National Short Story Month

May is the traditional month for college graduations, high school proms, renewing your garden or flower beds, but it’s also the “national” month for several issues:  Speech and Hearing, Lupus, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Skin Cancer, Asian Pacific Heritage, and many, many more. People involved with or affected by these issues use the month of May to increase awareness of the topic and raise money.

May is also National Short Story Month. Now, I’m not trying to equate short story awareness with, say ALS awareness, but a literate society is one that strives to conquer disease and acknowledge diversity. An appreciation of the short story, whether as a reader or writer of them, is an essential part of being literate, of having an education.

Many writers–especially those of us who count short stories among our skills–look upon short stories as rather the red-headed step-child of literature. That isn’t altogether inaccurate. The big-name, traditional publishers won’t touch a collection of short stories unless you’re an equally big-name writer. In the past decade or so, some writers have come up with unique ways of “disguising” short story collections–linked stories (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennie Coughlin’s Thrown Out, and my own Blood Vengeanceor a novel in stories (Molly Ringwald’s When It Happens to You, Clifford Garstang’s What the Zhang Boys Know, and, to a certain extent, my book, Spy Flash.)

Those alternative approaches have had some success in getting the short story before the reading public. Small presses, like Press 53 in North Carolina, are more amenable to the publication of short stories, as are university presses, but short stories are almost a niche market.

In the past, short stories (which some believe have their origins in The Canterbury Tales, perhaps the first collection of linked short stories) were the venerated form of fiction, and in the short story’s glory days, hundred of literary and mainstream magazines featured short works. The novel was considered crass pulp fiction, and the short story was considered an art. Such noted writers as Kurt Vonnegut struggled to get his short stories published and often considered himself a failure for it, even as his novels assured his success and literary acceptance. As the novel reached its ascendence in the twentieth century, short stories survived in but a few literary magazines and the venerated New Yorker. Genre short stories–horror, science fiction, thrillers, crime–continued to flourish in limited markets. There are some, usually genre fans, of which I’m one, who believe it was genre short stories that saved the short story as a literary niche.

Interestingly enough, short stories have enjoyed a revival of sorts with the advent of the ebook reader. When you’re looking for something to read on your work commute, a short story is ideal. A short story is something you can begin and finish easily in a single sitting. When I used to commute to work, I’d often be frustrated that I’d reach just the most critical point in a novel when my stop came up. And, yes, there were occasions where I missed my stop because of that. Short stories are ideal for the eReader, either as collections or as singles.

What is the attraction of short stories? Why do those of us who call ourselves novelists indulge in the production of shorter work? Well, sometimes you don’t need 50,000-plus words to tell a story. Sometimes you can do it in 5,000, 3,000, or, with the advent of flash fiction, in less than 1,000 words. Some of us can manage a story in 100 words, and Hemingway once told a rich, poignant story in six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Though I consider myself a novelist, my only published work has been short stories, either in literary magazines or in my own collections. I write two to three short stories a week, usually flash fiction mainly as an exercise for my longer fiction. Face it, when you have to hone and cut words to meet an arbitrary word limit and still tell a complete story, that’s absolutely translatable to a novel-length work. In my year-long edit of a series of four books I’ve been working on, I managed to trim well over 100 pages, which didn’t need to be there in the first place. Had I not been practicing my short story skills under those word limits, I’m convinced that wouldn’t have happened, to the detriment of the work.

So, help out a short story writer in May. Buy a single, or, better yet, buy a collection of short stories and savor them. I happen to have three such collections available. Just scroll down the righthand column. A click on the book’s cover will take you to where you can purchase them. Don’t think of it as enriching me (because, really, it doesn’t pay me that much). Think of it as assuring the continuation of an essential form of fiction–the short story.

For an interesting article on the history of the short story, click here.

Author Interview – Jennie Coughlin

As a follow-up to the review I posted last week of Jennie Coughlin’s debut novel, All That is Necessary, I thought an author interview would round things out nicely.

