My Ultimate Fantasy Questing Party

Last week, I promised to reveal my ultimate fantasy questing party. The rules of the exercise were covered in that post, but to summarize the rules for this exercise briefly, the party must consist of nine members (like the fellowship in Lord of the Rings), be selected from fantasy literature (books, including comics, not movies, tv, or other mediums), and consist of only one member from each book or series (no doubling, Gandalf and Samwise could not both be included, for example). The party would go on a hypothetical high-fantasy quest, involving magic (rather than technology). It was a more difficult task than I thought, and it taught me a lot about the types of characters to which I gravitate. (Apparently, I am a big fan of talking animals. Who knew?) It was a fun exercise, and I encourage those of you who have not yet tried it to do so, and to post your traveling parties in the comments.

A few notes before I reveal the members of my questing team:

–There were some difficult decisions, some of which I explain in the comments. When unsure of which character to include, I often considered the role the character would play within the group: hero, mentor, muscle, friend, foil, etc. My team would have a better chance to succeed if all of these traditional roles were covered.

–I also considered team chemistry. How would the members interact with each other? Who might like or work well with whom? Who would, potentially, not get along? Who would improve the party’s moral in the tough times, etc. Ultimately, these questions are subjective, but then again, so is this entire exercise.

–I only included characters in series that are completed. Therefore, though I love many characters in Marlon James’ Dark Star trilogy, the series is not yet complete, and therefore I have not included any characters from either of the first two books. I do not know what will happen to those characters, so I cannot yet include them. Same for George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice (remember we are dealing with books exclusively, not the TV program).

–I also did not include any characters from series with which I, personally, have not yet finished reading. For example, I came late to NK Jemisin, and am in the middle of her Broken Earth series. I loved the first book. It was one of the most literary fantasy novels I’ve read in a good long while, but I have not finished it, and therefore I do not know the fate or development of the characters. The fault is mine, but, alas. Maybe my list will change in a few years.

–I strongly considered both Sherlock Holmes and Abraham Van Helsing. Each of these characters would be brilliant on a quest, however, neither really comes from a fantasy novel, even though Van Helsing does come from a speculative novel.

–The most difficult omission for me was Dune. Though there are many fantasy elements in Dune, ultimately it is more of a scifi universe than a fantasy one. Thus, no Paul, no Gurney, no Lady Jessica, no Stillgar, etc.

–My final cut, so to speak, was Sir Tristan. Le Morte de Arthur is the godfather of the genre, but I decided to stick to more modern titles.

–It goes with out saying that these choices are based on the original, literary depictions, not any of the versions from various adaptations.

Without further ado, here are my nine:

Iorek Byrnison (His Dark Materials): An armored polar bear is the ultimate enforcer for my traveling party. He is strong, principled, and though he does manifest a daemon, he has as much soul as anyone. He also has smithing skills, which will come in handy. Iorek is the ultimate protector for my hero, and even though it meant I couldn’t include Lyra, including him was an easy choice.

Lucy Pevensie (Narnia): She will be the young heroine of the quest. I’ve been reading the Narnia books with my 8 year old daughter at bedtime each night, and rereading the books as an adult, it is clear to me that Lucy is the best character in the series. She is brave, smart, and true. She is willing to stand up to and go against her older siblings when she knows that she’s right, and yet she’s humble and isn’t seeking power. She also possesses a magical healing potion, which will certainly come in handy on any quest.

Tenar (Earthsea): It takes a lot to give up power, to go against the conventions of society in the name on right, to abandon the only traditions and systems you have known–the very systems that have brought you power–to do what your conscience says is right. Tenar does all of these things. This was a tough one for me, as I really wanted to use Ged Sparrowhawk as my wizard, but there are many great wizards throughout fantasy literature. There is only one Tenar.

Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings): The ultimate friend. Sometimes the obvious choice is the right one.

