Category Archives: author

Journey to Planet Write: Happy Endings

by Nancy Stohlman
I asked Gay Degani if I could have the final slot in Journey to Planet Write series for two reasons—one, because I want to properly thank her on behalf of everyone who has appeared in and enjoyed this series. Gay has done an incredible service to our community and created a space where we can all shine. We are grateful to you, Gay!

But there is a second reason. Exactly one year ago I was scheduled to appear in this column when a drunk driver going 90 mph crossed the median on the highway and made other plans for me.
Instead of my Journey to Planet Write, you got my “Interrupted Journey,” a beautiful tribute that Gay and others put together. It meant a lot to me to feel so loved during that process of shock and recovery and now, one year later, it seemed important to not only bring it all full circle and give you that column that never was, but also to end this Planet Write journey on a note of celebration, healing, and hope.
I was 9 years old, living on a military base in Zaragoza, Spain, when I told my mom I wanted to be an author. I wrote my first creation, “Superman: The Musical”, on my mother’s electric typewriter, loving the clack of the keys and the feeling that I was doing something important. Though I attempted to cast it from my class of fellow fifth graders and rehearse in the carport, the musical (including numbers like Lex Luthor’s “I’ll Rule the World”) never made it to the stage, but my confidence in myself as a creative was born.
That same year I discovered the library, and on Saturdays I would volunteer at the check-out desk, stamping people’s due dates. Being a military family we moved a lot, so books became my friends. Nancy Drew was always waiting for me in every library from Spain to Germany to Omaha. Books were a constant in a world that was constantly changing.
Later, when life got harder, books became a way to disassociate; I could leave my body in the midst of everyday reality, escape family meltdowns and divorces and worlds I didn’t want to be in. In college, I read in the dressing rooms of go-go clubs, getting through East of Eden and The Trial while other girls were giving lap dances.
After I dropped out of college, I started traveling the country with the Renaissance Fair, living in a van, putting on a bodice and an English accent to sell turkey legs and pewter goblets. I discovered lyrical songwriters like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and I started journaling regularly with the idea that these were adventures I would want to remember and maybe someday write a book. Sadly most of those journals are gone. But when I eventually got off the road and moved to Denver to finish college, I did so as a writer.
Photo by Lynn Hough

My upbringing taught me two very different things: My military father taught me self-discipline. My artist mother taught me that making art is worthwhile. This combination has enabled to become a rare breed: a disciplined creative.

This story is true. But it’s not the whole story.
While 9-year-old Writer Nancy was stamping books at the library, 9-year-old Performer Nancy was learning the guitar and soloing in the church folk band. At 12 I was competing in pageants, at 15 I enrolled in the Nancy Bounds Modeling Agency, and at 18 I was runner-up for Miss Nebraska. I began college as a theater major, in love with the vulnerability of the stage, that instant gratification of connecting with an audience in the moment.
This story is also true. So how do these two Nancys, these twin passions, connect?
They connect in my art.
In acting school there is a thing called a triple threat: a person who can sing, dance, and act. Much of my own creative process has been finding the intersection of myself as a writer, performer and innovator. The sweet spot where my creative exhibitionist meets my inner world of silence and flow. My writing reflects this intersection and love of innovation—The Monster Opera is an avant garde mixture of performance and writing, a place where the novel metaphorically battles the opera on page and stage. Searching for Suzi: a flash novel was the first flash novel (called as such) and a term I coined in 2009. And perhaps that’s why in 2007 I fell in love and began writing flash fiction: there is an instant gratification akin to the stage that comes from these short, self-contained bursts of story. Here’s a link to a reading of The Fox.
As word-crafters we lay it bare on the page. As performers we reveal ourselves on the stage. They are flipsides of the same coin, the inner and the outer worlds of creation: the private incubation and the public genuflection.
In the end I see no reason why writers can’t also be rock stars. One of these days I will stage dive after a reading.
And that’s probably how this essay would have ended if you had read it last year. But on May 20 of last year, everything changed.

The scissors slide easily through the thick denim of my favorite blue jeans, from ankle to waist, ankle to waist, as one leg then the other falls away. He slices up the middle of my thin cotton shirt like tissue paper, unwraps me, my pink Victoria’s Secret bra a final ribbon snipped and spilling to the ground, leaving me naked. Exposed.
Are you having trouble breathing? He asks with kind brown eyes.
A little, on one side, I whisper.
We’ll be there soon, he says, gently placing an oxygen mask as the ambulance sirens rattle the warm evening air.

People ask me about my accident a lot. It’s so hard to respond, so mostly I avoid the conversation. But I will tell you here that something happened to me in those moments as they were ripping the car open with the Jaws of Life. Somewhere between the ambulance and the emergency room I had the most important realization of my life: I’m still here.
By the time they were inflating my lung I knew I’d been given a gift—as they were pulling chunks of glass out of my arm I had a choice: become a victim or become a bigger version of myself. Could I learn to be grateful in the midst of such an injustice?
Yes. I had to. I had no other choice.
So this story and my Journey to Planet Write have Happy Endings. I’m here to write another day. But aren’t we all? We’ve all been given this same gift of today. No matter how disappointing or unpredictable or infuriating the world may be, no matter how tragic or even euphoric our lives become, we are here one more day, to write. Our books, our words, our ideas are the friends that accompany us on the journey. And spaces like Journey to Planet Write remind us that we are not alone.

Nancy Stohlman’s books include The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories(2014), The Monster Opera (2013), Searching for Suzi:a flash novel (2009), Live From Palestine(2003), and three anthologies of flash fiction including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape (2010), a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is the creator and curator of The F-Bomb Flash Fiction ReadingSeries in Denver, a founding member of Fast Forward Press, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Photo by Lynn Hough

By night Nancy straps on stilettos and becomes the lead singer of the lounge metal band Kinky Mink. She dreams of one day becoming a pirate.

This is the last episode in the series of Journeys that began in January of 2016. Other Journeys may appear sporadically in the future.  If you are a writer and want to share your Journey, please submit to

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: In Praise of “What If?”

