Bystanders named a ‘best book of the year’ in The Guardian

What a lovely post-Thanksgiving story to wake up to! This morning, The Guardian released part 1 of their Best Books of 2017 story–asking authors to discuss their top favorite reads of the year. I’m honored–and oh so thankful–to discover that Jennifer Egan named Bystanders as one of her three recommendations.

You can read the selections here and shop for all the book lovers on your list.

Bystanders Wins the Balcones Fiction Prize!

I am thrilled to announce that Bystanders has won the Balcones Fiction Prize, which is awarded by Austin Community College to an outstanding book of fiction published in 2016. My book was among stellar finalists–Brightfellow by Rikki Ducornet, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, Heirlooms by Rachel Hall, Landfall by Julie Hensley, and Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy–and I’m humbled to be in their company.

Final judge Amanda Eyre Ward had this to say about Bystanders:

Her stories pulsed with energy and excitement, like small lightning storms on the page. I was constantly surprised by her characters, and finished the book wishing there were more. I think she is a real talent–original and vibrant–and I’m excited to celebrate her work.”

Past winners of the prize have included Margaret Malone’s People Like You, William Giraldi’s Hold the Dark, Douglas Trevor’s Girls I Know, Hanna Pylvainen’s We Sinners, Katherine Karlin’s Send Me Work, and Linh Dinh’s Love Like Hate.

Thanks so much to Joe O’Connell and everyone in the creative writing department at ACC for your support. Thanks also to SFWP publisher Andrew Gifford for taking a chance on Bystanders.

I’m looking forward to visiting Austin next year, where I’m told the Museum of the Weird is a must-see destination for those of us who appreciate all things creepy.

Bay to Ocean Writers Conference: Flash Fiction Resources

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting “Tiny but Mighty: How to Write Amazing Flash Fiction” at the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills, Maryland. As I promised attendees, I’m posting my handout here of some resources for flash fiction writers, some of which was adapted from an earlier handout for a novella-in-flash panel created for the Conversations and Connections Conference in Virginia.

In addition, here are the stories I read aloud or mentioned during the presentation: Soap by Katrina Denza, Nightstands by Cole Meyer, and Gravity, Reduced by Kara Oakleaf.

Tips, Prompts, and a Reading List from Tiny but Mighty: How to Write Amazing Flash Fiction

A Bay to Ocean Writing Conference 2017 panel by Tara Laskowski

 

Tips for Writing Flash:

  • Start at the flashpoint—by definition, flash begins at the moment of conflict, when all the action is nearly complete.
  • Focus on the powerful image(s)—Find one or more powerful images to focus your story on.
  • Hit them where it hurts—go for an ending that offers an emotional impact. Play against expectations with a sense of narrative mystery or devastating twist, a poignant implication or declarative last sentence that leaves the reader breathless, and going back for more. Not an “aha” moment or a punchline. An ending more nuanced than that.
  • Strive for the concrete. Eliminate the word “thing” or “something,” for example. Replace that word with an actual concept, image, noun, etc, that explicitly participates in the image you are portraying.
  • Write the whole story, then eliminate useless words.
  • Stay away from punchline endings or “joke” flash fiction.

Some Flash Prompts:

Fictionalize a true moment: Start a flash piece with a specific memory of your own grounded in the five senses (touch, smell, feel, seeing, hearing) – For example: the feel of an aunt scratching your scalp or the smell of your child’s bedroom. This memory should be specific enough to work into a moment. Find the story from there.

Use pictures, paintings, or music to inspire a flashpoint.

Tell the story backward or play with the idea of memory and nonlinear time in a story.

Think of writing a flash piece as a scene when working on something longer, say a longer short story or as a novel chapter.  Flash is inherently raw with emotion. When wanting to draft a pivotal moment, take the time to draft a flash piece – with a beginning, middle and end — to represent that moment between your characters.  Break down the action to its bare essentials for more impact.

Write a story only using dialogue. Use no dialogue tags.

Find a dictionary. Open it to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a spot on the page to select a word. Do that several times to generate a list of random words, then write a flash that includes all of those words.

