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Posts Tagged short fiction
Jayne Martin has an impressive string of accolades for her flash fiction, especially her recent collection Tender Cuts. Before that, she had a distinguished career writing TV drama and movies. We got together to talk the long and short of writing.
Roz Across all those different continents of work, short and long, do you have any recurring themes, any character types you’re most interested in?
Jayne When I wrote for television, it was primarily on assignment, but I always seemed to be offered the heavy drama: stolen babies, sexual assault, murdered children. I was known for being able to deliver the emotional stuff. I think that’s a recurring theme in all my work. Certainly, in Tender Cuts, every character is dealing with some kind of emotional wound.
Roz And you write humour essays. I haven’t yet had a chance to mention that.
Jayne In real life, I’m actually considered quite funny. If Nora Ephron and Howard Stern had had a love child, that would be me. God, I loved Nora. My humour collection, Suitable for Giving: A Collection of Wit with a Side of Wry, was inspired by her brilliant comic voice and timing. In it is a story called “Stalking Nora Ephron”, where I make the case that if only we could meet we would be best of friends.
Roz I love that idea. You’ve got me making a list of authors who I hope I’d click with IRL.
Jayne One of my greatest influences in drama was Alvin Sargent who wrote the screenplay for Ordinary People. I was hired to give him clerical support during the revisions. I remember walking into his beachfront Santa Monica apartment to find Alvin and Robert Redford, who would direct, sitting on the floor with pages of the script laid out all over the carpet. I helped Alvin get organized and he taught me how to make a killer tuna salad. I also worked for Sydney Pollack and Fay Kanin, so yeah. I cut my drama chops through exposure to the best in the business.
As for flash fiction, probably Meg Pokrass, Pamela Painter and Robert Scotellaro. And I never miss reading a story by Kathy Fish or Nancy Stohlman. But there is just so much flash talent out there now. Gay Degani is on fire. Cathy Ulrich, Jacqueline Doyle, Len Kuntz, brilliant. The genre has exploded since I started back in 2010. I learn from everyone.
Roz With flash fiction, how do you keep a story idea so brief?
Jayne Again, I have to return to my screenplay roots where you enter a scene late, leave early and keep the viewer in a state of suspense. It’s a very visual art form so I’m used to telling a story through use of imagery. I’ve been doing it for so long that I have a flash fiction mind. I think in small bits. The ending, when it arrives, is always a surprise to me, whether it’s the 50th word or word 300. I rarely write fiction over that word limit. I actually find it hard to read stories beyond that limit, too, because the extraneous leaps out at me and I find myself mentally editing, or just growing bored.
Roz I began my writing life with short stories, but they quickly ran away with me. I don’t think I have a short-form mind. What’s the secret of writing microfiction that is satisfying?
Jayne It appeals to my reverence for instant gratification. Patience is not my strong suit. While a movie would often take six months to complete, I can write a flash or micro in a day. I may let it sit for a couple of days, and then go back and polish, but it’s basically done. I like the challenge of every word having a job. No slackers allowed. It’s like the art of bonsai in its precision.
Roz I feel the same about longform. Don’t include a detail unless it matters… Neither form has room for flab, if done properly. I guess the real difference is what the reader is looking for – a single riff, or a complete symphony.
Let’s talk further about flash techniques. What are the main problems that you see in inexperienced writers of flash fiction?
Jayne Inexperienced flash writers haven’t yet learned to let the reader fill in the gaps with their own interpretation and imagination so they still feel like they have to explain and describe everything and tie everything up at the end. The magic happens in the cracks, the empty spaces.
I guess it’s like taking the training wheels off your bike and trusting yourself to stay upright. It takes a while to get there. The best way to learn to write flash is to read lots of it. Some of the best publishers of the form are literary journals like Bending Genres, Ellipsis, Wigleaf, and New Flash Fiction Review, edited by Meg Pokrass, a master of the form.
Roz What are the definitions…. What’s flash fiction, what’s microfiction, what’s small fiction?
Jayne Technically flash is considered under 1,000 words. For me, at about 600 it stops flashing and starts dragging. Some people call micro at 400 words. I call it at 300. A drabble is 100 words. But all these are very loose.
Roz You’ve had quite a journey, from TV writing to flash fiction. One is very collaborative, the other is highly personal.
