Friday Fictioneers and an Elegy

Friday Fictioneers LogoAs I’ve mentioned before, I’m no poet but wish I were. I occasionally dabble and embarrass myself and anyone unfortunate enough to read my attempts. I often read a poet’s work (Seamus Heaney, for example) and realize, there, that’s my voice; there’s nothing I can add.

Of course, there are the times where you read a poet for the first time and understand you could never come close so why bother. I had that feeling when I first read Maya Angelou. When I heard her read “Phenomenal Woman,” I knew those were the words forever locked in my head, which she freed and expressed for the benefit of all us phenomenal women. There were times when that poem was a mantra for me, and I would read it over and over and I, too, would rise. Do me a favor and read “Phenomenal Woman” by clicking here.

So, in addition to a facelift for the blog, (The theme is called “Hemingway Rewritten,” by the way.) I’m changing just for today the format of my Friday Fictioneers offering. Instead of a post here and the story under the Friday Fictioneers tab, I’m combining them. In lieu of a 100-word story, I’ve written a 131-word elegy (def. elegy – a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem) in honor of Maya Angelou. I know, totally presumptuous of me, and, frankly, if I were a poet, I’d have managed to write a 100-word poem, but I’m not, so 131 words. Mea culpa. To read other Friday Fictioneers offerings on the photo prompt, click on the icon at the end of my, gulp, poem.

The poem consists of seven stanzas, and I’ve taken the title of nine of her poems which most resonated with me and used them as the first line of five of those stanzas. In the six stanza, the title of three of her poems begin each line, and the final, one-line stanza is the title of the ninth poem. The poems are:

  • “Caged Bird”
  • “On the Pulse of Morning”
  • “Still I Rise”
  • “Phenomenal Woman”
  • “Alone”
  • “To a Man”
  • “When I Think About Myself”
  • “Human Family”
  • “Refusal”

Here is today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt, which evoked for me not just Ms. Angelou’s connection with academia but the concept of passing through a doorway to wherever she is now:

(c)Jennifer Pendergast

(c)Jennifer Pendergast


And here is “Elegy for Maya,” with my humble apology:

When I think about myself
I am amazed at the breadth and depth and scope
Of my life. Every place in the

Human family I have occupied:
Dancer, singer, actress, composer, director, author, and more.
I have honors, awards, but I am

Alone in this latest endeavor
As we all will be when life’s final steps are taken.
No longer will I be the

Caged bird whose words caused
A man to die for his hideous violation of a child.
I became who I am in my

Refusal to allow this rape
To define me. Instead, I grew, I flew, I rose, I rose.
And those who heard my words

To a man declared
Phenomenal woman to take us to places unknown; so
On the pulse of morning

Still I rise.


(c)2014 by Phyllis A. Duncan; reprint with permission only.

Inspiration All Around Us

The other day on my Facebook Author’s Page I shared a graphic from a great on-line group called Writers Write. Based in South Africa, this group offers writing courses, some of which sound so great it might be worth the expense of a trip to Johannesburg to attend. They also post inspiring quotes from writers, renowned and otherwise, for writers. Almost every day, one of those quotes makes me stop and think about my writing and my writing goals. Those quotes are affirming on so many levels.

Here’s one I shared recently on my Author’s page:

(c)Writers Write

(c)Writers Write

That struck a chord with me because I want to write more short stories, but I’m always lamenting that the things I draw inspiration from (current affairs, history, politics) lead to longer works. (Not complaining by the way; I love writing novels.) I keep a notebook with me at all times, but it’s distressingly empty lately. I live in a very interesting area of central Virginia, full of intriguing, odd, and refreshing characters and, so you’d think that notebook would be full of dialogue snippets, bon mots, and killer ideas for a raft of short stories.

Maybe I need to overcome the MYOB attitude imbued in me by my grandmother. “It’s not polite to listen in on others’ conversations,” she used to tell me. I paid attention to that because I probably didn’t know then I was going to be a writer. It just seems rude to write down what other people say; a southern thing, I suppose.