Indie authors, take note: Ms. Coughlin has some excellent advice for you in this interview, so read and reflect.

Duncan: All That Is Necessary is the first book in a series, but it also reads well as a stand-alone. Describe your process in creating a novel that establishes characters and events, which you’ll continue in future installments but which also has to “wrap up” at a specific point? That is, how did you decide what to reveal and what to just hint at?

Coughlin: I’m not sure there is a short answer to that question. I can say that the original first book in the series is now set to be book three. Both the 1991 events and some of the present-day events in All That Is Necessary set up what’s coming in later books. Ditto for some of what’s coming in book two. So, from that perspective, there were pieces that were easy decisions to show. There also are details and events that need to stay hidden for now, so those also were easy decisions. The tougher parts tended to be figuring what I could put in this book to foreshadow what’s coming, or lay clues that will make sense later, without tipping my hand about what’s coming. There’s one line in this book that isn’t going to make sense until much later in the series — I think book three, possibly late in book two — and I had to be careful to make sure it was there without causing readers to notice it.

One interesting thing has been people’s reaction to the ending. For me, the ending thematically fits with the rest of the book, and also reflects the resolution of the two key threads — Dan and Rick’s attempts to come to grips with a past different from what they had always known. Some readers have really liked it and seen it as tying things up while also giving them something to look forward to in the next book. Some have hated it and felt that it was abrupt and unfinished. In the context of the series, it’s definitely the right spot to end it. I’m hoping the majority of readers will fall on the like/anticipate side of the spectrum.

Duncan: Significant to the novel is the relationship between Dan and Chris, a gay, married couple. That relationship is so typical of any spousal relationship, the reader can “forget” the characters are gay. Was that deliberate? And if so, what do you want the reader, gay or straight, to take away from that glimpse into their lives?

Coughlin: I wasn’t trying to make readers “forget.” Dan and Chris are just being themselves. When I’m writing them, it’s how their personalities interact. That’s true of all of my characters. Just like Riordan’s comment later in the book about this year being the forty-third time he’s asked Becca to marry him is how those two interact. It’s not a statement on getting married or not getting married.

For all the characters, I hope readers take them on their own terms — who they are, what they do, why they do it, how they interact with others. I think we see some of that with Tom Murray. From the opening scene, there’s a logical perception of who he is that is easy to assume. As the story unfolds and we start to learn more, I think there are things that come up that can challenge those assumptions. And if I could throw a single question out for a discussion topic for book clubs, it would be Tom and how his motives and his actions played out. Did he handle things the right way?

Going back to the original question, I saw a blog post recently on Indie Reader, also picked up on HuffPo, that questioned why there aren’t more gay characters in books where their being gay isn’t the defining factor. Getting the characters out of the LGBT genre closet, as it were. I think in traditional publishing, a lot of that is marketing pressure. YA authors have been forced to “straighten” gay characters for years unless the storyline was about the character’s orientation. The only really deliberate choice I made was to stay away from publishers until I get a few books into the series so nobody tries to make me straighten out any character or otherwise make them conform to marketing pressures. Dan and Chris are gay, but that’s not what defines them in this book. Even the one plot thread that veers in that direction is as much about Dan learning that his perceptions of people and events as a child were very black and white, and now as an adult he discovers there are shades of gray, ones he needs to wrestle with.

Duncan: Did this novel turn out exactly how you envisioned it initially? Or were there major shifts? Were they character-driven or plot-driven? Is this the better book than what you first envisioned?

