NYC MIDNIGHT: Congratulations on completing four tough challenges and placing first out of over 430 writers in the Flash Fiction Challenge 2010! Why did you enter the Flash Fiction Challenge 2010 and how was your overall experience?
Natalie: Thank you! I think most writers are very eager to practice and develop their skills whenever they can, since, unfortunately, so few of us are able to make a living doing what we love full time. I stumbled across NYC Midnight while looking for screenwriting competitions, actually. With the Flash Fiction Challenge, I loved looking forward to the next weekend of mayhem. Plus, it's a pretty unique way to keep your wheels turning, to build up a portfolio, and to practice getting inspiration from unusual places. It's not every day you craft a story from a laser pointer or pinball machine, let's be honest.
NYC MIDNIGHT: What was the most difficult aspect of the writing challenges for you: the deadline, the required genre, location and object assignments, or the 1,000 word limit?
Natalie: The word limit. Oh, the word limit. It's way too liberating to have a blank page in front of you and much too easy to get carried away. 1,000 words is never enough to fit the entire world of our stories inside, but so many of us try! I think, honestly, that to understand the craft of writing is to recognize when words are disposable, to tighten up the prose until it has no cracks at all. That's almost impossible to do, ever, let alone in 48 hours! Killing your darlings is something I have never been good at. I still have ticket stubs from the fifth grade.
I wrote all four stories in the first few hours of receiving their prompts—the majority of the weekends were just editing, for me. That was the true essence of the challenge, personally: not to write, but to edit. Once you've created a setting that feels like home, and once the characters are round and flawed enough to feel like real people, it feels almost like murder to get it down to 1,000 words. All those darlings I killed to get the stories slim enough... may they rest in peace!
The other aspects—the deadline and group assignments—made it much easier to write than if they were open topics and due in several months. Everyone works better under pressure and constraints, even if they don't know it. I know it, anyway—I'm always working on everything until the last minute. Sometimes the last second. Another challenge that's good for that is NaNoWriMo.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Throughout the competition, you received the genres of Drama, Historical Fiction, and Open twice, including in the final round. Did you prefer being able to write in any genre of your preference or having an assigned genre? What genres do you prefer writing and which assignments proved to be the most difficult?
Natalie: I actually preferred having a specified genre over the open ones—when you know that someone else in the group could be writing a quirky satire or malicious dark comedy if they wanted to, it's difficult to justify writing a drama yourself and just crossing your fingers that you stand out enough in comparison. Likewise, you have to be really brave to ask your reader to buy into this complex sci-fi world when other writers might be doing a simple, charming romance. When everyone's on the same page, you can kind of gauge where the crowd might go. But historical fiction is actually one of my favorite genres, both to read and to write. So I got lucky on that first round!
NYC MIDNIGHT: How did you get started as a writer? Where are you now in your writing career and what are your goals?
Natalie: I was always the little writing maniac in school. I remember when I was nine years old and our class was given a day-long project where we could 'write a book' by stapling a bunch of small pages together. After everyone else had finished, I insisted on writing more chapters in the back of class for days, and my teacher, bless her heart, let me. I ended up taking that little book to a regional contest. I remember feeling, even then, that I could just write forever and be happy with life. I was and still am a very emotional reader and writer. Whenever characters in video games died, for example, I'd write my own endings for them! I'm still secretly always doing that in my head.
Right now I'm trying to engage with as many writing and editing projects as I can at once. I do mostly freelance work as a travel writer, photographer, and journalist. I'm a big fan of Matador Network (the most-read independent online travel publication) and have written a handful of articles for them. I also got published online in McSweeney's Open Letters recently. Sometimes my eyes are bigger than my stomach and I don't quite get to as many things as I'd like to—there are never enough hours in the day, are there?—but I think that's a good sign. If you're able to finish absolutely everything, you're not pushing yourself hard enough!
My biggest step right now is putting finishing touches on my first novel, which is a historical fiction parody of a classic. It's all focused on the evolution of war. It sort of takes up all of my day, even when I'm working on something else—it distracts me, but in the best way. Finding representation is a daunting task, and that's a whole different fork in the road.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Do you write on a regular basis? What is your general approach for writing a story, from idea to final draft?
