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The Stars Align

October 19th, 2013

flotsam-wfcI’ve just heard from a good friend who has a membership to the  World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. The convention sold out over six months ago, and since then memberships to the international gathering of writers, editors, publishers and fans have been trading like stock futures. If you’re interested in fantastic literature, WFC is definitely the go-to event of the year. But my friend tells me that he thinks he might skip it, toss the membership, stay home and get some writing done. Crazy? Maybe, but I can sympathize. The pull of unfinished work is strong . . . but sometime you have to resist.

This fall season has been amazingly busy, with the Baltimore Book Festival a few weeks back, the PAISTA Conference earlier this week, a performance at Riley’s Pour House tonight, and events at the University of Brighton and World Fantasy’s Reading Café coming up later this month.

1383702_10151609605645426_1348373447_nAnd there’s more.

Today, some of my good friends at Raw Dog Screaming Press and Dog Star Books are holding a bookstore crawl in Pittsburgh, with events kicking off this afternoon at 1:00 with four-time Bram Stoker winner Michael A. Arnzen reading and signing at the Carnegie-Mellon Bookstore in Oakland. After that, Stephanie Wytovich appears a couple miles north at The Big Idea Bookstore on Liberty Avenue. Then it’s ten blocks west for Matt Betts at The Muse Stand at 3:00. After that, at 4:00, Bradley’s Books at Station Square will play host to Heidi Ruby Miller before the day wraps up with Jason Jack Miller at Eljay’s in Dormont.

An amazing day!

There’s no way I’m going to miss dropping in on the Raw Dog writers before heading to Riley’s for a sound check. Seriously, if you live anywhere near Pittsburgh (say within 100 miles or so), you owe it to yourself to make at least one of these appearances. Yes, I know, there are other things to do, but who knows when these stars will align again?

In the days to come, watch this space for a couple of follow-up reports. One from PAISTA (where the good people who attended my presentation on Flash Fiction provided some terrific questions that I’d like to respond to here) and another on today’s events. After that I hope to get to at least one WFC preview before crossing the pond to the UK.

Stop back soon. More to come.

Until then, scop on!

Putting the Flash in Fiction

October 6th, 2013

Vestal ReviewWhat makes for a good flash fiction story?

The answer is elusive, even though we know the good stories when we read them. They’re the ones that grab our attention, hold our interest, and conclude with a punch. But there’s more to it than that. There always is.

Next week, I’ll be giving a presentation on flash fiction at the Pittsburgh Area Independent School Teachers Association (PAISTA) conference, held this year at Sewickley Academy, just north of Pittsburgh. I’m currently in the process of assembling my notes, rereading some classic stories, seeking out some new ones, and trying to distill what I think I know into a  presentation about short-short fiction.

I’m having a lot of fun in the process.

ShortestOne story I plan on referencing in the presentation is a 55-word masterpiece by Jeffery Whitmore titled “Bedtime Story.” It first appeared in The World’s Shortest Stories, and it still stands as one of the best examples of flash I’ve ever read. Here’s its first line:

“Careful, honey, it’s loaded,” he said, re-entering the bedroom.

It’s a perfect first sentence, and would-be flash-fiction writers can learn a lot from the way it uses just nine words to effortlessly introduce the story’s characters, setting, and conflict. Moreover, I love the way the sentence compels us to read on, bringing to mind the advice Anton Chekov gave to A. S. Gruzinsky: “One must not put a loaded gun on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

Flash 6.1 Front CoverIt’s also worth noting that the story relies primarily on concrete nouns and active verbs. It contains few modifiers and avoids details that don’t contribute to the reveal at the end of the story. Yet the ending surprises and satisfies in ways that make “Bedtime Story” a masterwork of economy and precision. If you haven’t read it, you really should. The book is available in paperback and ebook for well under $10.00 – worth the investment if you’re interested in writing the stuff.

I’ve also been reading some of the genre’s newest entries, stories published in the current issues of The Vestal Review (which bills itself as “the longest-running flash fiction magazine in the world”) and Flash Fiction Online. Both magazines pay professional rates, and their stories are just a few clicks away.  There’s also a print magazine titled Flash, published twice a year by the University of Chester. Highly recommended.

FFOBanner4While you’re perusing the latest stories, be sure to check out “His Brother’s Bite” by Gillian Daniels in the October issue of Flash Fiction Online. Here’s the opening sentence:

Maurice showed me his twin brother by lifting up his shirt and pointing to the teeth growing out of his stomach.

Once again, notice how the author introduces the characters right up front. Stories are about people, not weather or landscape. In longer works, you might be able to open with mood-evoking details or panoramic vistas. (James A. Michener got rich doing that, but he never wrote flash.)

FB-ImagineStill, you will find plenty of flash fiction that opens with landscape and weather. You’ll even find some stories that contain no characters at all. Fredric Brown’s “Imagine” comes to mind, but such works seems more like prose poems than stories (and few writers have the skill to pull it off as well as Brown).