Coughlin: Originally, this was going to be a novella set entirely in 1991. The “marsh mess” (discovering the Irish mob had been using Exeter’s marsh as a body-dumping ground) had such a big impact on so many of the Exeter residents that readers needed to understand what happened then or a lot of the events in the first three books in the series won’t make the kind of sense they’re supposed to. Then my editor pointed out that all the other books are set present day. So I fiddled with bookending the 1991 events with present-day chapters. The set-up was that they were telling Chris what happened, since he wasn’t around back then. That led to the need for an inciting event — some reason to tell the rest of the story when he’d never heard it even after a dozen years in town, most of those either dating or married to Dan. Somehow I got the idea that a) Rick Murray had existed, and b) he was now back. I figured I could deal with the aftermath of his return in book two.

After drafting the entire book in 1991, plus those bookends, my editor hated it. And after thinking about it, I realized that I needed to combine the first two books. That led to this novel’s final structure. The evolution was driven both by plot and by character, but the end result is something I think is much stronger. I’m glad I wrote everything that happened in 1991 first because it forced me to work out exactly what happened and how, but only the scenes that I felt were necessary to the present-day story made it in. Two big scenes in the 1991 version didn’t get in at all: The shootout that kills Dan Reilly’s Uncle Billy and the final confrontation between Dan and Tom Murray. In the end, those scenes just didn’t feel like they added enough to understanding the present to make it worth stopping the story to flash back. The scenes that did make it in did either because they showed how something had happened compared to how the then-teens remembered it or because they showed an aspect of somebody’s character.

I think it’s a better book. Having something from the long past pop back up without warning is a weird experience, especially when in the meantime the people involved have grown from kids to adults. You remember things differently, or remember some things and not others. You see that with the variation between who remembers that Evan Czarnecki was involved and who doesn’t. Evan’s never going to forget that; nor will Dan or Liz (Dan’s cousin, eventually Evan’s wife). Because Evan was so new to town, he wasn’t the one people were talking about back then, and many people just don’t remember he was there. That juxtaposition of past and present highlights how big an impact the marsh mess had on everybody in a way we wouldn’t see if it were all set in the past.

Duncan: The novel is set in New England and definitely has a New England flavor—from the local colloquialisms to actual locations. What do you think gives it a broader appeal? What about it will make a reader from the South or the West relate?

Coughlin: I think the flavor is as much “small town” as New England, and there are small towns everywhere. I live in a small Virginia town, and I think people here will probably see spots where they think I’ve put Staunton in. I went to college in the Midwest, and I think there probably are aspects of Exeter reflect that, since it also is a college town.

One thing I tried really hard to do was to make sure the New England regionalisms I used were clear from the surrounding text — you don’t need to know what a packy or a bubbler (pronounced bubblah) are because the meaning is clear from the story. Also, I think the specific locations will resonate more with Massachusetts residents, but it shouldn’t bother non-New Englanders that they don’t know what Ken’s Steak House is (or that it’s really a restaurant). I did make a conscious effort to have a couple of people with no connection to the region review it so they could flag things that didn’t make sense.

Beyond the technical details, the story’s about people that I think all of us know, or feel like we could know, regardless of where we live.

Duncan: The complexity of the plot—interpersonal relationships, old and new; historical preservation; mob violence—is a high point for the reader. Describe how you manage to keep the various threads straight without either tangling them too much or snipping them too soon.

Coughlin: Keeping the threads straight wasn’t too difficult. There’s a definite arc to the first few books in the series, and so I had that guiding a lot of the plotlines in this story. Likewise, I had the entire 1991 sequence of events drafted before I decided on the structure that actually appeared in the book. That made it a lot easier to extrapolate out from there for present-day impacts.

The biggest challenge for me was the ending and making sure I tied up all the places that needed to be tied up without tying up the threads that can’t be resolved in this book. There’s one particular thread that some readers have flagged because I left it hanging. That was on purpose — the issue in that plot piece doesn’t get resolved for quite a while — in fact, it drives a lot of what happens in the next few books.

Duncan: Again, on the plot. It has many, many subtle layers, some which aren’t obvious without reflection or re-reading. That’s a very bold choice—to assume the reader is looking for something intelligent rather than fluff. Does that reflect on the type of reader you are?