I do manage to overcome the reticence of jotting down what other people say on occasion. My one-act play, Yo’ Momma, started from a single phrase I overheard at a bar: “This here’s my new phone–I gots it for free.”

Recently, in my town two young men died within two days of each other, both at the age of twenty-six. One had mental and intellectual challenges; the other was an award-winning and brilliant cellist. One was murdered; the other died in his sleep of a heart defect. They both warmed the hearts of everyone they encountered. All that is rife with inspiration, but it will have to wait. It’s too fresh and raw.

I’ve long wanted to write a novel based on the lives of my father and my ex’s father–I even have a great title: Two Fathers. The ex (when he wasn’t my ex) and I discussed it, and I took a lot of notes on his father’s history. The ex and I haven’t been together for nine years, and even though I haven’t forgotten the idea, it is also too fresh, too fraught with emotions I’ve tried to put behind me. Someday, I’ll be in a place to write it.

Day in and day out, I encounter the oddest collection of characters in the most routine places: the barista at Starbucks whose laughter could damage eardrums; the couple who own a local business and have arguments in front of the customers; a bail bondsman who dresses as if he’s the east coast version of Dog the Bounty Hunter; a senior citizen who is always front and center of every Tea Party event with a sign which reads, “Keep the Government out of my Medicare!” (I fixed the spelling.) And so on.

There is the challenge, of course, of making someone too recognizable. I don’t have a problem doing that with public figures. In my series based on the Oklahoma City bombing, people will have no trouble figuring out on whom I’ve based President Randolph. However, I also have a family member who is pissed about how I characterized  my step-grandfather (that family member’s grandfather) in a story which is based on a family event. Just goes to show, every story has two sides.

Even with the pitfalls, look around you. There is inspiration in everything and everyone. Use it wisely, but use it.


A Not-So-Quiet Friday Fictioneers

I’ve done a lot of editing and revising this week–in between those domestic things that pop up: refrigerator repair, grocery shopping, reading a book for a book club, reading MSS for critique groups. Somehow, though, when you’re editing/revising, you feel as if you’re not accomplishing much. It’s not as if you have a word count which keeps increasing; though, in the case of my editing/revising I’m trying to reduce the word count.

Bottom line is you can’t tell how successful you’ve been by simply looking at what you’ve edited/revised. For me, the measure is how what I’ve written sounds. If you’re not employing reading your work aloud as an editing/revising technique, start now.

First and foremost, you can tell if your dialogue sounds authentic; i.e., as if two real people are speaking. I even do the accents. One of my protagonists is Russian but speaks excellent English with just a slight accent. The other protagonist has an upper crust British accent but has lived in America so long she’s quite adept with American slang and vernacular. Makes for interesting conversations and great fun in reading aloud. My neighbors might not agree.

Reading your work aloud is also a big help in spotting typos and most grammatical errors, the ones your eyes skip over when you do a silent read. I think it’s because you enunciate each word and your ear hears any discordance.

Of course, doing this in a coffee shop or a library is not the best of ideas–not that I’ve ever done that. Give it a try if you’ve never done it. I think you’ll like the result. Just pretend that your publisher is having you do the audio book version. Great fun and useful, too.

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt should have evoked something dark and supernatural for me, but I went completely in the opposite direction and ended up with pure schmaltz. Don’t let the title, “Through a Glass, Darkly,” fool you. It really is pretty sentimental. If you don’t see the link on the title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Critique Group Sagas

Note: This is an opinion piece generalized in nature and does not refer to any specific author or writer. If you see yourself in this piece, though, my work here is done.

I’m currently in two writing critique groups. I consider them essential as a writer; otherwise, I end up in a continuous loop of thinking how wonderful my writing is. All that seems obvious and clear to me in my work may not to a reader, and that’s one aspect of a critique group: looking at someone’s work through the eyes of a reader.