I’ve also been going through my files, digging out some of my own flash fiction from 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories, 100 Fiendish Little Frightmares, 365 Scary Stories, and others. I need to select a couple to present at the conference.

I just hope they hold their own against the stories mentioned above.

Piano-LessonFinally, I’ll be concluding my afternoon at PAISTA with a presentation on the songs featured in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. “Hesitation Blues,” “Wining Boy,” and “Oh, Lord, I Want You to Help Me” are all referenced in the course of the play, and I’ll be performing them and talking about how they contribute to the work.

Look for a follow-up post sometime next week. After that, you can expect at least two or three entries devoted to my upcoming readings at the World Fantasy Convention and the University of Brighton.

Until then, scop on!

Image Credits:

The Vestal Review Issue 43, “The Eye Opener,” copyright © 2013 http://www.freestockphotos.biz; The World’s Shortest Stories, Running Press Books; Flash Vol. 6 No. 1., University of Chester; Flash Fiction Online banner, flashfictiononline.com; “Imagine” by Frederic Brown, from The Best of Frederic Brown, Del Ray, 1977 (currently out of print), The Piano Lesson, Plume, 1990.

From World Fantasy to Riley’s Pour House

November 17th, 2012

Still decompressing from World Fantasy in Toronto, I’ll be resurfacing at Riley’s Pour House this Saturday (November 17) for a marathon performance – four hours, four sets, 60+ songs. A real aerobic workout, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday night.

I’d like to tell you about that show, but first a few words about the music sessions that took place at World Fantasy.

What a blast!

Organized by Christopher and Barbara Roden, the sessions were a late addition to the program, announced by word of mouth a few hours before the first one went live at 10:00 p.m. Friday, November 2.

Joining me were MaryAnn Harris, Charles de Lint, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. We took turns calling the songs, sometimes playing solo, but generally jamming together on Celtic, country, and folk-rock standards. We did originals too, with Charles performing “A Dog Named Johnny Cash” and “Cherokee Girl” —  both featuring wonderfully catchy hooks that I haven’t been able to shake yet.

Along the way we were joined by Howard Fox, an artist from Israel whose remarkable paintings generated considerable buzz at the art reception (with one painting going on to win the convention’s Member’s Choice Award.) Playing harmonica, Howard accompanied me on a rendition of  Lennon and McCartney’s “For You Blue.” Then he asked me to lay down some improvised progressions. “Keep it going,” he said, and as I did he made up a song that he called “Fantasy Fair” — completely improvised — proving that he is as skilled at lyrics as he is with painting. This was Howard’s first World Fantasy Con. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.

The crowd grew as the night progressed. A lot of folks sang along, some danced, and when we called it quits around midnight, we were all committed to doing it again.

On Saturday we were joined by Martin Springett, who introduced his original tunes with stories about some of his past performances. Introducing his instrumental “The Dragon,” he spoke about playing for a group of children, all of whom listened with eyes scrunched tight, picturing dragons taking flight while he played.

And then came another improvised performance, this time from Ellen Klages, who asked the audience to call out a song topic. “Manual typewriters!” someone shouted, and she was off – nine minutes of improvised blues about platens, carbon paper, writer’s block, and Nebula Awards. No summary can do it justice. Fortunately, you can catch the whole thing on YouTube.

Click on the link at the end of this post . . . and enjoy!

Also joining us on that second night was singer Angela Keeley, who provided an eclectic mix of songs ranging from the bawdy “Scotsman” to the teen-angst standard “Last Kiss.” Great stuff!

I understand there was a third session on Sunday, but by then I was on the road, heading back to Pittsburgh with all those earworms stuck in my head. I didn’t bother with the radio. The memories were enough.

I’ll be playing some of those same songs again tomorrow night when I perform at Riley’s – the Pub that was recently honored by Irish Echo as one of the best Irish Pubs in the States. For good reason too. Food, drink, ambience, friendly people, music – Riley’s has it all.

I usually open the night with ballads and ramp up from there, but this time I’m planning to start with some rocking sea shanties. Lauren Connolly-Moore will also be on hand, lending her sweet harmonies to some contemporary tunes. I’ll hope to see you there.

So . . . were you at World Fantasy? Did you attend our jam sessions? Do you have anything to add, amend, or comment on?

Are you a fan of the Pour House? Do you have any requests for tomorrow night?

As always, the comment section is open . . . as are my email box and Facebook page. Use the comment option below or the little email and FB icons above. I’d love to hear from you.

Now fasten your seatbelts. Here’s Ellen Klages with her nine-minute blues improvisation “Manual Return.”

Upcoming Appearances

October 18th, 2011

Saturday, October 29
6:00 – 8:00 PM

Edge Publishing Book Launch
World Fantasy Convention

Town and Country Resort
500 Hotel Circle North
San Diego, CA

I’ll be reading from “The Executioner,” one of the featured stories in Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes. If you’re going to be attending the con, please plan to join us.

I’ll be doing other events at WFC as well, including the mass book signing on Friday night. I’ll post details here soon.

It’s going to be a terrific time!