Belgarath the Sorcerer (The Belgariad, etc.): Perhaps some of you can relate to this: There was a writer whose books were essential to my falling in love with fantasy. I read all of their books in high school, mostly as they were being published. It was just the second fantasy series I read. It fanned the flames of my nascent ideas about wanting to be a writer. Later, as an adult, I found out some very disturbing things about the author. I try to separate my nostalgia for the books from my opinion of the person who wrote them. No, it’s not the one who immediately springs to mind for most of you. It’s David Eddings. Anyway, Belgarath is just as powerful as any other classic wizard. He has the same types of powers, and generally fits the archetype, but he’s more down to earth and fun. You’d rather have a beer with him than with Gandalf, for example.

The Fox (The Little Prince): “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ‘Nuff said.

Lu Tze, The Sweeper (Discworld): There are many fine choices across Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Sam Vimes would probably be the most popular with his blend of street smarts and combat experience, but Angua the Werewolf, DEATH, Granny Weatherwax, or even Rincewind (sometimes running is the best option) would make fine choices as well. Ultimately, Lu Tze is my choice. He is a 6000 year old Time Monk who does not hold rank in the hierarchy of the order. He just sweeps floors (hence The Sweeper). Yet those who know, know his kung fu–snafu to be precise–is better than anyone else’s. He is irreverent as well and would make a fine mentor and foil for Belgarath. Anyone who disagrees should remember rule number one.

Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride): Book Inigo is much like the movie version, except there is way more background about his father in the book (which is at least as hilarious and awesome as the movie). A skilled sword master should balance out the fighting skills in the party. With Iorek as the brute strength, The Sweeper as the unarmed combat specialist, and Inigo as the skilled swordsman, all phases of battle are covered. Also, much like Samwise, Lucy, Tenar, etc, Inigo is principled as well.

Door (Neverwhere): The last choice is always the hardest. I had planned on including a character from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I’ve been doing a reread since the show came out, and it is reminding me of how much I love that particular fantasy framework. The question is, who to pick. Dream is right out. He would get bored and leave. He prefers to quest alone. Death has other responsibilities. My favorite character in the series is Hob Gadling, but while he does bring a wealth of experience, I don’t think he quite fits. I would have loved to include Barnabas, Destruction’s sarcastic talking dog, but that seems like overkill the way my party is currently constructed. We already have two other talking animals. Destruction himself is really interesting. He has abandoned his position in the Endless, and is living as a mortal, almost. He writes poetry, paints, and cooks. He seems like a good guy, and everyone seems to get along with him. The problem is that as the embodiment of destruction, destruction follows him around. People die. Things get destroyed. We don’t need that hanging over the quest. Therefore, I decided to pivot to another Gaiman work, Neverhwere. Door has the ability to open and create doors. That is a skill that will no doubt come in useful on a quest.

So, how did I do? Let me know in the comments.

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On Banned Books, Privilege, and Stephen King’s Poor Choice of Words

In response to the recent appalling spate of book banning, many of my friends and fellow writers have posted the following meme which based on a quote by Stephen King:

While their, and King’s, motivations for posting this quote are noble, I find the content of said quote unhelpful, dangerous, and misinformed. It isn’t often one can say this, but in this statement, King chose his words poorly.

While I am very much in favor of encouraging kids to read banned books, the assumptions underlying King’s advice reveal a gross misunderstanding of the on-the-ground realities for many students and assume privilege as well.

I’m willing, for now, to leave aside the opening gambit which say King “is never much disturbed” as a poorly-chosen rhetorical gambit. The real issue is the false dichotomy placing. Seeking out and reading banned books in direct opposition to being angry and protesting. One must fight against book bans because the alternative which King presents does not address the problem for most kids. Consider the third paragraph:

King advises students not to protest or sign petitions, but “instead, run, don’t walk, to the nearest non-school library or the local book store and get whatever it is that they banned.”

I’m going to begin with the end of that sentence: the assumption that a kid has enough money to buy a book, let alone the many that are likely banned by their district reveals King’s economic privilege and assumes the same of the students. I don’t know the demographics of the district where King taught way back when, but I have been a New York City public school teacher since 2007, and most of the inner-city kids whom I teach do not have extra cash to spend at book stores.

