel like a Labrador.

Chelsea’s mom believes that life is a celebration and that people should live in the Now. Chelsea has an older brother named Royal. Nobody knows where the hell he is. He ran away from the halfway house downtown, the place Chelsea’s mom said was his best chance and hope. He has a behavior disorder which involves beating people up. He doesn’t know his own strength is what Chelsea’s mom says. He has a bear spirit. He is un-ruinable.

The last guy he beat up now walks with a cane.

3. The Bunnies

Chelsea’s father left when Royal was ten and Chelsea was a newborn. Every Easter, he sends Chelsea a six-foot Easter bunny and now she has sixteen huge Easter bunnies and there are no more places to sit in Chelsea’s house. Sometimes people sit on the bunnies’ laps or sometimes they just stand, looking around or sometimes they sit on the floor.

4. A Small Complication

Their first date, Rodney plucked a daffodil from Chelsea’s garden and presented it to her at the door. And Chelsea’s mom gave them Boone’s Farm, mixed with a splash of 7Up. All three of them got a little drunk, sitting on the porch watching the sun go down and a full moon rise. Chelsea’s mom insisted on driving Rodney home. Before he got out of the car, she pulled his face to hers and kissed him, hard.

5. About Rodney’s Parents . . .

Rodney doesn’t have any siblings. He feels lucky, given the circumstances. His mother died of cancer when he was five. He remembers standing on tiptoe to reach a cookie off a plate on the counter and her hand slapping his away. He tries to really see that hand, to see something about it that is especially hers, but it always ends up being just a hand.

Rodney’s father is a podiatrist who is working on his overall fitness. Every day at dawn, he walks the perimeter of the cul-de-sac, gripping fifty-pound dumbbells in each hand. In warm weather he goes without a shirt, his burgeoning muscles gleaming. He makes three trips around, bobs his chin to Chelsea’s mom who watches from her kitchen window, and lays the dumbbells on the porch in the special box. He consumes nothing but protein: lamb chops, sausages, steaks as thick as two hands clamped together. He will never love another woman, he promises Rodney, who really doesn’t care if he does or not. Rodney only wants his father to be happy, which his father assures him he is.

6. Clinical

Two bunnies sit in opposite corners of Chelsea’s bedroom. One is missing an eye and one’s polka-dotted ear is nearly torn off. Rodney and Chelsea undress in a clinical manner and fold their clothes as if, together, they have decided to join the Army. Rodney has seen parts of Chelsea but never the whole and now he stands before her and reaches out to touch one tangerine breast. Unsure of what to do with her own hands, Chelsea simply places them on Rodney’s shoulders.

She’s afraid to get closer because his thing is standing up. She digs her toes into the pink shag rug and closes her eyes. The breeze through the window is making the shutters flap against the window frame and Rodney’s breath smells like oatmeal and grape jelly.

7. The Now

At this moment Chelsea’s dad is getting fired from his job selling tires in Terre Haute and her mom is hunched over a patient, scraping plaque in an office downtown, thinking of that kiss and Royal’s getting the shit kicked out of him in a bar in Tucson. At this moment, Rodney’s dad’s outside on the curb, sweating, coughing, turning blue, as Rodney kisses Chelsea. Like howling into her mouth.