by Tara Campbell

“Did you know the average writer only makes $6,000 per year?”
These simple words from a fellow student marked the first time my desire to write smashed into the wall of the real world. It was 1988 in Anchorage, Alaska, and we were all about to graduate from high school. Most of us were heading to college, either in state or somewhere on the West Coast, the typical migratory path of the sprung Alaskan. But then my classmate John started asking what we wanted to do.
Huh. We had to decide that now? I simply liked school, and I liked writing, so… I don’t even remember saying the words, “I want to be a writer,” but his response etched itself into my brain. It was the first of many times I wondered if it would ever really happen.
My literary drug of choice had always been science fiction. From Asimov to Bradbury to Clarke and on down the alphabet, I was hooked on the question “what if?” Madeline L’Engle’s time- and space-bending A Swiftly Tilting Planet was a revelation to me. I was the nerd who put on a bathrobe and performed a book report on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the form of a monologue by Arthur Dent, timed to pre-taped responses from Zaphod Beeblebrox. For another book report I wrote and illustrated a complete issue of the Paszex Paper, in honor of Nor Crystal Tears(my green colored pencils were pretty worn down by the time I finished that edition). By the end of high school I had written the first few chapters of what would have been a truly cringe-worthy novel. That draft moved with me for decades, across the U.S., the Atlantic, and back, until I felt compelled to shred it a couple of years ago. I couldn’t stand the thought of that document ever possibly resurfacing after my death.
But back to high school: graduate we did, and off to college we went. John went on to become a doctor, and I wound up in a traditional trajectory for a liberal arts graduate: as a grad student getting another humanities degree. Subsequently, armed with an MA in German, I embarked on a career in international education and admissions. I was far from driving a Lexus, but at least I was making more than $6,000 a year. I turned to music and painting as creative outlets on the side, never even thinking about giving writing another go.
Then several years ago my partner (now my husband) and I were looking for something new to do together. We took an intro to fiction class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. For him it was an experiment with something new. For me, it was a return to joy, like picking right back up with a best friend you haven’t seen in years, and wondering how life came in between the two of you in the first place.
When that class ended, we kept working on our stories. We joined a couple of writer’s groups, and I began staying up until the wee hours to “just finish one scene,” or getting up early to write before work. I also started submitting stories. While many people write for themselves, I’m not ashamed to admit that seeing my work out in the world is a huge motivator for me. And when my first story got published—when I realized there was at least one other person out there who wanted to read the diary entries of a fat cell whose community was about to be rocked by liposuction—I was gratified to know there was still a place for weirdness in the world.
I’ve approached Washington DC as my workshop since then, taking more classes at the Writer’s Center and Politics and Prose, hitting up a million Meetup writing groups to continue improving my craft, participating in readings with lowercase and Inner Loop, writing reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books, volunteering with children’s literacy organization 826DC, sampling the business end as a Politics and Prose bookseller, and experiencing the editorial side as an assistant editor with Barrelhouse. With my husband’s boundless support, I stepped away from my full time job to devote myself to writing. And this spring it all came full circle when I stepped up to the microphone at the Writer’s Center, where my writing career began, to read from my first novel, TreeVolution.
But as every author will tell you, getting a book published doesn’t magically change your life

(J.K. Rowling excepted). Our job as writers is to keep working and growing. As important as “what if?” is, “what now?” is even more vital. I’m stretching myself now, working on a completely different project in historical fiction, and completing my first year of the MFA program at American University. I came into the program ready to buckle down and cast sci-fi aside to become a more “serious” writer. But this year I’ve learned a delightful lesson: there is more than one way to create, and there are places where commitment to craft and a little weirdness can meet. Being “serious” doesn’t have to mean forgetting the wonder.

Being a writer means being part of an expansive community. It’s all right to bring in the strange. It’s okay to write about talking flowers, or a chlorophyll-based diet franchise, or an interstellar nursery, or frustrated teeth who abandon their human, or an urban genie in a failing relationship, or even genetically modified trees that learn to speak up and fight back—as long as you can create worlds readers want to inhabit and stories they want to hear. Straying from the realist path can be tricky, sure. And you certainly won’t make doctor’s wages. But as long as you can hold on to the “what ifs,” what more do you need?

Excerpt: from “We Are Twenty-Six” in Chicago Literati
Marko’s teeth swayed. They twisted and rocked and eased themselves out of his gums while he, heavy with that evening’s vodka, grunted and snored in his bed.
On nights when Marko gagged and wheezed in the grips of drink, his teeth longed for their mothers, the baby teeth that had come before them, the first ones to work their way into and out of young Marko’s mouth. The little mothers lived together in the small, plastic box in which the tooth fairy had collected them, and which Marko’s parents gave to him long after he had stopped believing in the legend of the tooth fairy.
And so that night, as a much older Marko slept, his teeth tumbled out of his mouth. 
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With a BA in English and an MA in German, Tara Campbell has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. She was the grateful recipient of two awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in 2016: the  Larry Neal Writers’ Award in Fiction, and the  Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist. Her first novel, TreeVolution, was released by Lillicat Publishers in 2016. Her second book, Circe’s Bicycle, will be published by LitFest Press in fall 2017.


by Christopher Allen

When I was 10, my piano instructor—a dour stickperson named Eva Jo Alpress, who told me I was going to be a concert pianist one day—quit. She “discharged” me in a long, painstakingly written letter that outlined my mother’s shortcomings and mine. I wish I still had the letter. What a gem. While almost all of it is lost, one phrase does resonate down through the decades: “Your son is an arrogant opinionated juvenile.” We had a good laugh at that. Eva Jo certainly had a knack for unwittingly hitting nails on heads. She thought she was telling me what a little dickhead I was, but she was actually telling me that I was a person with something to say. 

The reason Eva Jo discharged me: I wanted to trade études for ABBA. I wanted to play keyboards in a band. It was 1974. I wanted to shake my groove thang. I can still see my teacher’s eyes when I pulled out the sheet music to “Take a Chance on Me.” Horror? Disdain? That moment when you’re not sure if you need to sneeze or vomit? We got the letter the next day. There would be no Good Will Hunting end to the story.

I have to give Eva Jo credit, though, for spotting the truth in this situation. The keyboard part of “Take a Chance on Me” is really easy, especially for a ten-year-old apparently destined for Carnegie Hall. Without the band and a few Swedes “Take a Chance on Me” was boring.

I’m telling you this not only because it’s a fun story, but also because it’s one of a hundred formative experiences that have led me to where I am today: sitting in my office in Munich, writing about writing, wondering who I am. Who knows what moments are more important than others? I was going to be a musician when I was ten. That’s important. I was a little dickhead. That’s also important. In many ways I’m still that little dickhead.

But before all that, I was going to be an oceanographer. I was fascinated by the thought of living on the ocean floor in a never-ending labyrinthine sprawl of modular, pressurized compartments. I expanded my underwater city every day in my third-grade class. I’m sure the drawings were absolute crap. I can’t draw, not even a stickman. Point is, I was obsessed by the idea of slipping myself into a little world—or maybe I just needed to escape to where it was quiet, maybe it was a Jungian thing. I don’t know. I hate the water now, haven’t been swimming in decades. We also drew the flags of the world, which I was much better at.

At university I studied music until the end of my sophomore year when, in the hospital with mononucleosis, I missed my juries and all my finals. I also missed several weeks of my first professional singing gig in a gospel quartet—a ridiculous summer. When I got back on my feet I didn’t want to study music anymore, so I changed majors to music business. All the cool kids were there I guess or maybe just all the kids who understood the worthlessness of a music degree. Maybe both. And, yes, you’ve just noticed that I skipped my entire adolescence. I knew I wouldn’t get away with it. I was hoping you’d ignore the leap, maybe accept the gap, like the lost years of Christ. I find it hard to talk or write about that time. How about we leave it at this: from 1976 to 1982 I spent most of my time hating myself for being gay, praying to be delivered from being gay, and ending up being abused by the minister of music at my church—book forthcoming.