Moreover, the assumption that there is a local book store also indicates a certain type of community. Not every town has a book store, many do not have one within walking distance, and, even in suburban communities, the closest bookstore may be many miles away.

Let’s move on to the library. First off, books are being banned from libraries as well. While librarians generally try to fight the good fight, municipalities often will threaten to pull funding if the library if doesn’t pull certain books from the shelf, effectively banning those books.

But even if the banned books are available at the library, there are a number of other issues with King’s advice. First, in order for the advice to work, every kid in the class would need to borrow the book from the library. Let’s assume a class of 25 (I’ve had 34 kids in a class in the bast majority of classes I’ve taught, but let’s take 25 just for the example). Is a local library going to inventory 25 copies of Maus? Most likely, not. If a school has four sections, each with 25 kids, the library would need to carry 100 copies for each kids to have access to a copy so they could read it. I’ve taught in schools with graduating classes ranging from 100 to 900+. Eventually, the numbers get ridiculous. Let’s say that each kid borrowed the book for 2 weeks. How many books do we expect a library to carry? How long would it take for every student to read each banned book?

Not every kid would take the initiative to read the book, you might say—and you’d be right—which presents another issue with King’s argument. Only the kids with the interest and initiative to go to the library and read the banned books would read them. Most would not. To believe otherwise is idealistic nonsense. If Mr. King would think back to his days as a teacher, surely he would know this.

With the amount of ignorance which pervades our culture, and the rate at which the ignorant vote and even hold powerful positions, the dangers of the ignorance which arises from not reading banned books is great, indeed. We should be fighting against ignorance even if the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, like the Aesir against Ragnarok, rather than acquiescing to it.

“Ah,”you might say, “ but do all the kids in a class where a book is assigned read it?” The answer is certainly not. But, just as certainly, a greater percentage of them will than if the book was not assigned. Moreover, every student who attends class will have some exposure to the book, as well as its themes, issues, and historical contexts through the class discussions. Something, in this case, is better than nothing.

There is also a privilege issue with the library argument. In my district in New York City, which has one of the largest and most well-funded public library systems in the country, the public libraries close around 6pm. In the town in which I live, the library is only open in the evening twice a week, never past 7pm, and never on the weekend. Many of my students have after-school jobs which they use to help their parents pay the rent. Many take care of their siblings while their parents are at work as well. These students do not have the luxury of first researching, and second going to the public library to take out banned books on a regular basis. Maybe students in the district where King taught could, but I’m willing to bet that there are more students across the country who find themselves in a similar situation to the students whom I teach.

In addition, as students get older, they participate in after school activities. Let’s say a child is a member of a basketball team. Often, practices and road games end well after the public library would be closed. We can tell kids to pick books over their teams, but does anyone think the majority will make that choice?

For younger children—and children’s books are being as well—the problem is even greater. How are young children supposed to get to the book store or library? Who is taking them there? Surely not the very adults who populate the school boards that are banning books.

One last thing: My father was kicked out of his house for reading Catcher in the Rye. He happened to have a life situation and live in a community where he could spend the night elsewhere. Many kids do not. I wonder where the kids I teach would go if they were kicked out of their houses. Would they feel safe spending the night somewhere else even if they could obtain the book from the local library or book store? I know for a fact that many of them would not.

Returning to that opening gambit, there is no reason to place seeking out books in opposition to being angry and pursuing other means. I might, for example advise a fellow teacher who teaches in a district where Maus was banned to try to teach Joe Kubert’s Yossel, another graphic novel about the Holocaust. Leaving aside the issues of funding and acquiring the books this might be a way to stay ahead of the censors and teach a similar book. I would never advise them, however, to give up their fight to keep teaching Maus, not to protest the decision, or not to be angry or disturbed. I would, in fact, encourage that teacher to fight on multiple fronts. Similarly, while I might advise students to seek out the banned book wherever they could, I would never tell them not to be angry, not to fight, not to protest, etc. Had King advised his students in that manner, or used his immense platform to do so, I would not have a problem with his advise. The realities of how his advise would play out (as detailed above) makes his rhetorical ploy. One off as the kind of privileged indifference that people like Martin Luther King and Eli Wiesel warned against.