Because we’re also writers, we bring that to the critique table, too. In one of my groups, which has been meeting for some time, we have discussions about foreshadowing, conflict resolution, and denouement. Fascinating stuff, all that writing knowledge/trivia.

However, I also bring an editor’s skills to the table. I was a reporter for and editor of a magazine for more than fifteen years, and I edited hundreds of government documents from correspondence to blue ribbon reports. When I read something for a critique group, the MS gets a reader, writer, and editor’s eye. Some are not so appreciative of the latter. My standard reaction is, “Get accustomed to it. It’s better to catch the typos, style errors, and punctuation and grammatical flubs now rather than have an agent or publisher reject your MS for them later.”

For someone who is about to undergo his or her first experience with a critique group, that triple-threat may be intimidating. I don’t intend for it to be. In my warped little mind, I’m being helpful. When I look back on some of my earlier writing, published without the benefit of a critique group, I wish I’d had someone like me to find those embarrassing slip-ups and to point out the things which would make an agent toss an MS into a slush pile.

Critique groups aren’t mutual admiration societies, even though I can’t wait until I receive the next installment of every member’s work. Yes, I come to admire and look forward to their writing, but there is also mutual trust and honesty. We trust each other to be honest. You can’t simply say, “It doesn’t work for me.” You have to explain yourself, and the excuse can’t be you just don’t like something. For example, I’m not a fan of most YA, fantasy, or romance writing (or the various iterations thereof), but if it’s a good story and the writing shines, I’ll read it and probably enjoy it.

Some people seem to approach a critique group with an attitude of not wanting the details, just the big picture. Yes, the details are annoying and nitpick-ish, but they’re there for a reason. A comment about correct placement of commas or use of a semi-colon, etc., are not mortal blows to your writing. Rather, when I read an MS where the grammar’s good, the punctuation spot-on, and the style elements appropriate, I think to myself, “Here is someone who took the time to learn all the aspects of being a writer.”

Having an idea for a story is excellent. Putting it down on paper (or in the computer) is also excellent; you can now call yourself a writer. Staying a writer depends on your willingness to learn–whether through the feedback from a critique group, a writer’s workshop, or writing conferences. (I’m amazed by people who call themselves writers who don’t go to writers conferences or workshops.) You don’t just write and say, “That’s it. Let someone else worry about the silly punctuation details.” Breaking news: Publishers don’t employ copy editors anymore, and the only writers who get to dump a mistake-riddled MS on a publisher is someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald; and he’s dead.

Pointing out punctuation, style, and grammar errors isn’t a reflection on your ability to be a story-teller. You might say it is a comment on your writing ability. Well, yes, because that’s part of the package of being a writer. Can you call yourself a writer if you don’t constantly refresh your writing knowledge and skills? You could, but I’ll still point out the problems, and, believe me, I don’t pull these things out of my arse.

The devil is in the details; learn from them. I know I do. If you don’t want to hear the details from me, at least invest in some time-honored resources: The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style, or Garner’s Modern American Usage are just some of them, but those three on your writing resources shelf will take you a long way.

A Sheepish Friday Fictioneers

All day yesterday I waited for The Email to arrive, the one from Sewanne Writers Conference telling me whether I got in or not. Family and writer friends kept messaging me all day long asking if I’d heard. I saw others posting on Facebook about their acceptance or rejection, and I wondered what the heck was going on. I hadn’t slept well the night before, so about mid-afternoon, I lay down for a nap.

During my nap someone in a dream said, “Did you check the spam folder?” I woke up and did just that. Sure enough, in the spam folder sat a message from SWC. I opened it and found out why it went to spam. The email itself didn’t provide my status; I had to click on a link to go to my SWC account–why the spambot thought it was spam.

Of course, once I clicked on the link, I realized I couldn’t remember the password I’d used to set up the account when I filled out the application. All right, now I had to undergo the “reset password” process. Finally, after about ten minutes, I could get the answer I’d been waiting for all day.