But did those years of depression, suicidal feelings, and fear that someone could figure out who I really was lead me to write? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’ve tried to write that novel several times, and it’s just not happening yet. Sometimes I think all this writing is just practice, that I’m groping around in the dark for the voice that will finally tell my story the right way, that all these stories aren’t me but maybe a way towards me.

At the beginning of the nineties, a very close friend of mine was killed in a plane crash. His death changed my life and my priorities. I moved to Los Angeles to get away from Nashville and the music industry. He’d been a keyboard player for an A-list country singer, and I was a studio singer. Everyone I knew was in the music industry, and it was just too sad. When I later returned to Nashville, I’d decided to become a writer; and because I wasn’t sure what that meant I enrolled in a master’s program to learn everything I didn’t know about literature—because by then I’d figured out that having an opinion about everything was a sure sign that I knew almost nothing. Realizing how little I knew was a giant leap towards understanding myself.

In graduate school, while I was reading everything Henry James wrote, I wrote a screenplay partly about my friend’s death, a poignant road-trip movie in the vein of This-Will-Never-Be-Publishable. Also while in graduate school, I published my first short story, “Air-Conditioned Souls,” which one of my professors said “made no sense.” I also published my first two (and last two) poems: “The End All” and “last night I dreamed we dreamed a poem.”

Then I moved to Germany and spent the following ten years trying to write and rewrite that screenplay. Then I wrote and rewrote a novel manuscript: “The Sure-Shot Rabbit Association.” And then I wrote another one: “What You Don’t Know.” And another: “Three-Handed Bridge.” And another: “Conversations with S. Teri O’Type.” And another: “The Lambent Light,” finally trying to tackle my own story. And a screenplay manuscript: “Almost Ophelia.” Except for Conversations with S. Teri O’Type, an experimental and episodic work of linked flash fiction that I self-published in 2012, I’ve pretty much walked away from all of these manuscripts. They terrify me because they are not perfect. They are all massive derelict buildings.

At some point in the middle of all these construction sites I joined an online writing workshop called Urbis. What an intense time of learning that was. I remember getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to read and write reviews. That workshop forced me to think about my writing objectively. It taught me to write economically, to write competitively (in a good way), and not to settle for a boring phrase. Lots of stories that I workshopped in Urbis ended up published. Urbis gave me the push I needed towards becoming a writer.

In 2009 I started editing at the daily litzine Metazen and became the managing editor there. Sadly, Metazen came to an end in 2014. In the same year I joined the team at SmokeLong Quarterly. The journal is a big part of my life. When I love a thing, I love it big.

I feel all grown up now, but I still need to disappear into my little worlds. I still feed on sarcasm. I still need music. And I still feel incomplete. So I suppose my Planet Write is some amorphous gas planet or maybe some inchoate hunk of volcanic chaos—very much a work in progress. And that’s fine. I just love being at the party.

Here’s a link to one of Christopher Allen’s award-winning stories:
Semi-finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017

First published by The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts


Christopher Allen is a freelance editor, translator and writer living somewhere in Europe. His work has appeared in more than a hundred journals and anthologies both online and in print including Indiana Review, Juked, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and others. He’s been a finalist at Glimmer Train, a finalist and semi-finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017, and he’s won some awards too. Allen is the managing editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, the author of the episodic satire Conversations with S. Teri O’Type, and the curator of the travel blog I Must Be Off!which sponsors an annual travel writing competition.

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Never Too Late, Never Give up

by Gay Degani

My novel, What Came Before, took more than twelve years to write.

I’m not bragging about that. The book is under 300 pages and not a deep philosophical treatise on man’s inhumanity to man. There are no white whales, no Dublin boarding houses, no madeleines, so why did it take me so long?

Well, life got in the way.

Like many others who yearn to put words on paper, my dream of becoming a writer began in childhood. With me on her lap, my mother read aloud the Bobbsey Twins, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Heidi. My dad introduced me to the dauntless detective, Nancy Drew. After devouring Little Women, I knew I had to be a writer, just like Jo. I drew pictures of books, my books, with enticing titles along the spines, my name just below. At twelve, I scribbled a “novel” in purple ink about the Twellington twins and their nine siblings.

I was surprised in high school to find out that Mrs. Hawkins, my Creative Writing teacher, had entered one of my short stories in the Atlantic Monthly High School Writing Contest and was more surprised when I won second place. Wow. “Collision,” I thought, was just the beginning.

After graduating with a B.A. from UCSB in 1970 and getting a Masters’ Degree in 19th Century English Literature at Long Beach State in 1971, I found myself in need of a career—or at least a job. I had to support myself, but I was certain I could dig up the “spare time” to write. As a kid of the 50s and 60s, I thought time grew like fat plums waiting to be plucked, but as a full-time worker bee, I couldn’t find the tree, let alone the fruit. Still I thought, one day, some day. Now I realize I had to live my life before I could write. When I look back, I can identify those moments of learning that gave me the confidence and know-how to put words on paper.

In a retail executive training program after college, I learned that the Junior Department at the Del Amo Broadway was only a small segment of a huge enterprise. Behind the selling floors, the dressing rooms, and the customers was a complex operation spread over 40+ stores as well as a blocks-long system of offices and warehouses in East LA. In the beginning I vaguely understood the size and shape of the company, but not its intricacies, how it actually functioned. Later, as a writer, this experience of learning the complexities behind the obvious helped me understand that behind a basic storyline, there is structure, a way of doing things, a way of controlling results. Words no more spring spontaneously onto the page than pantsuits and mini-skirts miraculously appeared on shelves, rounders, and mannequins.

As a Gap store manager, my job was about people—customers and employees. I understood something about human nature, but not much. My first lesson came before I was even hired. The company gave all candidates an “honesty” test. It seemed obvious to me that anyone could pass this kind of exam whether they were honest or not, so I asked the man who hired me if anyone ever failed. His answer? Yes, they did. A high percentage. This surprised me and forced me to become more aware of how very different we are from each other.

Later, as a Gap district manager, when I had to figure out how to foster top performances in others, I developed more insights into what motivates and what discourages people. Working toward team goals in a positive atmosphere as well as appreciation for a job well done, helped to create a desire to achieve. Strong characters in good stories have to want something too. They have to strive and overcome disappointment. What pulls the reader along is how characters respond to the obstacles put between them and their desires.

I had kids. I thought becoming a stay-at-home mom would allow me infinite time to sit down at a typewriter and pound out stories. They would nap, wouldn’t they?  Play outside in the backyard? Entertain themselves? As it turned out, I was no Danielle Steele or J.K. Rowling. There were no scribblings of passionate love scenes on the dryer in the middle of night. No sneaking out in spare moments to tea shops to create wizards. My job was all consuming: Room mother, Cub and Girl Scout leader, swim mom, have van will travel.  Here was a lesson I taught myself: whatever I chose to do, I did it full on to the best of my abilities. 

