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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Maureen McHugh Talks Flash Fiction

By Lorinda Toledo
Maureen McHugh is best known for her short stories, but her resume is long. She has written two collections of short stories and four novels, including “China Mountain Zhang” which was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula award and won the James Tiptree, Jr. award. Her latest short story collection, “After the Apocalypse” (Small Beer Press), was one of Publishers Weekly's 10 Best Books of 2011. It was the only short story collection to win the award.

This September, Maureen brings her expertise to Writing Pad in a flash fiction class. Learn the art of telling a complete story in 1,000 words or less and leave this 4-week series with a ready-to-publish piece.

Maureen took the time to answer some of our questions about this increasingly popular literary form.

Many people may not be familiar with the term flash fiction. What is it and where is it typically published?

Flash fiction is a really really short story.  The lengths vary (the most extreme may be six word stories ( but the average length is about 1000 words.  A page of double-spaced story is usually about 250-300 words long, so we’re talking an entire story in less than four double-spaced pages.

Flash fiction is concentrated, intense fiction.  It often feels a little like a poem because when you have so little space, word count matters so the words have to work. 

What do you consider the most important element for a great piece of flash fiction or any short story for that matter?

The most important element is ‘does it evoke emotion in the reader?’  And the emotion shouldn’t be frustration (as in, ‘I don’t get this,’ or ‘This doesn’t feel like enough.’)  Flash fiction often startles the reader into strong emotion.

The most famous of those six word stories (attributed to Hemingway although there’s evidence that it’s been around longer) does exactly that: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." It’s the last two words that turn the story, that make it sad.

There are a lot of places that publish flash fiction—many of them online.  They range from literary to genre—places that publish science fiction or romance, for example.

You've written two collections of short stories and four novels. How does your short-form writing inform your long-form writing and vice versa?

That’s a difficult question.  Three of my novels started as short stories.  But for the most part, short stories feel different from novels.  They’re more contained.  I’ve been asked to turn a short story into a novel and my reaction is usually that I can’t. What’s there is there and it’s done what it needs to do. In fact, writing short stories sometimes makes it hard to write novels.  I like to wrap things up and novels do just the opposite. 

A lot of your writing is under the fiction umbrella. How often do real life people and events inspire your work and how do you translate that into fiction?

When I first started writing, almost none of my fiction had autobiographical elements to it.  Now much of my work does—although they are almost never strictly autobiographical.  I recently sold a story called “Dead Fads” about a girl who is going to art school and working in a bar.  The story feels autobiographical to me even though I never went to art school or worked in a bar because underneath that is that feeling of being twenty-something and terrified that I was supposed to be making my life into something and I might be going in the completely wrong direction.  It’s emotional autobiographical. I’ve also shaved the serial numbers off of real places and even my husband and used them in a story.  Especially places.  I like using real places.

You are about to teach a Flash Fiction bootcamp at Writing Pad. Can you give us a preview of some of the things that you might cover?
The nice thing about this little writing course is that we’ll write a couple of flash fiction pieces and then revise and polish one and when the class is done, everyone will have to submit it to something for publication.  Because it will be done!  A complete finished piece!

At Writing Pad, we're always curious about writing routines. Tell us about yours.

Over the years it has varied a lot.  I don’t write every day but I probably write several thousand words a week.  Sometimes that’s a freelance job.  Sometimes it’s my own project.  I like having a writer’s group so when I moved out here to LA I started a little one. My apartment is very small so I write on the dining room table.  I write my first drafts on a computer.  When it’s time for dinner I have to clear the table and put everything in the bedroom.

Thanks, Maureen! That was so helpful and interesting. We can't wait for your class Micro Short Stories: Writing and Publishing Flash Fiction (4 Wk) starting Sept. 17th in Westwood.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Writing Prompt: Embarrassing Moments

By Dalia Martinez

No! I can't! It's too embarrassing. You'll never see me in the same light. What? You really want to know? For the sake of this blog (and for your eyes ONLY) I'll tell you about one of the most embarrassing moments ever.

But, before I do, a couple of Writing Pad announcements. . .

This September, we want you to get published! How about that? Here are two classes that will help you do just that. Successful freelance journalist Margaret Wappler (who has already helped five students sell essays, including one 15 essay series for xoJane), is teaching a five week Personal Essay class, and Maureen McHugh (Best Book of 2011) is teaching a Flash Fiction Bootcamp. Both of these classes are designed to help you get a short piece published right after you finish the class! Sign up before these classes are full.