For Further Reading

Flash Guides

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction edited by Tara L. Masih

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore

A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction edited by Randall Brown

Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook edited by David Galef

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers edited by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter

Flash Fiction Collections

Mad to Live by Randall Brown

Severance by Robert Olen Butler

A Kind of Flying by Ron Carlson

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis

The Coast of Chicago: Stories by Stuart Dybeck

Whiskey, Etc. by Sherrie Flick

Wild Life by Kathy Fish

Maybe Mermaids and Robots Are Lonely by Matthew Fogarty

Surrounded by Water by Stefanie Freele

Truck Dance by Jeff Landon

Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons by Tara Laskowski

Lust by Susan Minot

May We Shed These Human Bodies by Amber Sparks

 

Journals That Feature Flash

Smokelong Quarterly

Brevity

Every Day Fiction (open to genre)

Gamut Magazine (paying market, genre)

matchbook

Monkeybicycle

Nanofiction

Necessary Fiction

District Lit

The Collagist

The Short Form

The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts (paying market)

Wigleaf

Whiskey Paper

Shotgun Honey (crime fiction)

Gay Flash Fiction (LBGTQ)

Shimmer (diversity)

Abyss & Apex (speculative fiction)

Cease, Cows

Aphelion (science fiction and fantasy)

Daily Science Fiction

Narratives-in-Flash

Matt Bell, Cataclysm Baby

Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, and Aaron Teel, My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form

Aaron Burch, How to Predict the Weather

Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

Evan S. Connell, Mrs. Bridge

Matthew Salesses, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying

Lex Williford, Superman on the Roof

Presses that Publish Flash Collections

Curbside Splendor

Jellyfish Highway

Matter Press

Rose Metal Press

Press 53

Stillhouse Press

Flash Stories

The Heiress by Tara Laskowski: matterpress.com/journal/2015/03/02/the-heiress/

The Cage in the Woods by Joe Lucido: wigleaf.com/201509cage.htm

Cravat by Roseanne Scott: www.smokelong.com/cravat/

Conjugation by Jen Michalski: www.smokelong.com/conjugation/

Bartleby Snopes contest (2000 words or less): http://www.bartlebysnopes.com/bartleby-snopes-issue-14.pdf

Transplanting by Lisa Smithies: http://www.smokelong.com/transplanting/

Dive by Dawn West: http://www.smokelong.com/dive/

Marriage by Anna Lea Jancewicz : http://www.matchbooklitmag.com/jancewicz.html

I stayed away from my phone and laptop for 24 hours and lived to tell the tale

As part of my #RetreatRepeat New Year’s resolution, I successfully spent 24 hours away from my computer and cell phone this weekend. It doesn’t sound like much, or a great accomplishment, but it was difficult to do nonetheless.

I did this as part of National Day of Unplugging, a U.S. initiative sponsored by Reboot, a group that “affirms the value of Jewish traditions and creates new ways for people to make them their own.” The idea is to create a day of Sabbath for your devices. It was a last-minute decision for me to participate, so I didn’t sign the pledge or get my cell phone sleeping bag. But that made it easier in some ways, because I didn’t have time to talk myself out of it or make any elaborate plans. I just put my phone away when I got home from work and didn’t look at it again until the next evening.

So how did it go? The first few hours were the hardest. Only two hours in, I had a terrible urge to sneak a look. But I resisted. After that first night, the next day was easier. And even though it was only 24 hours, I learned a lot about my online triggers and addictions.

Here are some things I learned:

It’s ok to be alone. My greatest urges came when I found myself in a room alone or sitting at a traffic light. All those times when I would naturally pick up my phone to distract myself, play a quick game or check Facebook, I instead worked on a crossword puzzle, read part of a book, or in the case of driving, found a song to sing along to.

Not allowing myself to do any work made me not think about all the work I had to do. It was a busy weekend. I had a presentation to prepare for a conference the next weekend, a grant to apply for, and writing to do. But knowing that I couldn’t do any of that on Saturday—that I ‘wasn’t allowed’—also gave me the freedom to not care about it. Normally I would’ve been stressing out. Instead of enjoying my walk outside with my son or watching a silly show, I would’ve felt guilty that I should be working. But I felt free of that with my pledge, telling myself I would have designated time on Sunday to do the work I needed to do.

Nothing was on fire. When I finally broke down and checked my messages, I realized that there were no urgent matters waiting for me. It was a relief, and also a wake-up call: I’m not going to miss any opportunities or be missed at all, really, with a 24-hour break.

Check messages when you have the time to do something about them. When I pick up my phone and browse through in at a traffic light or while waiting for my train, I often see messages that I need to reply to but don’t have the time right then. Those messages get marked as “read,” and the next time I log in, my eyes will often skip over them. They get pushed down into the ethers of my un-organized inbox and I forget. So unplugging, especially when I’m busy doing other things, will actually help me be more productive. If I don’t read my email until I’m actually in a place where I can respond to the messages, I’ll be able to take care of things more efficiently and with less stress.

I can’t promise I’m going to disappear from the Internet for 24 hours very often, but I will definitely try to be more conscious of my decisions to stare at my devices. Sorry, Angry Birds. But I’ll miss you.