Tupperware came next. Yep, I learned everything there is to know about eradicating mold from my refrigerator, but more importantly, this job forced me to rely on myself to get what I wanted. I had a simple goal: I wanted to buy a computer. What I learned was more valuable. Selling Tupperware taught me to rally to the task, to observe and imitate successful behaviors, to give encouragement as well as to accept it, and to think on my feet. Selling Tupperware made me feel something like a stand-up comedian—the more they laughed, the more I sold—and I became addicted to being “in the zone,” that feeling that comes when everything one does, works. I had forgotten how that felt. I knew it was finally time to write. My first screenplay was called “Plastic Dreams,” about a man who seeks refuge in selling Tupperware.

I wrote screenplays, stories, random poems, and journal entries. I took UCLA extension classes, went to conferences and workshops. Mimicking what I had learned from Tupperware, I surrounded myself with like-minded people, set goals, planned for results. By the time my kids left home to chase their own dreams, I was beginning to understand what made for good writing. I accepted that writing well doesn’t just happen, but that it comes with practice and study.

I am proudest of not giving up, of refusing to abandon my writing dream. I’ve published many stories in print and on line, been nominated for Pushcarts, won contests, short-listed, long-listed, and honorable mentioned here and there.  I published an eight-story collection in 2010 about mothers and daughters, Pomegranate. Pure Slush released my full-length collection, Rattle of Want, in 2015, which includes my novella, “The Old Road.” My suspense novel, What Came Beforethat twelve year endeavor—is currently available in its second edition by Truth Serum Press.

I’ll be 68 on the 19th of this month. Thank goodness, it’s never too late.


Gay Degani has said almost everything there is to say about herself above, but she’d like to add that since she was born in Louisiana, spent her earliest years in Iowa, and road-tripped every summer to both for each of her summers while growing up in California, that she gained a strong love of place: desert, mountain, plain, swamp, farmland, and beach. She hopes her work reflects that love.  


by Rachael Warecki
Last night, I sat down on my floor, opened up the binder that contains approximately 370 pages of my novel-in-progress—all of one draft and the first third of another—and wrote a summary of each scene on color-coded index cards. As I’d learned at a recent writing workshop, indexing your scenes in this manner can be a helpful tool in charting a novel’s progression. Are my scenes in a sensible order? Is the plot of this novel progressing in a logical way? Are my characters developing emotionally?
After I’d laid out my index cards end to end, I was pleased to discover that the answer to all these questions was Yes. I still need to round out some of the emotional beats in the last third of the manuscript, and I need to rewrite the novel’s climax, which my ancient former computer deleted in a last-ditch protest against running Microsoft Word. (You had one job, computer!) But after six years of work and six full drafts, my novel finally feels like a book, like a manuscript that could be sent to a literary agent who would want to see more.
So, to paraphrase David Byrne, I asked myself, How did I get here?
No, seriously—if you’ve not yet had the pleasure of glimpsing the finish line, of measuring the time to a finished, agent-ready draft in weeks and months rather than in years, it’s a unique emotion. For me, it feels most akin to a graduation: the rush of triumph at your achievement, the urge to hug your family and classmates and professors out of gratitude for the time they’ve invested in you, the relief at one stage of your life coming to an end, and the knowledge that the next phase is just beginning.
Compared to other people’s Journeys to Planet Write, I feel mine has been fairly straightforward. In second grade, after learning that a real live species of people called writers had created the books I’d been devouring since I was three, I wrote my first short story. I wrote my first novel when I was in junior high, in a fit of obliviousness toward the potential cruelty of eighth graders, and then told my classmates about it. The novel was a total rip-off of whatever epic fantasy series I was reading at the time (talking animals, people with liberally-sprinkled apostrophes in their magical-sounding names), but most of my nine classmates, to their nerdy credit, asked to read it. That was my first brush with encouragement from people who weren’t my parents, and it powered me forward—although to be honest, I would’ve continued to write even if no one was reading, which was what I did all through high school.
In college, I transitioned into historical novels and literary short stories, the latter of which earned me several school writing awards—the first time that non-parental adults had liked my work. After graduation, I started teaching, wrote a cry-for-help roman à clef that I eventually trunked, took two years’ worth of novel-writing courses through UCLA Extension, attended my first writing conference, and applied to MFA programs. One of the programs was kind enough to let me in, and I worked very hard for two years to graduate with a concentration in fiction.
And now here I am. With a novel manuscript in front of me. Counting down the weeks until I send it out.
In short, I’ve been writing all my life, and I’ve been extremely lucky in that no one has ever told me to stop.
I can’t emphasize how important that last part is, though: no one has ever told me to stop. Aside from my many privileges (being born white and straight and well-off, albeit with a host of severe medical issues), which have allowed me, for the most part, to plan my writing career in methodical stages, the most important factor in my writing career has been my supportive community. When I was seven, writing that first short story about a baby deer, my parents and teachers didn’t tell me to give it up for math and science. In junior high, when it would have been far easier for my classmates to taunt my ambitions, they encouraged me instead. The friends I made through my MFA program have invited me to literary readings and introduced me to people who’ve helped my career. Even the people in my life who don’t write—friends from high school, colleagues, my boyfriend—have always asked after my writing. Let me tell you, there’s no bigger motivation to finish your manuscript revisions than sitting in an airport with a former coworker and hearing him ask, “So, how’s your novel coming along?”
It’s because of this community’s love that I’ve been able to keep writing through illnesses, family upheaval, and personal losses. Thanks to them, it’s not just my novel that feels ready. My writing career itself has proceeded in a sensible order. Despite periods of chaos, my life—if not the world—is progressing in a logical way. And I, as a person, am developing emotionally. I owe it not only to myself to keep putting words on the page, but to the wonderful people around me. If this is my lifelong Journey to Planet Write, then my community is the rocket ship that propels me forward. (And, you know, keeps me from getting sucked into space and going kablooie.)

So I’m not going to stop.


Rachael Warecki is a native of Los Angeles whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Masters Review, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. She holds degrees from Scripps College and Loyola Marymount University, as well as an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is currently at work on a novel, which is an eight-word phrase that describes her entire past, present, and future.

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: It’s a Journey, Not a Destination

by Len Joy

Ironman Competition at Lake Coeur d’Alene

At 6 a.m. I wade into the frigid waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene with 2,500 triathletes. I have trained for this Ironman competition for fifteen months. The winds are brisk, the water choppy, and it has started to rain. I have seventeen hours to finish the race.