I agree with King’s final statement. Read banned books. Find out what “they” don’t want you to know, but be mad that those books are banned. Protest, carry signs, raise a ruckus. Even if you’re in the position where you can follow King’s advice. Fight like hell for those who don’t share your privilege. As another famous writer recently posted,

If that’s not a reason to get angry, I don’t know what is.

Marking a Milestone on my Creative Journey

Believe it or not, I was not always into comics. Sure, I had a Spider-Man light switch in my room growing up, and sure, there was a period in junior high school when I read the Daredevil and Thor comics that were in my orthodontist’s waiting room pretty consistently, but from the time I graduated 8th grade until the time I graduated college, I hardly read comic books at all.

The same held true for my writing. At that point in my life, I was torn between writing “serious” literary prose and scifi/fantasy. I thought it would be my project to marry the speculative and the literary, perhaps incorporating fantasy elements into my writing the way Vonnegut incorporated science fiction into his. I was writing a lot of short stories during this period, and perhaps influenced my writing-workshops at Columbia, where I majored in writing/literature, I had not even begun to consider writing in the comics medium.

My attitude toward comics changed in the early 2000s, because of my love for Neil Gaiman’s writing. I had read and enjoyed Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy early in college, and having completed that series, as well as his two Dirk Gently books, I was eager to read more clever, British speculative humor. I had a friend who had an internship with Adam’s company (where she was working on the Starship Titanic text-based video game), and I asked her what I should read next. She suggested Good Omens, by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, a book which has had a profound impact on my creative life.

From that point forward, I started working my way through Gaiman and Pratchett’s novels, alternating between books like Neverwhere and American Gods and Pratchett’s Discworld, happy to find authors I enjoyed who were both prolific and coming out with new material.

At this time, I also began to lean into writing witty humor. I had dabbled with it since reading Vonnegut—and after watching Monty Python, which, seemingly, was on a loop in our dorm-room common area—but as I read more Pratchett and Gaiman it began to seep into my writing more and more.

Fast forward to 2003, when I met Neil Gaiman after a reading he did promoting Sandman: Endless Nights. As I blogged recently, during this meeting, he gave me some great writing advice. It was a pivotal moment for me as a young writer with just two published stories to my name.

During the reading, I noticed something else: The majority of the attendees were fans of Gaiman’s comics work. This is not surprising, as the event was in support of the Endless Nights release. I was struck both by the enthusiasm of the crowd for The Endless, and by the quality of the prose in the passage that Gaiman read at the event, which came from the Despair story.

I decided to give comics another try.

At that time, I was working at trade magazine house located on 31st street and Park Avenue in New York City. I was living in Inwood, a neighborhood about as far north in Manhattan as you can get. Every day, on my walk to the subway, I passed by Jim Hanley’s Universe, a large comic book store, which was located directly opposite the Empire State Building on 33rd Street.

My old office building at 460 Park Avenue South

One day soon after Gaiman’s reading, I went in and purchased the first volume of The Sandman in trade paperback. The rest, as they say, is history.

I consumed the Sandman series voraciously. I was in Jim Hanley’s about once a week, to buy the next volume in the (of the at the time 12 volumes of the series) over the next few months, and when I finished the series, I continued to visit the store to buy other Gaiman titles.

Eventually, I branched out to other comics creators. Through reading Gaiman, I was introduced to other writers. I started reading Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, and Frank Miller (whom I remembered had written some of those Daredevil books I had read at the orthodontist’s office).

There was something in their writing that I really liked. They were doing something different than what the so-called-literary writers were doing at the time, something innovative, without the pretensions of that was so rampant among the darlings of the moment of the literary world.