 

Happy book birthday to Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons

Once upon a time I thought of a title for a story: “The Etiquette of Adultery.” I liked that title so much that I wrote it down on a piece of paper and carried it around in my wallet with me for about a year. One day I decided to write the story, wondering what an etiquette guide for adultery would really look like. I sent it off to Necessary Fiction, and editor Steve Himmer wrote a nice note back saying he loved the concept but thought I should expand the story a bit more.

That note made sense to me and sparked something inside me that became the catalyst for this book. An editor’s job is mostly thankless–I know, having edited SmokeLong for almost seven years now–but I also don’t think that editors often realize how much impact a kind, encouraging, honest rejection letter can have on a writer. Sometimes a sentence or two or a quick suggestion can help solidify an idea or start someone off on another path with a story. In this case, Steve’s note didn’t just help make “Adultery” a better story, but it also started me on the trail of a series of etiquette stories, which eventually created a book.

The thing is, the stories were so very fun to write. Most of them teeter on the edge of flash-fiction-length–the longest story tips just over 2,000 words, I believe–and the form allowed me to play around with all sorts of fun experiments, creating an unofficial guide to our darker selves.

The first edition of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons was published by Matter Press in 2012. It sold out of its print run and was only available as an ebook for the last few years, but now–now!–my friends, it’s back. And cuter than ever.

The newly revised Modern Manners, published by Santa Fe Writers Project, includes two new etiquette stories (“The Etiquette of Voyeurism” and “The Etiquette of Gossip”) and comes in paperback in an adorable, stuff-it-in-your-pocket size.

Here are some kind things folks have said about it:

“Sly, clever, original take on the sad, bewildering, dead-on truths of being human.”

— Kathy Fish, author of Wild Life and Together We Can Bury It

 

“The anxiety-ridden instructees of Laskowski’s stories tap dance their way through various awkward situations ranging from adultery to dementia. It’s fun to laugh at them, but by the end of each story, you can’t quite remember why you thought they were so dumb in the first place; these characters have problems and deal with their problems with dignity. Each of these stories start out in a sarcastic vein, yet the problems they address are heartbreaking, and each and every one of them realizes a protagonist, fully formed, with a past, a present, and a future.”

— L.W. Compton The Collagist

I’ll also be celebrating Modern Manners‘ birthday at the AWP conference Feb. 9-11 in Washington, D.C. Check out my events page for more information about readings and panels and things. Hope to see you and your inner demons soon!

Let’s #RetreatRepeat for the New Year

2016 was a very forward-facing year for me, and it was exhausting. Fortunately, most of this forward-facing was also quite exciting—events related to the release of Bystanders—and I’m above all grateful and stunned for all the opportunities I had to read and present and write guest posts. But being an introvert, I felt like the year was very energy-draining. The political climate in the U.S. was very upsetting in 2016–and continues to be so for the unforeseeable future. Art and Dash and I didn’t have a single vacation or getaway that wasn’t tacked on to some kind of writing event or other obligation. I constantly felt like I was being chased by an eternal to-do list that, rather than getting shorter, kept seeming longer and longer and longer the more things I checked off it.

So here we are on the last day of the year, and reflections and proclamations abound. Frankly, I’m tired. And my new year’s resolutions and thoughts seem to reflect this. Therefore, I’ve got a new mantra for 2017:

#RetreatRepeat

Say it with me…

Retreat

Retreat, as in pull back, move inward, chill out. Not retreat from fighting the good fight, but rather stop and reflect, focus on priorities, be smarter about my time choices. I gave a lot last year, and this year I want to be much more selfish about my time. I want to concentrate on writing, producing creative work, daydreaming. I’m working on a longer writing project right now and it requires more focus and energy than writing flash fiction. If I don’t give myself permission to focus and say no to other things, I don’t think I’ll ever finish it. And I really want to finish it.

But even more than writing, I want to spend time with friends and family because I want to, not as tacked-on to a self-made book tour. Retreat to me doesn’t necessarily mean become a hermit. It means to make the effort to spend quality time with people who are important to me, in ways that are fulfilling, fun, relaxing, and present. It means calling an old friend on the phone rather than scrolling through Facebook newsfeeds and getting depressed at all the terrible shit going on in the world. Emailing someone a thoughtful hello message rather than getting in a Twitter fight with a total stranger. My energies have been very distracted this year and I feel weary by all of it. I need to retreat in order to protect my emotional health.

