When Words Grow Up & Want To Leave Home
If you’re like me—not a novice anymore, but not quite ready for that leap of insanity into the world of publishing—you scour magazines, sign up for webinars, and click on anything that might help you hone your craft. There was an article in the January 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest that I thought belonged in my time corridor (illustrated above).
I read my hot-off-the-press January 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest in December. A bit early, but I wanted to check out the deadlines for their 87th Annual Writing Competition. Once I noted the contest deadlines on my trusty calendar, I happened across an article by Lucy Snyder titled, “Applying Poetics to Prose” and subtitled “The Poetry of Flash Fiction.” Catchy title. I love writing poetry, and since flash fiction has always eluded me due to a tendency to overwrite, I wanted to know more. She suggested using a discarded poem or a poem that just wasn’t working, and transforming it into a short story, i.e., flash fiction! So obvious, why didn’t I think of it? After all, as she reminded us, poems are complete stories condensed, but they can easily be expanded into 300 or 500 words. What if your poem’s not working as a poem because it secretly dreams of being a short story? What would happen if you took that poem, stretched it a little, blended in some prose, and allowed it to blossom into fiction.
If poetry isn’t your thing, try tinkering with those little ideas that are pretty amazing—you know the ones I’m talking about—those germs of what-ifs that come at 2:00 in the morning, but don’t contain the wherewithal to morph into a novel. Yeah, those. Play with them, explore what prompted the idea to begin with, and lastly, “engage the senses” (as Lucy says in her article). But be careful. She warns us to be specific, bring the story to completion, and don’t forget plot or characterization.
Lightning struck, and I realized I’d already done that with a poem I wrote about a marriage falling apart on a train in Wales. It’s now a novella! Will it be a novel when it grows up? Entirely possible. Why didn’t I repeat the process with other poems? I considered it a fluke and didn’t purposefully try it with another poem that refused to stay a poem. When I expanded yet another poem, it worked again, and bloomed into a short story. I thought, hey, this is good stuff! Of course, my imagination flew into overdrive. Would it work just as well on nursery rhymes, or even songs! If the nursery rhyme of Old MacDonald Had a Farm had been fleshed out as fiction, would it have become something incredible like Charlotte’s Web? What about songs, which are simply poems put to music? I thought of the words to the famous Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. If that’s not a powerful story, I don’t know what is. Spoiler alert: it first appeared as (you guessed it) a poem. Allow me to tease you a little with the first three lines:
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there …
I don’t know about you, but I’d love to flesh that baby out, expand the setting, play with some dialogue, get into their mindsets, and follow wherever it leads me. Give it an actual ending. Even do a little head-hopping. Wait—did I say that out loud? Don’t forget about quotes, sayings, maxims, and proverbs. What’s the difference between Confucius’ famous saying, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” and Shakespeare’s MacBeth? Around 17,110 words, give or take.
So how about taking some time to resurrect what’s not working in one form and breathe new life into it. Does it work in reverse? Sure thing. If a novella isn’t working, take the best sections out, rework the beginning and end, characters and plot, and you might just have a super short story when the dust settles! Let me hear your ideas—I’d love to know if this works for you as well.
Thanks for walking through the corridor with me.