After years of recreational running, I decided I wanted to become an elite triathlete.  I always believed I could teach myself anything if I just found the right books. I studied the sport, read the inspirational success stories, and developed my own program. For the first couple years I made steady progress, but then I plateaued.  My wife told me I needed help. She didn’t say what kind, but one of the life lessons I’ve learned is that sometimes she’s right.

Samuel Beckett

I hired a professional trainer. I told her my goals were to complete an Ironman competition and finish in the top ten of my age group in the USAT Nationals. We developed a plan. She assigned drills to improve my technique and form, and critiqued my performance both in workouts and races. Knowledge and feedback made a huge difference.  

The year I went off to college, Samuel Beckett won the Nobel prize in Literature and Joe Namath won the Super Bowl. I was more familiar with Namath’s work. I had two secret goals when I left home. One was to play professional football (I saw myself as the next Fred Biletnikoff) and the other was to become a writer.  It didn’t take too many college football games for me to abandon my football goal and only one excoriating critique from my early American literature professor to extinguish my dream that I would someday write the great American novel.

 Joe O’Neil

I went into business and for fifteen years I owned and operated an engine FRED remanufacturing company. I commuted between Chicago and Phoenix, logging over a million air miles. On those long flights I would read literary magazines and novels and sometimes I would write poems and short stories about people I encountered.

Christine Schutt

About the same time I launched my triathlon quest, I began taking writing courses at the University of Chicago’s Graham School and attending summer writer workshops. I took eight courses at the Graham School and participated in workshops at the Iowa Festival, Tin House, Squaw Valley, Skidmore, Norman Mailer, Sewanee and Bread Loaf. I also joined the Zoetrope Virtual Studio. This online community of writers offered me a writing “home” where I communicated on a daily basis with other aspiring writers. Over the last decade I critiqued over five hundred short stories, poems and flash fiction pieces for Zoetrope members.

Robert Boswell

The classes gave me the basic tools so I could write a coherent story. Zoetrope and the summer workshops, in addition to introducing me to many other writers, furnished me with valuable feedback on my own stories and helped me learn how to evaluate the work of others. Sewanee and Bread Loaf provided me the opportunity to learn from established authors like Joe O’Neill, Christine Schutt, and Robert Boswell.

I started submitting stories for publication and had several published. I also participated in the Chicago literary scene, reading at various open mic venues where writers can share their work.

In June 2005 my niece asked me to write a story to be read at her wedding in September. I thought that was a really bad idea and eventually she abandoned the notion, but not before I wrote a thousand word story called, “The Toast.” Eight years later, after dozens of rewrites and professional critiques, that story evolved into the novel, American Past Time,  which was published in 2014 by Hark! New Era Publishing. The reviews were favorable and it was gratifying to have readers tell me they loved the book.

This summer I finished my second novel, “Everyone Dies Famous…” It will be published sometime next year, but I’m not waiting. I’ve begun work on my third novel, as I’ve come to the realization that if I spend eight years between novels, I’ll run out of time before I run out of stories. 

Lake Coeur d’Alene is just like Lake Michigan – cold and choppy. It only takes me 92 minutes to complete the 2.5 mile swim. But on the 112 mile bike course, as I struggle with the last, long uphill climb, the sun melts the clouds, the wind shifts into my face and my “speed” slips from 8 to 7 to 6 to 5 mph.

Most people can walk faster than that.

Then, with sweat dripping in my eyes and my leg muscles burning, I remember the final words of the inspirational video they showed us the night before: “The only thing you can control is your attitude.”

It sounds hokey, but it works. I stop cursing the mountain, which would rise to the clouds if there were any, and instead I gaze out over the valley below. Birds soar effortlessly above a stream that meanders through a pasture while sheep stand around making fun of those nutjobs on bikes.

It is beautiful, and if not relaxing, at least distracting. I know I can finish the race. I am not going to set any record so I order myself to enjoy the ride. I am up and over that final hill before I realize it. And even though I have never attempted a marathon, I run the entire 26 miles.  As I enter the homestretch, which even at the 15th hour is still lined with cheering spectators, I hear the announcer say my name and then do a double take.
“Wow, sixty-one years old! His first Ironman!  Len Joy! You. Are. An. Ironman!”

I have to take a few extra deep breaths to compose myself, then I sprint the last ten yards. The athletes I train with, like my fellow writers, are pursuing individual goals, but we are still a team, united by our common goal. When I cross the finish line they are all there to cheer for me.

I am committed to writing.  I don’t know if there is a finish line. I’d loved to have my novel accepted by a major publisher and have my stories read by thousands instead of hundreds. But I’m grateful for those hundreds of readers and if I’m never discovered by that big house, that’s okay. It’s a journey and I’m enjoying the ride.

The Birdhouse Builder
by Len Joy

We’re in the seasonal interregnum. The last winter snow hangs on in the shadows of my parents’ two-story colonial, while the first wave of migratory birds circle the neighborhood, checking out the accommodations. Dad wants to reconstruct the birdhouse. The son of a farmer, he can fix broken things. Build stuff. Use tools the right way. I have none of those skills. As a boy I was his unhappy assistant. “Hand me the needlenose,” he would say, his arm reaching back, head buried in the bowels of the cranky Maytag washing machine. I would stare at the battlefield of tools surrounding him and try to pick one that resembled a needle nose. I usually guessed wrong.

He has disassembled the remnants of the old birdhouse. Measured the wood slats and created a spec sheet. He doesn’t trust his memory anymore. It’s less reliable than that little boy who would hand him vise grips instead of pliers. When I was a kid these projects would start with a trip to Ike’s Hardware. That was in the small town where I grew up, not this resort town where my parents have grown old. Back then Dad never had a spec sheet – usually just a scrap of paper with a few odd numbers on it. Ike’s was full of open bins of screws and bolts and nails and rolls of sandpaper and shelf after shelf of hand tools. It had a metallic, oily smell – different from a Home Depot or Loews or one of those garden-hardware-lumber behemoths.

That’s where we go now. Krendall’s Home Center. It has patio furniture out front. And a greeter. My dad walks slowly, dragging his left leg. He had a hip replaced ten years ago. The greeter asks me if she can help us. My dad says, “Specialty Lumber.” She smiles at him and tells me to go see Ray in the lumberyard behind the store.

Ray looks just like Ike – sandy crewcut and a red hardware apron. But now he’s twenty years younger than me. Dad would usually tell Ike what he was working on and Ike would nod and maybe rub his chin and then hustle off to retrieve the hardware. Dad tries to describe the birdhouse to Ray, but Ray can’t follow him. I can’t either. There is a thin bead of sweat on his upper lip and I want him to wipe it away, but he just starts over, trying to explain his project. Ray turns away from him and asks me what it is we want.

I’m just the boy. Why is he asking me?

“Show him the paper, Dad.” 

He has forgotten about his sheet. Dad pats his pockets and on his fourth pocket he finds it. Ray looks at Dad’s detailed drawing and the list of pieces and parts and then he nods like Ike.