And now, you can scroll down for your writing prompt. I can't wait to see what you come up with.

Writing Pad Events

Journalism/Web Writing


Writing for Actors


Writing Prompt: 

They happen at the worst times- embarrassing moments. They could involve bodily functions, a loss of equilibrium, wardrobe malfunctions. . . Marilyn visited her family this past weekend in Chicago, so this prompt is inspired by her visit (as family can often create many embarrassing moments). 

Make a list of 3 embarassing moments you've experienced (either with your family or alone). Pick one. Add a sensory detail to it (smell, taste, sound, touch). Now write about that embarrassing moment for 10 minutes, making sure to include that sensory detail. Then, post your results in the comments of this blog!

And now it's time for me to share my embarrassing moment. So here it is. I got trapped inside a bathroom at a wedding. It was the only bathroom at an intimate ceremony held at an apartment in Los Angeles. Fearing the embarrassing moment of being caught on the toilet by a stranger I made sure the door was locked. Really locked. I turned the 1940s bolt till it couldn't turn anymore. My skin stung from pushing through the layers of paint turning the circular button. Safe and secure I peed, washed my hands, touched up on the mirror. I turned the same bolt in the opposite direction, but it wouldn't budge! I took a towel to grip it. Nothing. I tried my dress. Nothing.

By now, people were pounding on the door." Hurry up!" I was too embarrassed to fess up to locking myself in. A child's voice screamed to his mother, "I have to pee!" I sweated like a freight train was coming towards me. The bride's voice crept from the other side of the door. The reception had halted. People asked what was going on. I gripped that bolt every which way I could. In the end, I punched out the screen and got out through window. The darn bolt just didn't move.

Write about an embarrassing moment for 10 minutes. Then, post your story below and you could win a free writing class!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Brian Finkelstein: The Art of Telling A Good Story

By Lorinda Toledo

Brian Finkelstein knows how to tell a story so good it makes the audience laugh, cry and hang on his every word.

This September, Brian returns to Writing Pad in one of his popular classes to teach you how to tell a story that will garner a great stage show or just make you the most popular person at parties.

Brian received an Emmy nomination for his writing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He is a regular performer at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre, where he is currently performing his one-man show. He also tours and hosts with The Moth, and has performed solo shows in a variety of venues from the HBO/US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen to the 2012 Summer Nights Festival in Perth, Australia. And his screenplay, Good Grief is being produced by 72 Productions. He also has a story in the new "The Moth-50 True Stories" book along with Malcom Gladwell and A.E. Hotchner.

He was gracious enough to take a few minutes to tell us a little bit about how he launched his writing career and what he's learned:

Storytelling is not the most obvious avenue in show business, but it's done great things for your career. Tell us how storytelling has opened unexpected doors for you.

The first Moth I did, I met a friend who was a successful TV writer/producer and she introduced me to agents. At the same time, I got into a festival in Aspen, CO that was sponsored by HBO, which led me to meet other people and agents.

You were nominated for an Emmy for your writing on "Ellen" and you also do stand up. How does your TV writing and comedy background inform your storytelling and vice versa? Does anything about screenwriting structure influence you?

I did stories first and then got into TV writing. When I wrote for “Ellen,” her style of comedy tends to be stories, so it worked well for that. But when you learn the mechanics of structure for those formats, you develop the ability to do whatever you want.

I like screenwriting structure. It has that three act structure and I really enjoy that. I really enjoy hitting the marks at certain times in stories – a beginning, a middle, and an end – that’s what screenplays are.

You are not only a master storyteller, you've performed a number of one-man shows.  How do you take your storytelling essays and expand them into full blown shows?

I think it’s the other way, actually. I have my ideas for shows, and then I figure how to tell them in stories. Any good story can be told in five minutes, or a half hour. If it’s a good story, you should be able to do both. A good way to know if you have a good story if that if you can’t tell it in five minutes, it’s probably not a story. And if you can’t tell it in a half hour its probably also not a good story; it’s probably just an anecdote.

What types of experiences make for good storytelling?

I guess it depends, but I would say big life moments. Everybody has a bunch of things happen to them, and I think anything can be a good story if it’s interesting to you.