Coughlin: My choice in books is somewhat like my choice in music, and my coworkers have dubbed the shuffle on my iPod the musical whiplash playlist. I like fluff as much as the next person, but this particular story, and the stories that will follow, aren’t simple. Small towns aren’t simple. There are lots of connections between people that aren’t obvious, and subtext underlies so much of what happens in most small towns that the setting made those pieces integral to the story. There are some layers in this book that won’t even be obvious until readers get further into the series.

Regarding your earlier question about plot threads, that’s where things got interesting. Laying those breadcrumbs without tipping my hand took a lot of doing.

Duncan: You’ve made a good case for self- or indie-publishing, especially for a work that’s not easily mashed into a specific genre. Here’s another soap box, so explain why self-publishers need to approach their work as if it were going to be traditionally published. Why is an editor, even beyond beta-readers, important?

Coughlin: Well, if I didn’t have an editor, this would have all been set in 1991 and would have been much worse. I think it’s just sensible. Why put ourselves and our work out there unless it’s as good as it can be? There’s one segment of writers that’s of the “good enough” mindset. They would rather write books that are good enough and produce them faster.

We all improve as writers over time. An artist friend and I were talking recently and he said he looks at his old works and thinks they were done by somebody else. When I look at old stories I’ve written, both fiction and nonfiction, I see all the ways I could have written it better, both in style and substance. And yes, some of them I think were written by a whole different Jennie.

We need somebody who can push us to make those changes, to keep evolving as writers and to become the best we can be at this point in time. I’m fortunate to have both an editor and a critique partner who are skilled enough at what they do to make me grow and evolve. But I’m also lucky. Not everybody stumbles into those situations, which is basically how I met both women. That’s why this book wasn’t a novella set in 1991.

Also, we can’t catch everything in our work. I went over this manuscript dozens of times, marked it backward and forward. And I could still probably pick it up and find a typo or line that needs changing. That’s after critiques and editing and more editing.

Porter Anderson recently focused on Writer Unboxed about a growing shift among agents to seek out authors they feel have promise and manage them and their careers. No more query letters! No more wrangling business deals! But that means we need to be putting out work that makes agents think, “Hell, yes, I want in on the ground floor of that.” That trend, combined with the recent print-only deals that a couple of publishers have made — possibly the beginnings of another trend — create a vision of a much different publishing ecosystem — one where you don’t really want amateurish work out there.

Duncan: Describe why a marketing plan is important for self- or indie publishers. What has and hasn’t worked for you in promoting your work?

Coughlin: This is the area I struggle the most. I don’t have a great sense of what works and doesn’t work for my books. A lot of the traditional advice out there works great for books that fall into a genre that’s easy to categorize. Exeter books don’t. My biggest focus has been to just connect with readers. In my case, that’s generally worked best with people who have a connection with New England, and a lot of that is just through being myself on social media. I’m much chattier through pixels than in person, especially with people I don’t know. I’ve met some wonderful people that way.

Because there’s no good genre — beyond literary, which I have issues with — for All That Is Necessary, it’s more difficult to market it than it is for something that’s a little easier to shelve on a virtual collection of bookshelves. So, I rely on word of mouth and recognize that I’m in this for the long haul. Most of the people I have some contact with who read my first book of short stories, Thrown Out (and many of them I know because they read the book and we later connected online), have already picked up All That Is Necessary. With each Exeter book, the number of fans will (hopefully) grow.

The other thing I’ve done that seems to have raised attention are Goodreads giveaways and some of their targeted advertising options.

Duncan: Your first book, Thrown Out, was a collection of short stories featuring the same characters as in All That Is Necessary. Was that limiting on what you could do with those characters in a novel? Or was it more liberating, i.e., a way for you to expand what we know about them? Or both?

