Wrestling with a Rogue Sentence

Recently, I participated in a flash-fiction writing workshop that ran for three weeks. Each week, the workshop participants were assigned to a new instructor and small group. Each instructor gave the participant groups a daily theme, readings, and a writing assignment. We could share our work within our small groups and hand in one assignment draft to our instructor for feedback at the end of each week.

Now, I’m revisiting each story I generated, taking a fresh look at what I produced. There’s often a great discrepancy between my excitement for a new story and how exciting the first draft actually reads a few weeks later.

Last night, I revisited one of the first drafts from the workshop. I recalled patting myself on the back for such a “tight” draft, writing that wouldn’t need too much “polish” to finish. Wrong. I had a story with too many complexities for its size. My main character struggled with two external conflicts and two internal conflicts. One particular line within the story generated positive feedback from my workshop group, which made it feel vital to the piece. Wrong again. It happened to be the one sentence that introduced the character’s second internal conflict—that one complexity too many. Because the sentence had generated positive attention, I tried reworking the story to fit it and ended up running the story right off of its tracks.

Identifying the rogue sentence, a “darling” that has to go.

There’s a trick to know when a sentence jumps out because it’s key to the story’s intent or because it’s rogue.

If you’ve ever been advised to “cut your darlings” and not really understood what a “darling” is, think of this kind of situation: a strong, but rogue, sentence, a sentence that introduces a complexity the story doesn’t have the capacity to fulfil or a level of lyricism or description that feels out of sync with its surrounds. A “darling” may be a sentence you cannot believe you came up with. You may feel unwilling to admit the threat it poses, to pull your reader out of your story’s flow, away from your story’s intent.

I ended up cutting the sentence because it led my reader out of the story that wanted to emerge. Stories can do that, tell you what they want to be about, but you’ve got to be willing to listen. Listen, and sacrifice what you want for what the story wants.

For the time being, I’ve set aside my rogue sentence. Actually, it might make the first sentence of a new story. And I like that idea.

Do you have a “darling” tale? Or a story that isn’t quite coming together? Could there be a “darling” at fault? A sentence that introduces unnecessary complexity or shifts narrative style?

I’d love to hear your story about wrestling with the rogue.

Mid-Month Surprise Reveal

So, we’re halfway through January! Time for the surprise I promised. What I have in mind is to share and discuss a story each month. I’ll start with a piece of flash fiction, “Quail,” by Vicki Xu and published by Split Lip Magazine.

“Quail” is set in a Chinese supermarket. Buried in its opening is a hint of a buried regret. Aunty Li, the story’s main character, has “learned to find comfort in” the jumbled Mandarin of Chinese expats living in America. But hearing a snatch of childhood dialect, pure in form, sets off lush, full-sensory memories, and in a moment, we see the contrasts between present and past, an artificial and a natural environment, that reveal the pretense of Aunty Li’s “comfort.” Set among “neat aisles,” where everything is compartmentalized, shelved, and far removed from its place of origins, Aunty Li’s separation from place, community, language, mother, daughter, and self is exposed. A quiet, unassuming moment feels volcanic, and we’re left imagining its seismic repercussions.

“Quail” perfectly illustrates flash fiction’s power of compression. Reading this precisely crafted moment set off seismic waves within me. Who doesn’t have, like Aunty Li, regrets in life? Our regrets might involve a relationship, a job, or the dull routines consuming our day-to-days. Consuming time itself. Perhaps we regret inaction or some bold move. Like Aunty Li, we might counter the stress of experiencing regret by creating a false sense of contentment and convincing ourselves that we find comfort within it.

Reading Vicki Xu’s “Quail,” what did you feel? Is there something in your life that could trigger a memory with the power to create seismic waves? Try to express that moment and imply its repercussions in fewer than 300 words.

Fly Like Evel Knievel

One time, years before I knew anything about physics, I was pedaling my bike down a sloping stretch of our suburban street and I saw a single brick lying on the pavement. Construction was ongoing in the neighborhood, and builders’ trucks shed things regularly, like ropes, a thermos, or a leather glove. I imagined hitting that brick and flying through the air a là Evel Knievel, the stunt motorcyclist shown on TV recently, jumping fifteen Ford Mustangs.

I pedaled faster, gaining speed, and a roaring crowd filled my ears. A news reporter narrated my approach moment by moment. I pedaled faster. Harder. To fly higher.

(Source: Davey Cooms, “CW Classics: The Sum of All Evel – First Look”, Cycle World, December 10, 2007. )

I hit the brick, and—yes!—I flew.