Jayne When I was writing movies for television it was kind of like being a bricklayer in Beirut. Steady work, but little job satisfaction. With movies, the writer gets paid whether the movie gets made or not and some of what I thought was my best work never saw the light of day, often for capricious reasons that had nothing to do with the work. While the “suits” left you alone for the first draft, after that everyone down to craft services had an opinion. If you didn’t like their notes they would just fire you and hire someone else. It pitted writer against writer.
Having said that, I made a ton of money and if someone offered to pay my fee I’d write another. But it can’t compare to the pleasure of writing fiction and the supportive, wonderful writing community I’ve found doing so.
Roz I have scriptwriter friends who’ve tried novels and been daunted by the idea of writing on their own, of having no filters between their words and the reader (except for an editor). Personally, I love that direct connection.
Jayne I love the direct connection with readers. Writing a story and seeing eyes on it within a month is a huge reward. So yes! Give me my solitude.
Roz The opening page of your website is enchanting. ‘I live in a tiny house… high on a hilltop…’ Tell me about this place. How did you end up there?
Jayne In 2011, my lucrative movie career behind me, I decided to purge 40 years of belongings and downsize from an 1800 square foot house to a 400 square foot guest house on the 20-acre ranch of a friend. It felt great. I highly recommend it. My desk faces out to overlook a rural valley where my closest neighbours are the cows on the other side of the fence. In the airspace, red tail hawks do sky ballet and teach their fledglings to fly. And best of all, no one can find me.
Roz You studied on the UCLA writers’ programme. What did it do for you?
Jayne This was in the very beginning of my career. I’d been an actress first, but it didn’t suit me. At that time, I made my living as a script typist and thought, “Yes. This is where I belong.” In that work, I read hundreds of scripts and learned what worked and what didn’t as I started writing my own. The classes were taught by working professionals, some of which ended up mentoring me as I sought out an agent and those important first jobs.
Roz We’re both horse riders. How does horse rider Jayne fit with writer Jayne? Levi is stunning, by the way. Has he, or have any of your horse experiences, found their way into your writing?
Jayne Levi is my fifth horse. They’ve all been my sanity maintenance. The only time I feel the quieting of my monkey mind and am completely present in the moment is when I’m with a horse. I have never lost that feeling of awe when I sit on their backs and experience their willingness to carry me. I’ve kept my riding and writing worlds pretty separate, but one day I may tell some tales.
Roz (Until that time, Jayne has put some of her horse sense into this movie, Big Spender, available on Amazon. And if your heart beats for hoofbeats, here’s my own tribute to a grand and unforgettable horse, Lifeform Three.)
If you’d like more writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips for long-form stories. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.
author interview, bending genres, Ellipsis, flash fiction, how to write short stories, humour essays, Jayne Martin, Meg Pokrass, Nora Ephron, screenplays, short fiction, Tender Cuts, TV drama, Vine Leaves Press, where to learn flash fiction, Wigleaf, writing for movies, writing for TV
My guest this week admits she is antisocial. She likes to people-watch from behind wide sunglasses, and cocooned inside big headphones. She says her day is characterised by a constant flow of music, which has fed directly into the set of vignettes in the short fiction collection she has just published. I particularly have to thank her for introducing me to one of her special trigger tracks, by Florence + the Machine, as there’s something in it I might need for Ever Rest. And so the muse hops from mind to mind; I hope it will to yours too. She is Amanya Maloba and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Self-Editing Masterclass Snapshots will resume tomorrow.
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My guest this week had never realised his fiction was so closely tied to music, nor how much that meant it reflected the landmarks of his own life. Through significant songs he has peeled back the years to channel aspects of his family and upbringing, to flesh out the characters in his short stories and novels. He is McStorytellers founder Brendan Gisby and he’s on the Red Blog sharing his Undercover Soundtrack
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(This is the first time I’ve come across a quote that put the words ‘nail’ and ‘novel’ together, so I thought it was worth a mention.)
Lawrence was talking about the influence of a story’s narrative voice, and how it has to be deployed with feints and subtlety. By coincidence, I’d just read his short story The Lovely Lady and badly wanted an excuse to talk through why I like it so much. So as the gods seem to be hinting, here we go.
(If you haven’t read it already, it’s here. It’s not that long and I’ll wait for you.)
How’s this for an opening?