Coughlin: I don’t feel as though it limited what I could do, beyond some specific details in the short story that references the marsh mess. It certainly gave me a better feel for the characters, and I found some things that happened in the short stories showed up as mentions in the novel. The one thing I did have to do was be careful that the novel stood alone. At one point, a character’s actions didn’t make much sense if you hadn’t read the short stories, so I had to revise and fix that.

Duncan: You’ve hinted that when we go back to Exeter in future books in the series, other characters will move to the forefront, while others will move to the background. Is that a “seat of the pants” decision, in the moment, as the plot unfolds, or is it more “J.K. Rowling and her notebooks” planning?

Coughlin: Yes, to both. I have certain characters I know are taking center stage at certain points, but I generally work with three “main” characters. The second and third characters in each of the next two books has changed some as I’ve played around with the best way to tell those stories. The driving factor is which stories need to be told and which characters are best suited to tell them. The plotting comes from knowing how all the main plotlines are going to unfurl as I go. Beyond that, it’s a little seat-of-my-pants in how I structure things.

Duncan: Now that novel number one is done, will novel number two be easier? How long will you keep us waiting?

Coughlin: It would almost have to be, since I’m not writing the darn thing twice. Also, I have a feel for how Exeter stories work in novel form in terms of POV shifts and the number of characters who can be POV characters, so I’m saving a lot of time there compared to All That Is Necessary, where I was working out the best ways to structure the story. I’ve been working on the sketch for the next book, and I’d like to make it available in the fall. Since a lot depends on what things are like at my full-time job, I don’t know how feasible that is.

Both of Jennie Coughlin’s books, Thrown Out and All That Is Necessary are available as paperbacks or eBooks from Amazon.com. Visit her web page at Welcome to Exeter.

A New Book Review

It has been a while since I’ve found an indie-published book I wanted to read, much less review. I started out doing that last year, and, with a few exceptions, it was so dismal, I gave it up.

I’ve reviewed one of those exceptions, All That Is Necessary, by Jennie Coughlin, here. If you don’t see the link, click on the Book Reviews tab above and select it from the drop down list.

I hope you’ll agree this is one indie book you’ll be hard-pressed to differentiate between it and a traditionally published one.

Oh, and look for an author interview with Ms. Coughlin here next week.

An Early Holiday Present

December seems to be a month of publishing firsts for me–my first collection of short stories, Rarely Well Behaved (out of print) appeared in December 2000. I remember when the proof copy arrived as if it were yesterday. Never before had I held a real book with my name on it as the author. I had approved the cover (based on my suggestions) a Scan 2few weeks before, but to see it on the book was a whole different experience. As I flipped the pages and saw my words there, I thought perhaps I was dreaming.

When I “refreshed” the short stories in Rarely Well Behaved this past year and reissued them as two eBooks then paperbacks with new covers, I was pretty excited, but it wasn’t the same kind of feeling as holding your first published work in your hands.

I’m hoping the past is prologue for a whole new collection of short stories–short, short stories–coming out this month. (Fingers crossed that it won’t take me twelve years for the next book.)

Spy Flash is a collection of flash fiction stories I’ve written over the past year in response to Jennie Coughlin’s Rory’s Story Cube Challenge. Each week Jennie posted a picture of a roll of a nine-cube combination of object and action Story Cubes, and based on those objects and actions, I wrote a story, usually of fewer than 2,000 words. There was some cube repetition, and I pounded my head on the desk a couple of times trying to think of different ways to use a pyramid, beyond the obvious.

About ten stories into the adventure, which I initially intended just to use to explore back story on the two main characters in my novels, I starting thinking about what to do with the stories. Somewhere along the line, I decided I would compile them into a collection of linked flash fiction. Even though I’m sure it’s been done, I thought that rather clever. (Hey, I’m an infrequently published writer; someone needs to brag on me.) I also thought the possible title clever as well. I mean, what else would you call flash fiction about spies except Spy Flash?