We bring home a sack of wood slats and black enamel and half-inch wood screws. Dad lays everything out on his work table. He picks up one of the slats and turns it all around. His hands shake and his grip on the piece is tentative as though he doesn’t know what to do with it. My mom calls from the kitchen. Lunch is ready.

After lunch Dad takes a nap. Three years later, after my dad dies and I move Mom to the assisted living facility, I clean out their house. I find the birdhouse parts stuffed back in their Krendall Home Center bag tucked away in a far corner of the garage.

(Originally appeared in  FWRICTION: REVIEW)

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Len Joy lives in Evanston, Illinois. His fiction has appeared in several journals including Annalemma, Johnny America, Pindeldyboz, Hobart, 3AM Magazine, and Dogzplot.
His first novel, American Past Time, was published by Hark! New Era Publishing in April 2014. It was described by Kirkus Reviews as “a well-crafted novel and darkly nostalgic study of an American family through good times and bad.”  His second novel, Everyone Dies Famous… will be published in Fall 2017. He is a nationally ranked age-group triathlete and is a member of TEAM USA which represents the USA in International triathlon and duathlon competition.

Journey to Planet Write: Mickey Mouse to Jellyfish

by Christopher James

Part One
I always wanted to be a writer. Or, more accurately, I wanted to be an “author.” I feel a little silly saying “author” because it reminds me of the child I was back then. I was odd at five. Smart, yes, but too shy to raise my hand in class when I needed to pee, so I had more than one disaster. Good at sports, probably from running to reach the loo before it was too late! I remember having many friends, but also spending time alone, chasing butterflies and trying to walk with shoes on the wrong feet. Odd, right? And I must’ve read constantly.
I got a Mickey Mouse annual, full of comic-strips, letters to Donald and EuroDisneyland adverts. It had a do-it-yourself frontispiece – a space to draw your favourite character and some questions. What’s your name? How old are you? What do you want to be when you grow up? I don’t recall my favorite character (I feel like saying Goofy, but suspect it was Pluto. We later had a dog called Pluto). But I remember my answer to that last question. “Author,” written in a handwriting that’s barely improved in the thirty years since.
I found the annual some time later, when I was moving into teenagehood and starting to think more seriously about my future, and I saw that answer, “author,” and I thought YES! That’s exactly what I want to be. Nailed it aged five! And it’s been with me from then till now.
Part Two
Of course, wanting to be a writer and wanting to write are not one and the same. I didn’t write a lot. Zadie Smith once described being told that Ian McEwan wrote only fifteen words a day. That seems impossible to reconcile with his fairly prodigious output, and I don’t think it’s true, but for years I wrote even less than that. Fifteen words a day? Ha! Who had time for that hard labour? Nevertheless, whenever people asked what I wanted to be, I still said the same thing. A writer.
There were exceptions to my fourteen-or-less-words-a-day days. I spent a year in Central America and wrote constantly, a terrible spewing of handwritten nonsense, tiny cramped-up letters that wouldn’t fill my already-heavy backpack with any more notebooks. I finished a novel, since disappeared, about a hopeful plot to destroy manufactured pop, and started another, also disappeared, about god-knows-what. I wrote without reflecting back on what I’d written, and learned nothing. I was writing, but I still wasn’t a writer – I was a notebook-filler.
Back in London, I got a real job and the notebooks disappeared, and I waited for the day I’d wake up, look in the mirror, and magically be perfect at all this. About then, the Times (the newspaper) ran a competition for a love story in 300 words. I’d never written anything so short, but I gave it a go with a story about a man who spray-painted a love message to the woman leaving him, on a bridge where she’d see it every day. The same night, another man jumped from the bridge, and the world thought the message came from him. I called the story “Amore Eterno,” and it won third place. I was ecstatic!
They published it (the fools!) in the paper, meaning people all over the country could read it. Someone then told me about this website called Zoetrope, where writers workshopped stories, and this thing called Flash Fiction, stories in under 1000 words, and, buoyed by my national success, I thought that this was something I could do. Something that could really teach me how to write.
Part Three
So began an apprenticeship. I ‘met’ writers like Randall Brown and Kuzhali Manickavel! I slowly improved. Slowly got published. Now I was writing every day, or almost every day, and learning what worked and what didn’t.
Sometimes it was hard. I learnt to care less about rejection slips! Sometimes it was rewarding. I had pieces picked up by Smokelong, by McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, by Matter Press. I won a few prizes, with Camera Obscura, with Tin House. I discovered some amazing writers, and a new way of reading.
At the same time I moved to Indonesia. I stopped drinking so much, stopped taking drugs on the weekend, met a nice girl. I made more time to write, finally acknowledging that this writing dream wasn’t Just Going To Happen. I had to make it happen. I dedicated myself to it. And it was working. I was becoming a writer.
Then one day – I think it was Idul Fitri – I started an online magazine. I’d half-heartedly thought about doing this before, but on this particular day I did it. There were personal reasons – it would help take my writing to the next level. But there were other reasons too. It was a time when many magazines I loved were starting to charge for submissions, and when it felt harder for writers to take risks on what they sent out. I wanted a venue that encouraged risks.
I opened a WordPress thingy. I started a Facebook wadjamacallit, and invited thousands of people (sorry!). I announced a call for submissions. In honour of my favourite animal, beautiful and dangerous, I called the magazine Jellyfish Review. It would only publish flash.
Part Four
Jellyfish Review is now blossoming into a bit of a minor success. We’ve published stories by incredible writers, including Elaine Chiew, Beverly Jackson, Sara Lippmann, Len Kuntz and Gay Degani. We have stories by even more incredible writers lined up. We’re developing our own style, unique and unpredictable.
I spend hours every day working on it. Reading submissions, formatting stories, choosing artwork, promoting the magazine, keeping everything ticking. It’s hard work, but wonderful.
For the first time ever, I think I’ve found something I want to do even more than being a writer. And I love it. I finally know what I want to be when I grow up.

Christopher James lives, works and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has previously been published online in many venues, including Tin House, McSweeney’s, Smokelong, and Wigleaf. He is the editor of Jellyfish Review.

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Why I Felt Jealous of a Twelve-Year-Old

by Sam Snoek-Brown

I knew almost as soon as I could write that I would become a writer. In my childhood, I put a schedule on my door insisting on undisturbed writing time each day. I had my parents custom-build a desk into the nook of my closet, with a small bookshelf installed above it, a gooseneck lamp, a door I could close—barely into a double-digit age, I had my own writing space. I wrote my first book by age twelve, won writing contests, and had only to wait for success to find me.
None of that is true. Or, it is true, but not of me. Working for a city newspaper during my college years in Texas, I was assigned to report on the local library’s youth writing competition, and all those wonderful, writerly details—the schedule, the desk in the closet, the book, the ambition—are from the profile I wrote about the young girl who won that year.
In my actual story, my parents gave me a desk, but I used my pencils and ballpoint pens to stipple the surface until it looked less like wood than like pumice. In second grade, I spent hours alone in my room writing pages and pages of material, but it wasn’t creative—my mother got tired of forbidding me my misadventures and told me to copy the definition of “No” 100 times, unaware that “No” comprised a full three pages in our family dictionary, two columns each page, in tiny print. I didn’t write a book by age twelve, but I did invent lyrics to absurdist songs about defecation and once adapted “On Top of Spaghetti” as a bawdy sex lyric.