Oh boy, did I fly.

This is the beginning of story: in a familiar landscape, something is different. Oh, look! A brick. Add some form of what if to that difference and you take off. What if I hit that brick going full speed on my bike?

I will fly.

A familiar landscape can be just about anything, particular or abstract. The street you once lived on, live on now, or one you’ve been imagining and visiting since childhood. It can be memory evoked. Kept it simple or add layers of complexity. Here I am, an unremarkable Caucasian woman in her sixties, walking down a busy street in Zurich, Switzerland, thinking random thoughts in Swiss-German, when I smell steaming white rice. Fresh pineapple hits a wok sizzling with garlic, onions, and pork. Time and place shift. I’m twelve years old, in the center of Tainan, Taiwan, surrounded by the buzz and horns of local traffic and conversations in Taiwanese. A dog barks. A street vendor scrapes a wok with a metal spatula. The wok releases the scents of garlic, onions, pork, and carmaelizing pineapple. What if that vendor opens a rice cooker, fragrant steam escaping, and a kernel of rice screams for help?

(Source: David Ashdown/Keystone/Getty Images)

Remember that brick lying in the street? I was going Top Speed when I hit it. And sure enough, I flew.

Right. Over. My handlebars.

Is that a story? Not quite, right? But it’s change powerful enough to incite a story. Add layers of What ifs and see what happens:

What if a little girl’s boarding a school bus the day after she rode her bike into a brick? She’s sore and  ashamed of the Band-Aids covering her nose, upper lip, and chin. What if a boy on the bus sticks out a foot and trips her? Or what if she so enraged she beats up the mean boy? What if her class crush stops her instead, just before she trips? Or what if she falls on her wounded face and sees, huddled beneath the seats, a dog-faced creature with pointy ears and hair that grows like a flame from the top of its head? She smiles and feels herself immediately transformed and transported . . .

Take an event from your childhood. Add layers of what ifs and see where they might lead you.

Making Plans

Reading lit mags is a great way to spend time in the sun.

Several years ago, the Switzerland-based novelist and translator Michelle Bailat-Jones offered an in-person novel-writing course in Lausanne, on the Lake of Geneva. Participating would have meant a six-hour commute to each session. For six months. I just couldn’t swing it. When she offered a weekend writers getaway, I immediately booked myself a round-trip train ticket and two nights in a quirky hotel close to Lausanne’s main station.

On that retreat, I met a great group of writers and read excerpts from brilliant works-in-progress. Michelle gave tips, support, and resonating feedback. As we packed up to head home, she asked a parting question: “What are your writing plans for the year?” Thunder roiled, but no lightning struck: I didn’t have plan: Why didn’t I have a plan?

My long train ride home gave me time to think. I should have a plan. I already practiced two beneficial writing habits, showing up to my desk every weekday morning at five o’clock and writing flash fiction.

Getting up early gives me two hours of quiet before the house wakes up, before it’s time to get ready for work. Okay, weekends, I sleep in. Until six. (What can I say? I’m a person who’s awake when she wakes up, and I generally stir—as in, Oh, boy! It’s morning!—between four-thirty and five.) I make myself a cup of coffee, and on winter mornings, I build a fire in our Kachelofen, the tiled stove.

At the time of the retreat, I’d only recently turned to writing flash fiction—as a craft exercise. Keeping works lean, purposeful. Cutting flabbiness. I’d keep my short pieces to five hundred words.

My new plan took form. Every day, I’d continue to show up. On Mondays, I’d submit two stories—longform or flash—to publications. Tuesdays, I’d research publications. It’s vital to find a good fit for what I do and how I do it. To seek a shared aesthetic. It’s also vital to know when publications accept submissions. Some have specific reading periods, which I now plug into my calendar along with word-count limits and site links. Wednesdays and Thursdays I’d write and/or edit. And Fridays I’d dedicate to flash fiction.

My list of publications has been growing because I joined that retreat. So, thanks, Michelle, I’m indebted to you! My plans are growing, too. They now include showing up on social media and keeping this website current. And as for my musing here, I’ve got a switch in mind.

Starting next year, I plan to focus on writing, processes, and techniques. What do you think? Care to join me? Do you have a topic you’d like see discussed—or one of my publications? Let me know. I’ve also got an idea for a mid-month bonus. But I’ll leave that for you to unpack in January.

Thank you for your visit. For joining my Meredith Writes journey. I wish you a joyful holiday season and an easy and safe slide into 2023. May your plans take root and yield great pleasures. And treasures.