Personally—and this is just my preference—I preferred Moore to Franzen, whose prose I always found overwrought, and Gaiman, whose allusions seemed more natural, to Lethem. I not only enjoyed these comics writers, I studied them, and incorporated what I learned into my own writing.

I learned so much about structure from Alan Moore, especially about the circular narrative, a technique which I’ve used in so many of my stories.

Purchasing “Genesis, Jiggered” inside JHU

I learned so much about dialogue from Frank Miller, both about brevity and about how to write distinct character voices.

I learned so much about characterization from Garth Ennis, both in his Vertigo work, and his more mainstream work.

Eventually, there was Will Eisner, who combined character and setting masterfully in his Contract With God trilogy.

And of course there was Gaiman, from whom I had already learned so much.

This was a literary community with which I wanted to engage, a literary community, which unlike so many of the literary communities which I loved—was contemporary and active.

When I, eventually, decided to try my hand at writing comics, I began by studying Gaiman’s script excerpt, which I found at the back of one of the Sandman trade paperbacks.

This newfound interest in writing comics led me to attend New York Comic Con for the first time, where I discovered Buddy Scalera’s Comic Book School, whose panels furthered my education as a writer and as a fledgling comics creator.

Beyond the influence these trips to Jim Hanley’s Universe had on my writing, they rekindled my love of comics. Gaiman and Moore had both written Batman, and reading their Batman stories reintroduced me to a character I had not been involved with since I watched The Animated Series in the 90s. I revisited the Daredevil and Thor titles I remembered from those visits to the orthodontist slightly earlier. I began to go back even further to characters I enjoyed when I was a kid, like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.

Moreover, I enjoyed the sense of community I found at Jim Hanley’s universe. The staff, unlike the reputation that many comics stores had at the time, was helpful and enthusiastic. They were kind to me as I was learning, patiently answering my questions and offering recommendations. I remember one employee in particular, I think his name was Larry, who had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the store’s back issues. Based on minimal clues I provided about comics I had read 10-15 years prior—and without my knowing the publication date, writer, or artist—he went through the back issues, and found, more often than not, the book for which I had been looking.

Inside of the current iteration of JHU.

Beyond the comics, however, I found that comics fans were also fans of other nerdy things I loved, like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and in another circle back to the beginning of this post, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. There was a used prose books section in the store, stocked with out-of-print science fiction titles, and my first introduction to the great Chris Claremont was through a prose novel (autographed) which he had co-written with George Lucas.

Hanging around the store, I made friends and had (let’s call them) discussions about a wide range of film and literature. These were my people, and I found them at Jim Hanley’s Universe.

Eventually, I moved on. I left the job at the magazine, and my next job was not in the same neighborhood. Jim Hanley’s has moved twice since then, further east, making it less convenient for me to get to. Still, the store held—and continues to hold—a special place in my heart. It still is, n my mind, my local comics shop, though it is no longer, truly, local. Whenever I need a title which I can’t find at the small store in my neighborhood, I order it from Jim Hanley’s, and whenever I happen to be in that part of the city, I make sure to stop in.

Like a good Alan Moore story, life tends to run in circles. And so, after many years of attending the Comic Book School panels at cons, I now co-edit their annual anthology. I’ve had comics published by Comic Book School, in literary magazines, and in anthologies. I’ve continued to publish my prose stories as well, and have won prestigious awards for my writing. I’ve also become a poet, something that young writer who met Neil Gaiman all those years ago would never have imagined in his future. I have had a good deal of success with my writing, and even though I aspire for more, I am grateful for everything that I’ve accomplished thus far on my journey.

My journey is far from over, however. A few months ago, I watched an episode of Comic Book School’s YouTube channel which featured Tom Peyer and Jamal Igle of Ahoy! Comics. After listening to them discuss their company’s vision—and describe their company’s open submission policy—I thought it would be a good market for my writing. The blend of literary and humor which permeated their conversation spoke directly to that part of me who fell in love with Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Douglas Adams back in the day (there go those circles again). I submitted a story to them, and it was accepted.