The Lovely Lady is Pauline. ‘At seventy-two… sometimes mistaken, in the half-light, for thirty…. Only her big grey eyes were a tiny bit prominent… the bluish lids were heavy, as if they ached sometimes with the strain of keeping the eyes beneath them arch and bright.’
Pauline lives with her son, Robert, and her unmarried and distinctly less favoured niece Cecilia: ‘perhaps the only person in the world who …. consciously watched the eyes go haggard and old and tired….. until Robert came home. Then ping! … She really had the secret of everlasting youth… could don her youth again like an eagle.’ How interesting that she only turns this magnetism on for Robert. Never Cecilia. And how creepy.
Here we have characters we recognise by their familiar vanities – and an off-kilter situation. And it’s all accomplished through simple description. First, we’re shown Pauline (most frequently referred to as ‘the lovely lady’) in a way that lets us know how she sees herself. Then we see Cecilia’s view of her. There’s a lot of unrest here; an unstable situation that can’t last. Simple and masterful.
We don’t get Robert’s point of view. He is a mute adorer of his mother. And anyway this is going to be Cecilia’s story. Cecilia, by the way, is very quickly abbreviated to Ciss, or perhaps I should say reduced as the narrator informs us the diminutive is ‘like a cat spitting’. Tiny details that reinforce her true place. (But we want this to change.)
They all live in a house that is ‘ideal for Aunt Pauline’ – but living death for the other two. That is just as well because they don’t have the confidence to leave. Cecilia is ugly and tongue tied, and Robert, a barrister, is secretly mortified that he can’t earn more than £100 a year, in spite of his best efforts. (Notice the ‘showing’, not ‘telling’ – we don’t get a sentence saying Robert’s an underachiever. We’re shown what that means and how it makes Robert feel.) By day he is at work. When he comes home at night, the old lady keeps him in awe of her beauty and gay conversation.
It doesn’t help that Robert is ‘almost speechless’. Dwell on those words for a moment: ‘almost speechless’. They reach so much further than ‘quiet’.
The language drums out the unnatural state of this triangle. Ciss intuits that Robert is never comfortable ‘like a soul that has got into the wrong body’. The lovely lady is only seen by candlelight, when she is radiant in antique shawls. She made her fortune dealing in antiques from exotic countries. Are we treading into vampire territory here? Perhaps, but not literally; this is a psychological hold. The lovely lady steals Robert’s youth to keep up the illusion of her own. Meanwhile Ciss is always sent to bed early and can see the confusion seething in his soul.
‘Every character should want something,’ said Kurt Vonnegut. Ciss wants to marry Robert, but can’t see how to prise him away and fears her dazzling aunt will live for ever – or at least until Robert is a broken husk. Nudging the vampire idea again, but so obliquely. (And she’s Ciss now; never Cecilia. Her status is so insignificant that the narrator doesn’t use her proper name.)
This talk of the supernatural is also storytelling sleight of hand – seeding suggestions for what comes next. One day, Ciss learns something that may give her a means of escape.
From here, the old woman is no longer ‘the lovely lady’, a legendary and exquisite presence. She is Pauline. Not even Aunt Pauline. Ciss has glimpsed the reedy old woman under the brocades.
The relationships thicken
Ciss’s relationship with Robert deepens and she becomes Cecilia again – although he will not break away from his mother.
The final solution is bizarre, poignant and funny, but it works beautifully because of the structures and influences the author has been weaving while we looked the other way. The nailing that was done with the lightest touch.
Thanks for the pic Editor B
Your turn – let’s talk about The Lovely Lady – or is there another short story you’d like to give an honourable mention to?
The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book! You can read it here. And you can find out more about Nail Your Novel, original flavour, here.
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- Shades of the truth – talking memoir and fiction-writing with Scott Gould @Scott_Gould March 7, 2021
- ‘I have a flash fiction mind’ – interview with Jayne Martin @jayne_martin February 21, 2021
- Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent, YA author @AJ_Dickenson (and me!) at @Litopia February 15, 2021
- ‘Deep in the vulnerabilities and privileges of suburbia’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Adam Byatt @RevHappiness February 10, 2021
- How to write a logline for your novel February 7, 2021
- Finding your personal magic – talking to @thecreativepenn about forgotten places, historic landscapes and Not Quite Lost January 28, 2021
- Getting to the truth about strong women and troubled teenhood – novelist, playwright, essayist, writing coach Martha Engber @MarthaEngber January 24, 2021