In other words, I wasn’t born to be a writer. Or at least, I didn’t behave like one when I was a kid. My father wrote scathing editorials and short satirical pieces, my paternal grandfather was a natural storyteller full of a ship captain’s sea yarns, my maternal grandmother was a closet memoirist—but I was just a kid. There was nothing magical about my upbringing, no prophetic sign that I would take up the pen and the keyboard and become a writer.

Though there was my seventh-grade English class.
My middle school had begun a program of weekly “sustained silent reading” periods, and my English teacher, Mrs. Hoffmann, added a second period of “sustained silent writing.” We were allowed to write whatever we wanted—journal entries, rap lyrics, love poems—and I decided to write a novel.
I’d been reading a lot of my father’s action novels and was just beginning to discover Stephen King, and I realized that when I tried to predict what might happen next in whatever novel I was reading, I wasn’t hoping to decipher the story, I was wishing the story had gone differently—I was inventing stories of my own. I was rewriting stories as I wanted to read them. And right around the time I began to think that if Don Pendleton could knock out half a dozen Mack Bolan/The Executioner novels every year and sell millions of books, then surely I could, too, my English teacher gave me the gift of designated, disciplined writing time.
My first novel was about a teenager whose parents were killed by an evil crime boss surrounded by ninjas; in his sorrow and anger, the teenager devotes himself to martial arts and fights his way through the ranks of minions to confront the crime boss.
I eventually gave up on that novel, but Mrs. Hoffmann—who, after school, had become my first writing mentor—insisted I keep telling stories. My father signed me up for a writing workshop on how to publish (neither of us knew until I arrived that the workshop was for romance novelists, but I eagerly took notes on plot outlines and novel advances). I developed a sci-fi series about an alien race and invented a religion and a language. I began writing horror, stories about necrophiliacs and occult serial killers and mutated warriors held prisoner by secretive government agencies. I found Anne Rice and spent most of high school and college toiling over a melodramatic vampire novel.
Which is to say that by the time I wrote that newspaper article on the young library contest winner, I already was a writer. Yet I still hesitated to call myself one, and I marveled at this kid living a literary life I still felt outside of.
When I started that novel back in middle school, I began imagining the origin story for my writing career—publication as a teenager, phenom status, appearances on talk shows—and ten years later, working on that article about the kid writer, I began to wonder if I’d missed my chance. My origin story was too long delayed. I had wasted all those years poking holes in my writing desk and making up feces songs instead of becoming the writer I dreamed I ought to be.
In some parallel universe, there is a version of me that did publish as a teen and go on talk shows. He is telling the origin story I wrote for him decades ago. In another universe, there is a version of me who has never published. He is still concocting new origin stories, new fantasies. They will go into a password-protected file where no one will read them except that other Sam, late at night, only the computer screen and his fantasies alight in empty room.  In yet another universe—this one—there is me, many writerly milestones behind me but still sending ahead invented milestones to reach for (an advance on a book deal, film rights, career stability). And here I am, revising my childhood origin story, realizing that I started out as a writer in exactly the way I ought to: by daydreaming, by writing the stories I wanted to read, by crafting the story of myself, by always trying to make it a better story.


Samuel Snoek-Brown teaches writing in the Pacific Northwest. His work has appeared in dozens of literary journals, and he serves as production editor for Jersey Devil Press. He’s the author of the chapbooks Box Cutters (sunnyoutside 2013) and the forthcoming Where There Is Ruin (Red Bird Chapbooks 2016), the forthcoming novella In the Pulse There Lies Conviction (Blue Skirt Press 2016), and the historical novel Hagridden (Columbus Press 2014), for which he received a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship. He is online on Facebook, Twitter, and at


by Levi Andrew Noe

Most of my collected notebooks from age 7-27

It all started in kindergarten with my breakthrough story “The Bose Busbros,” (The Bossy Brothers).  It was my first typed draft of a semi-autobiographical tale. It chronicled a young boy whose elder brothers refused his right to hot chocolate and sent him to his room.

You could say I was always a writer. From the moment I learned how to shape words into somewhat cohesive sentences, I was telling tales, filling notebooks, and frustrating teachers with my illegible handwriting.

I haven’t deviated much from my hopes and dreams as a 9-year-old, as recorded in the notebook entry below left. Though experience has taught me those lovely lessons like cynicism, world-weariness, and the plight of the starving artist, my deepest hopes still place me as a would be “famous author.” I abandoned the visual arts, however, just after elementary school.

Middle school served to squash most of my passions and creative pursuits, as public school and puberty are so infamous for achieving. But in high school a new art form sowed its seeds in me: music. I was in a couple bands including pop punk, emo and/or hardcore, called Knester, Sell Out Boy, and A Call to Arms.  As arrhythmic and cacophonous as it was, in music the spark of artistic creation was again re-ignited and reimagined.

I was the bass player and backup screamer in A Call to Arms. We played house shows, dingy cafes and friends’ birthday parties. We were terrible, beyond offensively awful, but we played our angsty hearts out. Through music a new writing style emerged for me in the form of poetry. It was not my calling to play music, but music fuels, inspires, and moves me deeply, and I believe it permeates my writing to this day.

My college years came and I continued to grow, both as a writer and person. In those formative times I dove into academic writing right alongside dumpsters, beer bongs, and the bohemian lifestyle. Through it all, I found a deep affinity for every genre of writing. I graduated with a B.A. in English Writing and a minor in Holistic Health, but not before I took a semester off to hitchhike up and down the West Coast, sleep in bushes on the side of the road, and spend a few month at a yoga community in the redwoods of California.

It was those days, my wandering, unrestrained, wide-eyed early twenties in a perpetual existential crisis that formed the bedrock of who I am today, in my writing and in my personal philosophy. Post college, I continued in my voyage of discovery, but in a slightly more responsible way. I spent a summer in Ketchikan, Alaska working at a coffee shop, teaching yoga, picking berries, catching salmon and writing all the while. The jaw-dropping, infinitely astounding natural world is still probably the greatest muse for my writing.

In 2011, just after the great earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, I decided it was a good ideato go teach English there, just about 150 miles from Fukushima. Japan is a place so full of wonder and weirdness, tradition and contradiction. It certainly inspired a new era of writing for me. I began my first novel (still unfinished), as well as many pieces of every genre which I have placed into various manuscript collections (waiting for their time), and there I continued and deepened my love affair with haiku.