I was thrilled by the email I received from my editor, Sarah Litt, and eagerly awaited the day when my work would appear in a book which would be available at comics shops nationwide.

Thus, it was one of the great thrills of my creative life to walk into Jim Hanley’s Universe last week, and purchase Black’s Myth 5, the comic book in which my story Genesis, Jiggered first appeared, and to see my work on the shelves in the place where my passion for comics was rekindled so many years ago.

Appropriately enough, my first “professional” comics work is actually a prose story—and here is another of those Allan Moore circles coming around again at the conclusion of this post—a satirical fantasy in the mode of Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman.

Though the story is now available for free on the Ahoy! site, if you like it, I encourage you to order the issue to your favorite local comics shop. I hope you have had similar experiences there as I had in mine.

With my story, “Genesis, Jiggered”, in front of JHU

A Story In Honor of Neil Gaiman’s Birthday

It’s Neil Gaiman’s birthday today. Gaiman is my favorite living writer, and has been hugely influential on my writing life.

When I was a young writer, I met Gaiman at a reading he was doing in support of #Sandman Endless Nights. He signed books after the reading, and we were allowed to have one other book signed in addition to the new Sandman volume. I chose to have him sign Stardust. As he was signing it, I told him that Stardust was the first book I read that resembled the book I wanted to write. He responded that he wrote it because he he wanted to read a book like that and no one else was writing it.

This interaction was probably the most inspiring conversation I had with a writer, and gave me confidence to pursue my writing more seriously at a time when I really needed it. I will always be grateful to Mr. Gaiman for this interaction, both for his message and for the kindness he showed me amidst the hours he spent signing for and interacting with his legions of fans.

There are many other ways Gaiman influenced me, including the way he brought me back to comics as an adult, the way he writes across mediums and genres, and the way he marries the humorous and the macabre, but it is this brief encounter for which I am most thankful.

Happy birthday, Neil Gaiman.

Comic Book School Flash Fiction Challenge, Step 2 Begins

For the second straight year, I am editing the Comic Book School Flash Fiction Challenge. The challenge just entered step 2 (but it’s not too late to join), and here is the column I posted for this phase of the challenge on the CBS site, which includes my advice for writing Flash Fiction.

I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead—Mark Twain

Writing succinctly is hard. You must say what is essential—and only what is essential, remain laser-focused on what you wish to convey, and avoid digressions. You must drill down to the pure essence of writing, and tell your story in its purest, most distilled form. It is a task that writers like Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, and Cicero all lament takes time, often more time that writing a longer piece would. For those who are participating in the Comic Book School Flash Fiction challenge, that time is now.

The drafting step of the current challenge begins today on our message boards for Flash Fiction #2, and first drafts are due in fourteen days. Here are three suggestions for how to approach this particular challenge:

1. Consider writing a One-Twist Story:

When writing flash-fiction you don’t have space for complex plots. Eschew all sub-plots, and focus on a single problem in a single dramatic situation. Build suspense around one question, situation, or antagonist. Try to build toward a logical, but unexpected resolution, and hide this resolution from the reader for as long as possible. If you are successful, the reader should be both surprised and satisfied by your story’s conclusion.

The Twilight Zone is the gold standard for this type of writing. Think of the episode, Time Enough At Lastin which Henry Bemis, a bookish man who wants nothing as much as to read finds himself with all the time in the world, surrounded by books. Unfortunately, his glasses are permanently broken. The powerful ending is built on one twist. All of the characterization focuses on Bemis’ love of books and his frustration with a society that won’t let him read. From the opening scene in which Bemis reads David Copperfield at his job, to the scene where Bemis’ wife setting him up for ridicule by first asking him to read poetry to her and then frustrates these attempts and destroys his book, each scene stays laser-focused on the single aspect of Bemis’ characterization that will be important to the resolution. If Bemis had been a character in a novel or a movie, he would need to be characterized more fully, but in the shorter medium, focus is essential.The single twist ending can also be pulled off in comedic form.