When the message starts with “I’m sorry…” you know there isn’t much reason to read on, but I did. No place for me, blah, blah. Many talented writers yadda yadda. Wish we had more space, etc. Try again another year.

I rarely take personal motivation from television shows, but the TV happened to be on a re-run of a Castle episode, the one where writer Richard Castle’s daughter doesn’t get accepted into the college she had her heart set on. As I logged out of the SWC website, I heard Castle say, “Rejection isn’t failure. Failure is giving up.”

So, Sewanee, you’re on notice: I’m applying again next year and will until I’m accepted because failure is giving up.

Then, true to its definition, serendipity made an appearance. I woke up this morning and while reaching for the milk for my cereal, I discovered my refrigerator wasn’t refrigerating. The freezer was fine, but everything in the refrigerator portion was warmer than room temperature. The money set aside for Sewanee tuition might have to go for a refrigerator instead. All things happen for a reason.

Friday Fictioneers LogoWhen I saw today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt, I thought, “I’ve already written that story.” Of course, it was a couple thousand words long, but the photo prompt reflects a key scene in that story. I excised a couple of paragraphs and cut them down to 100 words, and you get the flash piece, “Escape.” You know the drill: If you don’t see the link on the title in the line above, scroll to the top of this page, select the Friday Fictioneers tab, and pick the title from the drop-down list.

T-Minus Three Days and Counting

At some time on Thursday, I’ll learn whether I’ve been accepted at the Sewanee Writers Conference. The conference itself takes place between July 22 – August 2 at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Though the concept is similar to that for Tinker Mountain, for this one I had to submit a writing sample and my publication history to be considered. Meaning that I’m not a shoo-in.

When I filled out the application in early April, I had to pull together what works of mine had been published and what contests I’d won or placed in, and I was pleasantly pleased with the cumulative results of four and a half years of focusing on my writing. But is that and the writing sample enough?

Also at Sewanee are agents and publishers, and you can sign up for opportunities to meet with them and pitch your work. From my writer friends who’ve attended, I’ve learned that you can develop quite a network of fellow writers. I suspect that has something to do with the daily “social hours,” which are part of the schedule. 😉

I’ve also been told that it’s very rare for an applicant to be accepted the first time he or she applies. I’ve been telling myself that like a mantra for the last week. This conference/workshop is the next step in sharpening my skills, and I’m ready to take that step. I hope whoever is assessing the applications sees that as well.

In the meantime, I try not to think about it, but I do, almost constantly. If I don’t get in this time, I’m by no means a failure. (Yeah, I keep telling myself that, too.) I’ll just work harder and apply again next year.

A Merry Month of Friday Fictioneers

Writers don’t get to dance around the Maypole because we’re stuck inside our writing worlds, honing our craft. Maybe that’s a deficit we should address. I know for me when the weather gets warmer and there’s sun (Hoorah!), I gravitate to more outdoor things, which means writing goes by the wayside.

For example, up until right now as I’m writing this post, I’ve written not a single word of fiction since last Saturday when I wrote my contest story for the Short Story Challenge. (Yes, I’ve done two other blog posts this week for Unexpected Paths and Politics Wednesday, but neither of those is fiction.) Some of the distractions have been fun, outdoorsy things; others have been chores and errands, ranging from doctor appointments to having to have work done on both cars, and other things in between.

For somewhat of a compromise, I often move the laptop onto my screened-in porch. That way I can somewhat bask in the sunshine, listen to the birds, and take in my great view. As soon as I deal with household obligations (Kitchens do need to be cleaned on occasion, especially when both sinks get full of dirty dishes.), I’ll make that move.

Friday Fictioneers LogoSo, I put this post aside to look at the Friday Fictioneers photo prompt for this week, and, lo and behold, some fiction escaped my brain. The picture is idyllic and peaceful, so, of course, I went for the dark and deadly. It may take the entire summer to bake a winter’s worth of darkness from my brain. The title of my story, “Rising Tides Are What They Are,” comes from a Rachel Carson quote, and, as usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers link, and select the story from the drop-down list.