I then decided once the story count reached twenty-five, that’s when I’d compile them into a collection. I began the compilation again about ten stories in, and the first thing I noticed was that inserting them into the manuscript in the order I’d written them and published them on my blog resulted in massive incoherence. So much incoherence, in fact, I doubted the decision to compile them after all. They were linked in that they were about the same people in a specific profession, but because I had moved back and forth on the timeline of their careers, the vignettes were a jumble. For a while, I couldn’t come up with a solution. I liked each story individually, but I didn’t like the whole they made.

So, I set the idea aside awhile–always a good thing. I continued to write the stories, but I really felt as if I were just compounding the problem. Finally, when I had the twenty-five stories, I printed the manuscript and skimmed it. Still a jumble. Then, I had one of those forehead-smacking, “duh” moments and rearranged the stories in chronological order. Hello! The whole thing made sense now. It had a logical flow, and, if anything, the stories were even more linked. Then, I found if I added transitions and references to earlier stories, what had been a jumble of disconnected snapshots became a big, coherent picture.

Once I completed a revised draft of the manuscript, I realized I hadn’t been this excited about a work of mine since Rarely Well Behaved.

And the cover for Spy Flash? I wanted something dark and mysterious, something that conveyed spying as well as the less exciting aspects of espionage. What better than a black Spy Flash Cover 2.dofile folder and an all-seeing eye?

As of today, I’m waiting for the proof copy of Spy Flash to arrive, and I know when I hold it in my hands I’ll have that giddy feeling of accomplishment. I’m a much better writer twelve years down the road thanks to a lot of people, and I’ll be just as proud of Spy Flash as I was of Rarely Well Behaved. I’ll again rue that my Dad won’t see it and that my brother–the guy who hated to read but read my first book–won’t see this one.

For a long moment I’ll savor that feeling of “yay, me, look what I did,” then reality will set in–lining up book signings and arranging the publicity because, hey, I’m not John LeCarre or Alan Furst. I’m just Phyllis Anne Duncan, who’s pretty excited about the publication of her second, original book of short stories.

Spy Flash – Week 26

When I accepted Jennie Coughlin’s Rory’s Story Cube Challenge six months ago, I really didn’t think I’d still be at it now, but it took on a life of its own.

As I indicated when I started on this adventure, I looked upon it as an opportunity to flesh out back story on two characters I thought I knew pretty well. Suffice it to say, I learned a few things about them, and, despite what some may think, they talked to me and explained many things about their personalities. I never thought I’d turn these vignettes into a book, but when the thought of that struck me, it made the challenge much more exciting.

For example, who knew I’d need to come up with something other than the obvious to deal with the recurring pyramid cube? But it’s all in how you perceive the meaning of the cubes, and sometimes it isn’t as cut and dried as you think.

So, if you’re still reading along, you need to read the story for Week 26 soon because within the next week to ten days, I’m taking down all the existing Spy Flash stories and, well, you’ll have to buy the book. Please? I’m not stopping taking on the challenge, and, who knows, maybe in six more months, there’ll be a Spy Flash 2 collection?

This week’s story, “Cleopatra’s Barge,” features a character from a trilogy I wrote and am editing (A Perfect Hatred) about an act of domestic terrorism based on the Oklahoma City bombing. The character, John Thomas Carroll, is the bomber, in prison and awaiting his execution. One thing we know about the character Mai Fisher is that she keeps her word, and she’s made a promise to the bomber, whom she tried to turn, which she intends to keep. That doesn’t set well with Alexei Bukharin, who is the other significant character in this week’s story, though he’s never named. In the trilogy Carroll never knows Alexei’s name, so I didn’t change that.

Here’s this week’s roll of the cubes:

And here’s what I saw: l. to r. – breaking; a moon; a fish; a lightning bolt; a building; up in a tree/climbing a tree; dropping the ball; a light bulb; a bouncing ball/playing baseball.