In perhaps the most famous episode of The Honeymooners, the 99,000 Dollar Answer,  the seeds that hint at the twist ending are sown throughout the early part of the episode. The writers engage in a classic misdirection framing the story around Ralph Kramden’s appearances on the gameshow, partially to hide those seeds, but there is still only one dramatic situation that leads to a perfect surprise twist ending.

In The Duel, my flash piece for the last anthology, I tried to affect a single twist ending. Reader have told me that were surprised by the ending. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s only 500 words. Read it and see if you’re surprised, then read it again and try to isolate the techniques I use to affect the suspense and hide the ending.

2. Consider putting your own spin on a traditional trope or cliché.

One of the hardest aspects of writing flash fiction for writers who are used to longer form writing is the lack of space for worldbuilding and backstory. When writing flash fiction, you must build a believable world quickly. Why not let the reader do some of the work for you? By using a trope with which the reader is already familiar, a writer can rely on that reader to do the world building for them. If you write what appears to be a classic fairy tale, a traditional horror, or noir crime story, half the work is done for you. The reader already knows where they are and what is supposed to happen.

The same can be said when using a seemingly cliched or trope-y character. Certain character types are supposed to act in certain ways: Prince Charming, the tragic hero, the undead monster, etc. Moreover, setting your story within a cliched trope allows you to subvert that trope to affect your twist ending. Consider Neil Gaiman’s masterful short story, Nicholas Was. (If you have not read it yet, read it before the next sentence. It’s only 100 words; I’ll wait) At the end of the story, Gaiman relies on the reader’s familiarity with the Santa Claus myth to affect his twist ending. The last three words of the story—”Ho, ho ho”—carry so much weight because the audience is already familiar with Santa Claus before reading the story. Gaiman has used something cliched and familiar to create something surprising and original.

In “The Duel,” I combine two common tropes, the duel at high noon from spaghetti westerns and the traditional high-fantasy wizard archetype, to create a new and different world. Because readers are generally familiar with the Western movie archetype, I could quickly establish the setting with details like the old-west saloon, the tumbleweed rolling across the road, and the townsfolk shuttering their windows. Because readers are familiar with the wizard archetype, I do not have to explain an elaborate magical system that allows the wizards to shoot magic from their staffs. The tropes have done that work for me. But, because I mash-up two unfamiliar genres, the story still feels fresh and new.

3. Consider using an unconventional or experimental narrative technique.

Because flash fiction is so short, it affords the writer the opportunity to experiment with form and language. An unconventional storytelling method can set your story apart and grab the reader’s attention. Readers will stick with an unconventional technique longer in shorter-form fiction, and this gives the flash fiction writer freedom to try out new things.

In her famous short story, The Birthday Party by Katherine Brush uses multiple point of view shifts—including the dreaded second person—to affect the dramatic distance of the reader to the story. In “The Duel,” I use present-tense narration to create immediacy and build suspense. These techniques work better in short form writing than in long form writing. They make the reader uncomfortable, which has the contradictory affect of hooking them in the short term (hmm, this is new and interesting, I’ll give it a shot) and alienating them in the long term (This is just weird/difficult; I don’t want to put in the work to deal with it).

Flash fiction offers you the opportunity to experiment with unconventional techniques and forms without alienating the reader. Take advantage of that opportunity and be creative. Surprise yourself by writing in an unfamiliar way, and you will be sure to surprise your reader.

The drafting phase is the perfect time to experiment with these unconventional narrative techniques. If you write your draft in, say second person, and you don’t like it, it is easy to revise your narrative perspective in future drafts.

There are, of course, many more ways to approach Flash Fiction—many more than I have space for here—and I encourage you experiment with them all. If, however, you are having trouble getting started with the challenge—or if this is the first time you are attempting to write flash fiction—I hope you find these suggestions helpful.

As always, I look forward to seeing your creations, and I will see you on the message boards for Flash Fiction: Step #2.

How to Participate

Register for the challenge, review the creative prompt, and start brainstorming on the boards.