Repeat

Repeat, as in seek out the things I’ve read, watched, done before and found joy in. Re-reading the classics, the books I fell in love with years ago. I first read The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis when I was in second grade, and throughout the years I’ve re-read the series and always discovered something new about it and got something new out of it. I’d love to revisit other texts that I loved years ago and see if I can learn new things or, at least, remember why they spoke to me so strongly the first time.

The same goes for my favorite movies—Art and I have DVDs collecting dust on our shelves of movies that we never re-watch because it always seems there are so many new films we haven’t seen . But I’d like to take some time to relish in old friends in 2017 and dust off those shelves. We recently re-watched Star Wars: A New Hope with our son, who was watching it for the first time, and seeing it through his eyes was a delight.

But beyond movies and books, repeat to me also means spending more time doing things that bring me joy. Things that aren’t obligations—crafting, putting together puzzles, just having long conversations with people I love. Putting down the phone and computer more. Connecting offline more than online.

 

Want to #RetreatRepeat with me? I’ll try to make a list of books, movies, etc. that I’ve read, watched, done throughout the year, and I’d be interested to hear what other folks repeat as well.

Happy New Year to everyone, and may 2017 be your best year yet.

2016 Wasn’t All Terrible

There were a lot of really rotten, awful things that happened in 2016. I won’t dwell on them here, because I think we all know a lot of them and have been dealing with them for quite a while now. But 2016 wasn’t a complete stinkfest. In my attempt to cast things in a more positive light in the new year, I’m listing, in no particular order, some pretty awesome stuff that happened to me or just in general out there in the world over the past year. What are yours?

Jennifer Egan blurbed Bystanders. Jennifer Egan’s been my hero since I read Look at Me, and it’s only gotten more obsessive since then. So to get her stamp of approval on my new collection of stories was truly the best literary thing that’s ever happened to me. This also happened in January, which meant that the year was doomed to go down from there…but hey, start high!

And speaking of…Bystanders arrived into the world. Happy birthday, you crazy little book. (Buy it here! Or if you already have it, please consider giving it a quick, honest review!)

The book did pretty well. It got some lovely reviews, I did some lovely readings, people said they liked it. Grateful to everyone who was a part of that journey.

Stranger Things. Seriously, have you seen it yet? It was the best television that happened to me in 2016. Spooky stuff, 70s/80s throwback, a kick-ass complex female hero, and all in an easy-to-binge miniseries package. Can’t wait for more.

One of my very best friends moved back to D.C. from Florida. And now we work together! In an increasingly scary world, it’s nice to be surrounded by folks you love. And be able to have movie nights together.

I paid off my student loans.

I bought my very first new car. (She’s so cute, isn’t she?)

I saw Bryan Adams in concert. Teenage dream realized, people. He’s just lucky I didn’t bring my crinkled Teen Beat poster for him to sign.

My husband won a bunch of awards. His first novel On the Road with Del and Louise won the Agatha Award for best first novel and was a finalist for the Macavity and the Anthony awards. The anthology he edited, Murder Under the Oaks, was an Anthony Award winner.

All of the photos from my son’s bowling birthday party are blurry. Which means those crazy kids were having too much fun to ever stop moving.

Cold, Dark Flash at AWP

I’m pretty excited about this one, guys. SmokeLong Quarterly and D.C.’s Noir at the Bar will present an off-site AWP reading “Cold, Dark Flash,” an evening of noir flash fiction. I mean, really, what can be better than noir-themed flash fiction on a cold February evening in D.C.? I hope to see you there!

Cold, Dark Flash
Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017
7 p.m.
Wonderland Ballroom
1101 Kenyon St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20010
(Three blocks from the Green Line Metro)

With readers:

Matt Bell
Tara Campbell
W. Todd Kaneko
Jennifer Pashley
Amber Sparks
Art Taylor
and hosted by:
Tara Laskowski
E.A. Aymar

Music by DJ Alkimist

Books for sale, raffle prizes, music, and more!

Why does this literary festival give me the blues?

What is it about Fall for the Book that makes me sad every single year? I’ve been asking myself this question all week.

I love this literary festival, held every year on George Mason University’s campus. I “grew up with it” in some ways, having attended it since my very first year in the MFA program there. I’ve seen and met amazing writers each year and had great experiences presenting at it myself.

But every year I get this hollowness in my chest. Every year I get the Fall for the Book blues, and when it hits, it hits big.

It hit last week, after I presented on a publishing panel for Santa Fe Writers Project. The panel itself went well. We had a small audience, which was probably in part due to timing and bad weather, but they were engaged and interested. We even sold a few books.

But later that night, I started to get the sadness. Those feelings of inadequacy, of hopelessness.