If you don’t see the link on the story title above, then go to the top of this post and click on the Spy Flash tab then select “Cleopatra’s Barge” from the drop-down menu.

Look for Spy Flash in December as a paperback or an eBook on Amazon.com.

Spy Flash – Week 25

Within the next week, I’ll have accumulated half a year of stories in response to Jennie Coughlin’s Rory’s Story Cube Challenge. (I got behind and combed two weeks into one story, which is why there will be twenty-five stories instead of twenty-six.) About three months into the Challenge, I decided I’d amass the stories into a collection and publish the collection via Kindle Direct Publishing. Short story collections are notoriously hard to be picked up by publishers, and add in the fact that these short stories are flash fiction and mostly fall in the “thriller” genre, and Kindle Direct was the only logical answer.

But Kindle Direct has helped in a revival of short stories for both traditionally published writers and self-published ones. Kindle Singles started out as essays, but many publishers, and authors, saw it was an easy to get a short story published. Many traditionally published authors come under pressure from their publishers to keep their name before the reading public between books, and Kindle Singles fit that bill as well.

But I digress. Once I started putting together the manuscript, I saw it had a certain incoherence if I left the stories in the order in which they appeared in this blog. I spent some time deciding when each occurred. For a few that was obvious because the story wouldn’t have context without the date. One story’s title is a date, after all. Once I assembled the stories in more or less chronological order, they had a certain flow. Good decision, that.

The novel in stories is quite popular lately. From Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) to Molly Ringwald (When It Happens to You), novels in stories have made a mark. Writer friend Cliff Garstang’s new book, What the Zhang Boys Know, is another example of a novel in stories. Basically, each story can stand alone, and, in fact, most of Garstang’s twelve stories in this book were published separately in literary journals before the novel came out. For the work to be considered a novel in stories, each of them has to be a piece of a larger or overarching story arc.

Can you have a novel in flash fiction stories? We’ll see.

This is last week’s roll of the cubes: 

This is what I saw: l. to r. – ringing a doorbell; a hand; a UFO attacking (this one was tough); gifting/giving a present; a water fountain; a tree; the letter L; clothes drying/clothes hanging on a line; falling.

As a lot of my fiction does, the story, “Closure,” involves a recent historical event, which becomes obvious early if you remember your recent history.

As usual, if you can’t see the link on the title “Closure” above, go to the top of this post and click on the Spy Flash tab then select the story from the drop-down menu.

Spy Flash – Week 24

Here is this week’s roll of the Rory Story Cubes:

And here is what I saw: l. to r. – a die; thinking/pondering; credit card; building a wall/laying bricks; an alien; carrying/burden; asking permission to speak; dropping something; a magnet.

From all that, I got the story, “Pep Talk.” If you don’t see the link on the story title, click on the Spy Flash tab at the top of this page and select the story from the drop-down menu.

If you’d like to give the Story Cube Challenge a try, write a story of any length based on the objects and actions above and post a link to it here.

Just two more weeks, and we’ll be half-way through the year of the story cubes challenge, which means Spy Flash will become a manuscript and then, come December, it’ll be available for your Kindle or as a paperback from Amazon.com. I just know you can’t wait. ;-)

Spy Flash – Week 23

Wednesday is the day I get two prompts: the photo for Friday Fictioneers and the roll of the Rory’s Story Cubes, which I’ve been using for the Spy Flash stories. The inspiration for Friday Fictioneers usually comes pretty quickly, and I have it at least drafted by Thursday so I can let it rest for a day then refine it before putting the story on my blog then posting the link on Friday on Madison Woods’ page.

It’s Spy Flash that’s been giving me some trouble lately, and quite often I’ve posted the Spy Flash story for the previous week a few hours before the next week’s prompt shows up. Meh, what’s a week, you say? Skip one and let it go.

Yes, I could do that, but that would defeat the purpose of writing more, so I’ve kept at it, sometimes giving a Spy Flash story two or three false starts before I had something I was pleased with. And, yes, that’s part of the writing process as well.