We hope you will take on the flash fiction challenge. We’ll see you on the boards…and in The Time Inn.

Next Steps

Read the announcement for the 8-Page Challenge and fill out the startup form.

Questions? Contact our editor A.A. Rubin on the Flash Fiction Forum.


This article first appeared on the Comic Book School page. Comic Book School runs the flash fiction challenge.

Writing as Creative Play and The Remnants Anthology Release

I find it very sad that grown ups are not encouraged to play creatively. Most adults, following along with the conventions of contemporary society and do not engage in active, creative play. They rely on the creations of others to escape their dreary, every-day lives by watching television and movies, listening to music, reading books, and perhaps going to an art museum. Very few grownups, write, paint, compose, etc, Even when they do think creatively, it is often done in connection with their jobs, and therefore, they are creating for others—a boss, a company—rather than for themselves. In contrast, children are encouraged to play to draw, to make up stories and songs. Whether they consider themselves to be creative or not does not matter. Most children engage in creative play.

Many of the so-called-weird people who become successful in the arts encourage others to engage in creative activity as well. They claim, that there is a fulfillment one gets from doing art that is directly related to doing something creative for yourself. My favorite formulation of this idea is Kurt Vonnegut’s. Vonnegut, in a number of different places, encouraged his readers (and his listeners when he delivered his message as a speech) to engage in creative activities, even if what they end up producing is bad. One does not need, as Neil Gaiman exhorts his followers to do, make good art, rather, even making bad art is way of making “life bearable,” according to his view. “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake,” Vonnegut claims.

I wholeheartedly agree, and I believe that the reason for this positive effect is the connection between making art—good or bad—and the creative play in which most people engaged as children. I have often, when speaking of my own writing, compared it to a (slightly) more socially acceptable version of childhood play.

During a recent live reading and discussion about the Remnants anthology from Kyanite Publishing (which was just released today), I extended that metaphor a bit further to explain the different mediums in which I write and connect them to common ways that children play.

When I want to play alone (and as an introverted writer-type, this is the kind of play in which I engage the most), I write short stories or poetry. During this type of play, I am the only one affecting the outcome of the “game.” When I want to play with others, I make comics. In this type of play, I collaborate with others to create. I work with an artist, and sometimes a team comprised of separate pencilers, inkers, colorists, and letterers, to create the final piece. We each have input into the story, and we collaborate to affect the outcome.

The Remnants anthology offered me a new way to play. Remnants is a “shared-world” anthology. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, created by Stephen Coghlan. Each of the authors in the anthology had to write a story which took place within this same, shared, world. Because of my background in comic books, I usually explain a shared world like the Marvel or DC universe. Each comic (or movie if you prefer) must take place within the shared world, but each is also the unique creation of the artists who made it. A Denny O’Neil Batman story is different from an Alan Moore Batman story, but they are both, recognizably Batman stories and therefore must follow the parameters of that universe. You could say the same thing about Kenneth Branagh’s Thor movie compared to Taika Waititi’s.

Similarly, the stories in the Remnants anthology each reflect the styles and talents of the authors who wrote them, yet they all take place within Stephen’s world. Writing for this anthology presented certain restrictions in terms of what I was allowed to do in the story, but it was also freeing in a way as I could just concentrate on writing the story without having to do all the world building associated with writing this type of science fiction story.

To return to my metaphor, writing this story was like go over someone’s house and being allowed to play with their toys. In this case, Stephen built this incredible world, a for a little while, he allowed me—and the other writers whose stories are included in this anthology—to come and play with it. The result’s which you can read in the anthology, are truly remarkable in they way they differ in tone, style, and content while all being true to the shared world.

I hope you consider purchasing a copy of Remnants, and reading my story, “The Forgotten,” (follow any of the hyperlinks throughout this post, including this one), and I really hope that if you endeavor to do something creative this week. Write a poem or story, draw a picture, write a song, even if you feel you’re doing it poorly, the benefits are immeasurable especially during these trying times.

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