The set of prompts for the final round of NYCMidnight’s 2014 Short Story Challenge arrived right on time, one minute before midnight last Friday. I, however, was asleep. I barely had one eye open Saturday morning when I fumbled for my iPhone to see what the prompts were: Open genre, a fisherman, jealousy.

The good news is I thought of something right away. The bad news was I had to get up and get ready to drive forty minutes away for a five-hour meeting, after which I’d drive forty minutes back, pending a brief trip to Trader Joe’s. I went to Starbucks for a road breakfast but saw I had some time, so I sat down inside the store, had a somewhat leisurely breakfast, and outlined the story, which had popped into my head. Throughout the day, I’d grab some time during the meeting and jot down snippets of dialogue or ideas which came to me.

Did I forget to mention the story for the final round had to be submitted within twenty-four hours?

By the time I got home and settled to write, it was nearly four, but the outlining had been a good thing. In less than forty-five minutes, I had a first, very rough draft for the 1,500-word story, which came in at 1,510 words. I felt good about that; usually I have to cut hundreds of words. My first edit brought it back to 1,496. I sent it off to an English major to proofread it, and after a quick turnaround, I did another edit and ended up with 1,497 words–not that I added just one word. I cut and added, cut and added, and ended up with a net gain of one word. After formatting it for the contest, I hit the submit button at around six-thirty.

Two and one-half hours to write, edit, and submit a story. Of course, as soon as I hit submit, I wanted to take it back, but I’d crossed the Rubicon, tossed the dice, swung the bat–you get the picture. No do-overs. Again, of course, the next day, I decided to look the story over and saw I wanted to do a complete rewrite. Sigh. Why hadn’t I just waited and submitted in the minutes before midnight and given myself time for improvement?

All of which makes me wonder about writers who dash out a 200,000-word epic and immediately upload it to Amazon–with no editing, no proofreading, no rewriting. Why on earth would you do that? What’s the point? Here’s this measly 1,500-word story I’m losing sleep over because I now see all the ways it could be improved, but other writers blithely put their work out for the world to see without so much as a go-over.

Is it me, or does that just sound nuts?

I’m sure that will anger some people who believe a fresh set of eyes looking at your work will somehow harm your story. Just consider it might improve it. It’s worth taking the chance.

In the meantime, I’ll know by May 29 whether I hit the submit button too soon or not.

National Short Story Month + Friday Fictioneers = Great Reading

In case you didn’t know it, May is National Short Story Month, a celebration of that quintessential literary form, the short story. By the way, I have three collections of short stories published. What better way to acknowledge Short Story Month than to buy them? Should you feel so inclined, click here to go to my author website where you can link to their pages.

Okay, enough shameless promotion. Let’s talk about short stories. I love to read them, and I love to read them from a wide variety of authors. They are, however, some of the most frustrating to write, especially within a specific word limit, but doing so is a great exercise in making sure every word counts.

Short stories are an art form. Some writers, like Alice Munro, write them almost exclusively. Other writers are adept at both short stories and longer works. I can enjoy Ernest Hemingway’s short stories but rarely his novels. Stephen King, best known for his expansive novels, is also quite the short story writer, with several collections of his work and inclusion in many anthologies. A few years ago when he edited the Best American Short Stories 2007, he lamented in the New York Times that short stories were endangered. Walk into a book store and what do you see? Novels right up front and on the top shelves; collections of short stories get relegated to the lower shelves, the ones harder to peruse. Rather than sound the death knell for short stories, King said we need to remember “…how vital short stories can be when they are done with heart, mind and soul by people who care about them and think they still matter.”

Yes, they do, and I, for one, won’t stop trying to write good ones, ones that matter.

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’s Friday Fictioneers prompt brought a current international incident to mind–I won’t say which; you can let it apply to whatever one you want. The title, “Hope in the Darkest of Days,” comes from a Dalai Lama quote: “I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest.” If you don’t see the link on the title above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.