So, today was a big surprise. The Friday Fictioneers’ story came to be within moments of seeing the picture–not such a surprise–but so did the Spy Flash idea. Maybe the “reboot” I blogged about a couple of weeks ago finally kicked in. It was another “write like a fool” day–two stories and a blog post (for Politics Wednesday, my political blog). Yay, me!

Here’s this week’s roll of the cubes:

And here’s what I saw: l. to r. – keyhole; bee/sting; digging/filling a hole; listening/hearing; globe/world/earth; reading; tent/teepee; counting money; light bulb/idea.

This week’s story is “Footsteps” and harkens back to how Mai Fisher decided to become a spy. True to the profession, she got blackmailed into it.

If you’d like to give the Rory’s Story Cubes challenge a try, write a story of any length based on the objects and actions in the photo above; then, post a link to your story on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.

If you don’t see the link on the title, “Footsteps,” above, then click on the Spy Flash tab at the top of the page and select the story from the drop-down menu.

Spy Flash 22

Here’s this week’s roll of the cubes:

l. to r. – listening; shouting; an eye; a cane; illustrating/drawing a picture; up against a wall/pushing; ticking bomb/checking a present; tossing/throwing/catching; a flashlight

And here’s the link to the story, “Four Seconds.”

Enjoy–and, as usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, yadda, yadda, click on the Spy Flash tab above and select it from the drop-down menu. If you’d like to try your hand at a Story Cubes Challenge, write a story of any length using the actions and objects in the picture above, then post your link on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.

More Inspiration–Plus Spy Flash 21

I’ve written before about what writers can use as inspiration–a photo, an overheard snippet of conversation, an idea that’s rolled around in your head for years. Some writers are inspired by television programs or popular books and write fan fiction (which some writers then turn into popular, though ill-written, books and make tons of money). Other writers, myself included, get inspiration from actual events and put a fictional twist on them.

This past weekend my Unitarian Universalist fellowship held a used-book sale, and I promised myself I’d be good and not buy any more denizens for my groaning book shelves. Best-laid plans, and all that. A few seconds into browsing, something caught my eye: Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to Al-Qaeda by Thomas Powers. Powers’ book is a collection of essays he wrote for various publications on America’s history of spying. At $2.00 for a hardback, how could I, the spy writer, pass that up?

The Table of Contents is a veritable mine of story prompts: “The Conspiracy that Failed,” “Phantom Spies at Los Alamos,” “The Mind of the Assassin,” “Marilyn was the Least of It,” and “The Trouble with the CIA” are just a few examples. Even more than inspiration, this is an excellent reference for delving into the history of the world of intelligence.

However, it wasn’t my new acquisition that inspired me this weekend. Rather, it was a combination of the prompt for Week 21 of the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge and the ghost of executed Romanian Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. For quite some time now, the ghost of Romania past has bugged me to write about his timely end. I’m not going into length here about Ceausescu and his equally ambitious wife, Elena. You can Google them and get a number of reputable references about Romania under their rule (remember the news stories on Romanian orphans) and how the Eastern European anti-Communist uprisings in 1989 had their bloody culmination in Romania.

And don’t get me wrong. If Ceausescu were still around, he wouldn’t like my portrayal of him or his wife in my story, “Judas Goat.” That just goes to show, you can haunt someone to write about you, but payback’s a bitch.

Here is the roll of the cubes for Week 21:

And here is what I saw: l. to r. – knocking on a door; evil; shouting in anger/angry; eating; thought/thinking; magic/magic wand; flower; sheep; sadness/dismay.

The object that stood out for me was the sheep, and you’ll get the connection to the title, when you read the story, of course.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title above, hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab at the top of the page and select it from the drop-down menu. If you’d like to give the Story Cubes Challenge a try, write a story of any length based on the picture above, then post a link to it here.