Following teaching in Japan, I took the long way home. I traveled through southern Japan, then flew to Bangkok, Thailand. By train, bus, van, boat, tuk-tuk, and motorbike, I made the loop through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. I spent a few months in SE Asia and it was no big deal, just totally changed me forever and was one of the most important periods of time in my life thus far.  Then I spent 1 ½ months in India, got my yoga certification in Rishikesh, swam in the Ganges (the clean(er) part), and saw about one thousandth of what I wanted to see of the Himalayas. Needless to say, this period of my life carved its story through every aspect of my being.

But home’s call is always strongest, and always pulls at the heart the hardest. I returned to Denver, Colorado as a new, worldly-wise, battle hardened, adult(ish) person.  I came with goals, with plans, with a new perspective, and some sense of what I came here to do in this life.

Since 2013 I have started and liquidated four businesses and conceived of dozens of others, one is still currently running and semi-viable. This business is Tall Tales Yoga, the merging of my three greatest passions, teaching yoga to children through storytelling. In addition, I have self-published four children’s books, and had a couple dozen short stories, poems, articles, flash fiction, creative non-fiction pieces published. I started the podcast Rocky Mountain Revival as another merging of some of my greatest loves: literature, music, and podcasts. To top it off, I’ll be getting married in July to a woman who is as perfect as any creature on this earth can be.

Life has had its ups and downs, but through it all, writing has always been my salvation, my torment, my obsession, and the most constant of all my psychoses. So, now that I think about i. Life has been pretty good to me, though I don’t always feel that way or appreciate the opportunities and experiences I have been given. I still don’t feel like I’ve “made it,” whatever that means. But I’m blessed in my own relative ways. And whether or not I become a famous author, a wealthy entrepreneur, or a successful human being, at least I can say I’ve done some shit, and I’ve given it my damnedest. Thirty might feel like a long life subjectively, but I know what those elder and wiser than me would say: “You don’t know shit yet.”


Levi Andrew Noe was born and raised in Denver, CO. He is a writer, a yogi, an entrepreneur, and an amateur oneironaut. Levi won first prize in 2011 and 2013 in Spirit First’s international poetry competition. His most recent or forthcoming works are in Ink, Sweat & Tears, Connotation Press, Boston Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, Eunoia Review, Scrutiny Journal, and many others. He is the editor in chief and founder of the podcast Rocky Mountain Revival, Audio Art Journal.
Twitter: @LeviAndrewNoe, @RockyMtnRevival

Stroking the Details to Deepen the Story

Reprinted from Flash Fiction Chronicles article dated January, 2011

One of the comments that is difficult for many of us to come to grips with is when someone tells us our stories are not deep enough or that we haven’t given the reader enough to go on. I used to think: we’re talking flash here, micro flash, hint fiction, short shorts!  How am I supposed to “go deep?”
But for something to resonate, it must have context.  Readers want to feel empathy with the main character—or some kind of emotion for the main character—even if it’s distaste.  The question is, how does a writer do that with a limited word count?
Details not only set up time and place, but also suggest a back story, the circumstances, or even a trait or two of the main characters.  Specific details also anchor the story for the reader, giving them something to visualize while reading on to find out what happens next. Context and empathy come about through concrete, specific details that immerse the reader in the writer’s world.
A lake and two small boats give
context to Munch’s painting

I’m not suggesting there’s any need to describe an entire room or tell the reader the exact time of day, but rather to stroke in a detail much as a painter might do.  If you examine a painting closely, you may discover that the person in the background is just a line squiggle with a touch of brown at the top to suggest hair and a swish of red to suggest a skirt or as in Munch’s The Scream: two small boats in lake.

The man screaming in the foreground of the Munch painting is alone while behind him there are two figures on the road and two boats on the lake.  I have no idea what the artist had in mind, but for me, this structure and detail suggests a strong fear of facing the world alone or facing death and because these details are behind him, he has no hope.

These details do not need to be written into a piece immediately in the rough draft–get the story down first–but can be added in the revision stage of the process once the writer understands what details will best serve the story in a thematic way

So detail, if carefully chosen, can suggest setting, foreshadow events (remember Chekov’s gun), as well as deepen character, and underline theme.

Here’s an example:

Water drips from icicles outside the kitchen window. Clear skies glisten through dirty glass panes. I’m pouring my first cup of coffee when I hear snow sliding down the roof and know it’s time to call Carissa.

This image sets scene as well as mood

This is the opening to my story, “Spring Melt.” It’s a stroke like a painter’s stroke.  The whole house isn’t  given, not even a whole kitchen,  just the suggestion of a house because it has a kitchen, dirty window panes, and a sloping roof.  There is a sense that winter is passing into spring and that brings the narrator to a decision to call some woman. It’s a specific image to carry the reader into the next paragraph, but also to give the story context and later, a thematic pay-off.

Details should be as carefully chosen as anything else in a story.  Which will enhance the character and hint about what could happen next? Physical appearance often dictates personality.  A woman who has always been admired for her beauty may never feel compelled to grow artistically or intellectually, and therefore has little to talk about except hairstyles and Botox. This narrowed point-of-view could, in turn, bring conflict to a piece about marriage or best friends or wherever the writer wants to go.  

Showing tension between characters through dialogue becomes easier when there is a trait or detail in the story that sparks deep feelings.  Here’s a brief exchange between Anna and Matt from “She Can’t Say No” to show how this can work.

…Alone at the table, Matt asks Anna how she knows his friend, Kerrick, a fast-track kind of guy, gel in his hair and Hugo Boss shoes.  

“I met him once,” she says and smiles. When she smiles, the scar on her upper lip whitens. Sometimes when he wakes up alone in the morning, thinking of her, the word “harelip” pops into his brain. He’s hinted to her about childhood operations, bringing up tonsillectomies, appendectomies, avoiding the words “quadrilateral mirault flap,” but she says nothing.  

Looking at her mouth now, he can almost feel its slight ridge on his tongue. He coughs. “And?”  

And what, Matthew?”  

“You were flirting.”  

“I know.” She slips the side of her naked foot along Matt’s calf and tucks it behind his knee. “I’m sorry.”

People in stories don’t always have to agree and when they don’t, they argue, and when they argue, they bring up old grudges, other disagreements, and reveal who they are and what’s important to them.  In the example above, the relationship between the two characters is revealed by how Anna parries Matt’s jealousy.  It’s not a fight, but it’s still a moment of revelation.  Then Matt remembers how it feels to run his tongue along the scar on Anna’s mouth telling us that although he is jealous of her past with men, he’s also aware of her affect on him. The detail of her scar makes this scene more interesting and deepens the emotional risk for both characters.

Sometimes a story may work without specific detail, but going deeper can often be as easy as changing a word or two, adding a line, using a bit of dialogue, or throwing in a specific detail that gives the reader context for the unfolding events like Anna’s slipping her naked foot behind Matt’s knee. She has the power and he knows it.