Sometimes you just have to accept it when something’s not a good story. If the audience doesn’t react to it and I’ve tried it three times, I just accept that it’s not a good story. I think most people intuitively know what’s a good story. Sometimes, it’s a way of trying to make something very specific come across more universally so people can relate to it.

Anything can be high stakes if it affects you emotionally. If something seems small, you have to explain to the audience why it’s not small to you so that it becomes universal. You have to raise the stakes; you have to be more emotional to make people care about it.

Of the stories you tell on stage, what's your favorite and why?

I don’t have one favorite. I know which ones do well, which ones shock people, which are better for older people and which are better for young people. I like whatever the audience reacts to. Sometimes it's not the one I want to tell, but it’s the one the audience reacts to.

I’m a narcissist. If the audience applauds or laughs then I like it. I think that’s what everyone wants, right? Otherwise, why do it?

What do you think is the most important element for hooking an audience?

Telling the truth.  I think that if you’re honest, you can rope people in.

In your upcoming 5-week class, you'll teach students your methods for 1) Structuring engaging stories, and 2) Crafting vivid stories out of small, seemingly insignificant events. How did you come up with your storytelling methodology?

I don’t think that I came up with it. I just listened to a lot of stories and realized that I don’t care about some stories or the storyteller sometimes didn't seem to care about his story.

There are ways to tell a small story that make it seem bigger. Other people rely on a really big story and don’t craft it well. Those are the two things I think people have the hardest time with, and that’s why I chose to work on that.

Once you know how to use good details, then you can throw the structure away, because then you know how to tell a great story.

Thanks, Brian! This was fascinating. We're looking forward to your class, Storytime Plus: A Performed Essay Workshop (5-WK). It begins Sept. 16. Students will get to finish two storytelling essays and perform one at a fun story-telling performance. Storytellers, snag your spot now! 

And don't forget to check out Brian's hysterically funny one-man show at UCB on Thursday, August 29th. We recommend that you get your tickets now because the last three shows sold out.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Writing Prompt: Good Party Stories

Meet Dalia, WP Event Manager
By Dalia Martinez

Summer’s almost over! School’s around the corner and pretty soon you’ll be bragging about where you got those sexy tan lines. Before you unpack those suitcases (come on, it’s been three weeks already!) we’re asking you to do some writing for this week’s prompt. Don't worry, it's a fun one.

And before we have a little Writing Pad hiatus of our own till the beginning of September, we have two fantastic events coming up this week to keep those story ideas sparking in your heads. This Wednesday night, Marilyn is performing an essay at Taboo Tales, one of the best storytelling shows in LA. Also, Emmy-nominated Brian Finkelstein's 5-week storytelling class is having a Storytelling Essay Showcase on Thursday at Writing Pad DTLA at 8 p.m. for free! Entertainment and laughter are guaranteed. The students are very talented and Brian is always a hysterically funny host.

This week's writing prompt is inspired by our writing for performance classes in September. You won't want to miss award-winning actor and writer Iris Bahr's (Curb Your Enthusiasm) one-night solo-show class on Monday, Sept. 9th. Iris will help you find your literary mojo and start crafting a solo-show that will leave the audience breathless!

Also, Brian Finkelstein's next 5-week storytelling class on Monday nights starts Sept. 16. You'll finish two storytelling essays and get to perform one! Marilyn just finished taking this class and loved it. It's a ton of fun, and you'll learn so much about the structure of storytelling and how to craft sympathetic characters. It'll help you with any genre of writing: essay writing, writing for performance, fiction, etc.

Below is what we have planned for you so far this fall (and this week). We hope to see you soon and that you enjoy the rest of your summer.