Maybe it’s tied to the fact that I “grew up with it,” that the nostalgia of the festival brings out some deep-seated anxieties or at least highlights them in a different way. When I was first attending FFTB, I was an unpublished writer desperately wanting to be a published writer. I listened to accomplished authors with their amazing books and felt like I would never get there. I remember attending a panel of Mason MFA alumni and thinking, ‘Wow, they went through this same program and now they have books and a career. Will this ever happen to me?” It was panic-attack-inducing at the same time that it was inspiring.

It got worse after I graduated from the program and started to see my own classmates and writer friends get published. I’d attend their Fall for the Book events and though I was ecstatic to see them succeed and be awesome, that same inadequacy for myself started creeping in. Will I ever get there?

And then I started publishing things, but never in The New Yorker. And then my first book came out, but it was “just with a small press.” And then I won an award, but it wasn’t a Pushcart. And it goes on. Will I ever get There?

What I’ve come to realize—even though I have to continue to tell myself this over and over and over again—is that the truth is, there is no “There” to get to. Each new level of success we reach or accomplishment we earn opens a whole other world of challenges to conquer, a whole other set of demons and confusions and expectations to navigate. And you can drive yourself crazy battling them.

I think it’s a universal feeling to always feel that wherever you are is not good enough. Especially for writers, perspectives, goals, and aspirations shift as we move forward. I think about myself twelve years ago, and how I would’ve gladly stuck my tongue out and gotten it run over by a tractor trailer to have a book published. I think about Merritt Tierce’s recent piece in Marie Claire about book sales and not being able to live off her writing. She’s been scorned by some people, but I have to say I kind of get it. The higher you get on the publishing ladder, the farther it feels you can fall. The inadequacy feels even more looming—”Well, surely, if I was able to do this, it can’t really mean all that much.”

I’m not trying to get all woe-is-me on you. I feel very fortunate that I’m able to continue writing and have success doing so. I’m grateful to all the wonderful writers and editors that I’ve met and built friendships with who keep me going every day. I’m proud of all the hard work that both my husband and I put in to our writing and editing, and totally fine with the sacrifices we make to continue doing this insanity.

But despite all that, my own worst inner critic never goes away. And sometimes I think it’s important to acknowledge that beast. To yank it out and stare at it and say, “Ok, fine. I get you. I’m not perfect and sometimes I feel sucky.” And then put it away, and crank up your computer and get back to work.

After the panel last week I had a young woman come up to talk to me. She was excited. She said she’d never heard of flash fiction until that night, and she’d been writing all these one or two page stories and not having a clue what to do with them. She thanked me for mentioning it and we talked for a bit about all the amazing journals out there that want those very stories.

And you know what? That was enough. That was worth it. That is why I keep doing what I do, year after year, even when the demons get me down.

Metaphors for Flash Fiction, with ‘Sex’ Substituted for ‘Flash’

Last year when we opened up application submissions for the Kathy Fish Fellowship at SmokeLong Quarterly, we asked writers to send a brief essay about why they like flash fiction and what they hope to get out of the fellowship if they win. We got a lot of really great responses to this question, and many many metaphors for what flash is like. After reading hundreds of these essays, though, my brain started to fire in different ways—namely in that ‘twelve-year-old-boy-sense-of-humor’ kind of way.

We’ve done away with that question for this year’s round of applicants, replaced by a few other more targeted questions. But in homage to all the great responses we got last year, I present to you excerpts from a few essays with “flash fiction” replaced with “sex”:

  • Sex provides pressure, a quick release of energy.
  • I thrive in these tight spaces.
  • Sex appeals to me because I can do so in one sitting, on a device like a laptop or smartphone, and because I often find that it makes me think about the nature of storytelling.
  • I love that sex is palpable, always in bite sized pieces and how it never leaves me with a sense of wanting more or less.
  • I like sex that is quick, visceral and unapologetic.
  • My strongest sexual encounters have been the ones where I didn’t sit down with a plan and a goal.
  • Sex is a bursting blossom from a poetic bud.
  • The kick in the teeth lures me as much as the wonder I experience when I have sex.
  • With sex, a single word can make or break the emotional tone overall.
  • I’ve had an appetite for sex since I was fourteen.
  • In the same way the straw wrapper winds up an accordion on the diner’s table or my wife touches each knob on the stove exactly once before leaving, I have sex.
  • One of the best parts of sex is knowing I can enter someone’s reading space, tell them a humorous anecdote or swiftly punch them in the gut, and then leave them comforted or haunted long after I’ve left.

There you go! By the way, application submissions for the 2017 Kathy Fish Fellowship open on July 15, 2016. For more information on the prize and guidelines, check out this page.

*Photo by Juhan Sonin and used via Flickr Creative Commons.