Writing Pad Events
Taboo Tales
Storytelling Essay Showcase
Hot, Black, and Literary: A Conversation With Erin Aubry Kaplan, Issa Rae, Percival Everett
The Secret To Getting Your Book Published
Writers With Drinks 

Journalism/Web Writing
You In 1200 Words: Writing and Publishing The Personal Essay (5 Wk)
What Do You Think? Writing the Op-Ed or Cultural Essay
Stuff I Like: Crafting An Irresistible Blog
How to Make it in a World of Mad Men: Intro to Advertising/Copywriting

Micro Short Stories: Writing and Publishing Flash Fiction (4 Wk)
Memorable Memoir Bootcamp
Your Name In Print: Get Your Story Published
Writing The Marketable Picture Book (5 Wk)
A Novel Approach: Tackling The Long Format Writing Project (5 Wk)
A Novel Approach: Mastering The Long Format Story (1 Day)

Writing for Actors
It's All About You: A One-Person Show Workshop (1 Night)
Storytelling Plus (5 Week)
It's All About You: A One-Person Show Workshop (5 Wk Intensive)
From The Page To The Stage: A One-Person Show Workshop

Writing A Pilot That Can Fly (6 Wk)
Dream It, Write It, Pitch It: Screenwriting Bootcamp

Writing Prompt:
Make a list of three stories you always tell at parties (e.g. a really bad date, the time that you thought you were gong to die on vacation, a crazy drinking tale). Pick one. Now add a sensory detail to the story (e.g. smell, taste, sound, touch). Write about your good party story for ten minutes, including the sensory detail and post your results in the comments of this blog!

Allow me to illustrate…

There was a time I camped at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Was it the river water or seafood? I didn’t know what idiotic thing I had consumed. I was enjoying an otherwise beautiful African summer day. But something in my stomach went wrong. Very, very wrong. I spent hours upon hours in the campground bathrooms perched next to a toilet that reminded me of prison movies. The bathroom had no windows, the stalls had no doors and I didn’t care about the mysterious water puddles on the filthy concrete floor. I was so consumed with my own workings I wasn’t bothered by other bathroom smells. I rested my sweaty and achy head on the cold walls. After two weeks of tanning, my cheeks were a balmy white. Blue-balled monkeys loitered and I SWEAR one of them pointed at me in my state of disgrace. I nearly died. Well, it felt that way…

Even the most careful, seasoned, five-star traveler is susceptible to Delhi Belly, Montezuma’s revenge, riots, rough planes rides… etc.   

Write about time you almost died on vacation or did something really stupid under the influence for 10 minutes. Then, post your crazy party story below. and you could win a free writing class!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Writing Prompt: Strange Characters

By Marilyn Friedman and Alana Saltz

We can't believe that it's the middle of August already! Don't forget that we still have some great classes to help you keep moving forward on your writing projects this summer. We've listed the classes that we have left for August and our Fall classes that we have planned so far  below. Sign up before they are sold out!

This week's writing prompt is inspired by the crazy characters in our lives. If you've got a character you're itching to write a longer work about, be sure to check out Robbie Fox's Mini Screenwriting Bootcamp class this Monday and James Scott Bell's Novel Writing class on August 18th. And scroll down for your free writing prompt!

Also, we hope to see you this Wednesday, August 14 for Writers With Drinks! It's free and is a great way to make new literary friends. Plus, The Fat Dog is a beautiful gastropub with delicious food that you will definitely want to check out. See you soon!

Classes August 10-19

Fall Classes

Crazy Eyes on "Orange Is The New Black" is an Intriguing but Unusual Character

Writing Prompt: Interesting characters are one of the most important elements of any type of writing, whether it is a novel, memoir, poem, or screenplay. But it can be challenging to develop a character who is both unique and believable.

For this prompt, make a list of three strange people you've known. It could be a friend, neighbor, coworker, or relative. Write three traits/characteristics that make this person strange or unique. Be specific. Does this person have a funny way of speaking? Does he have an unusual hobby or job? Does he have a weird quirk or habit? Pick one. For 10 minutes, write a story that involves this strange person and the trait that makes them unique. Post your story in the comments of this post, and you'll be entered into our July/August contest to win a free one-day writing class!

For example, Marilyn is obsessed with "Orange Is The New Black." Crazy Eyes is one of the most unusual characters on the show. She makes up love songs for the main character, Piper, and pees on the floor in front of her cell to show her that she is her property. She acts like a thug in prison, but in contrast to who you might think she is, Crazy Eyes comes from an upper middle class family and is obsessed with Shakespearean style acting. This quirky character inspires some fun story lines in the show. Also, Alana had a friend back in high school who inspired characters in several of her stories. He was an eccentric young man who liked to collect road kill and explore the sewers of Los Angeles. Pretty strange, eh?

Who is a strange person you know? Write about him for 10 minutes, and you could win a free writing class!