Natalie: I do write every day, but I think forcing yourself to do so, as many people recommend, is sort of double-edged. You can't train yourself to have passion; the passion comes first, and then the discipline. Some people write every day just to process their thoughts. I'm one of those people who will be late for something because I was trying to type or write my last thought out. I'll get honked at on the road when lights turn green because I got an idea and am jotting it down in my pocket notebook. I rarely have to seek out inspiration actively. Usually the chaos in my head is enough to keep me scribbling.
My approach is to know where I'm going first, and then to try to get there. A lot of people don't work that way; for them, sometimes discovering where you wind up along the way is half the fun. But for me, I see the story already there. I see the characters and what happens to them sitting there on the page, and I just have to clear away the haze so the words show up. Some people like the discovery method. On occasion I'll do it that way, but usually I'm frantically color-coding post-it notes before I start! I think everyone just has to find his or her own style that works.
For example, I like knowing what kind of drinks my protagonists would order in a bar. How they reacted to their first pet dying. What they wish for themselves (regardless of whether I wish the same thing for them). That kind of thing. It takes way more effort to fill in that kind of context, but I believe the reader can always tell if the author knows the characters this well or not. So for these flash fiction stories, I knew what the ending was going to be before I began writing the first sentence. It helped me keep them tight, because each word was serving the next. There's still enough discovery in there to keep the game exciting, and sometimes twists and turns do come up, but the end result—for me anyway—is much more meaningful and powerful when you've put in the effort to make it structured and thoughtful.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Many writers that have participated in NYC Midnight competitions have mentioned that having forced constraints and a deadline helps them push through any blocks they may encounter. But how do you deal with writer’s block when writing your own material outside of competitions?
Natalie: Actually, I think “writer's block” is just something we invent to make ourselves feel better when we're having a rough day. I don't believe creative people can ever truly be out of ideas. Every professional has off days—athletes miss goals, dancers stumble. You just have to accept that you've come to a slower-moving part of the river, and around the corner there will be rapids that will speed you up again.
If I find myself struggling with a scene or sentence, I switch to another project. Having multiple stories and projects is really beneficial in times when one of them isn't working, or you're not in the mood. Sometimes I'm in too good of a mood to write a death scene, or too depressed to write a happy reunion. In those cases, I move to something else that better suits my frame of mind. Forcing yourself to churn out writing that doesn't ring true will surely become detrimental to your story, because the characters end up acting in ways that are false, and readers can always sense those changes, I think.
Sometimes writer's block can just be fighting through those rare urges when you question what you're doing, if you're just a madman writing a bunch of nonsense, typing at four in the morning like a raving lunatic. In those cases, for me, letting go is super important. Creating distance and perspective is a healthy way to go about it. Jogging, socializing, yoga. Then the ideas come rushing back to you, and you have to cut your activity short so you can hop back in the writing saddle again, and it feels like home.
NYC MIDNIGHT: What authors have influenced your writing? What are some of your favorite stories or novels?
Natalie: When I was younger, Madeleine L'Engle created the greatest characters for me. I really connected with the believability of their emotional conflicts, and admired them, and wanted to be them. When I was a little older, I was obsessed with the way Tolkien's world is entirely without seams. His dedication to and total obsession with his work is really inspiring.
Right now I'm a huge fan of Chuck Thompson, because I find his use of language and lack of shame outrageously entertaining. I also like Alex Garland and Tom Robbins. I think there are many talented storytellers in the graphic novel industry, too, like Jeph Loeb. But to be honest, I'm a total nerd when it comes to classic literature. I can pretty much recite Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, and Frankenstein has always been one of my favorites. I also have an ongoing crush on Oscar Wilde. But 'corset lit' like Jane Austen hasn't really resonated with me too much yet. For some reason I gravitate towards dark, exotic, or twisted stories—like Patrick Süskind's Perfume.
My absolute favorite novel of all time is Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Louis de Bernieres is the most talented and truly powerful storyteller I've ever read. His use of character, his descriptions, the way he manipulates time and place to convey everyday human experiences... I think he exemplifies my ideal strengths, and if I could have half the narrative poise that he and L'Engle have, I'd be a happy camper!
NYC MIDNIGHT: We included a dedicated review forum where writers could share their stories from the competition with each other and provide/receive feedback. Did you participate in the forums and/or get a chance to check out some of the stories that were posted? If so, what were some of your favorites?
Natalie: I did check out some of the other stories in my group, but I never posted my own work. I'm much too picky and fickle to complete anything enough to post it online. I'm constantly tampering with things, and although I love constructive feedback, I'd rather do it face-to-face, where I can see or feel the reaction. I love that there is a forum, and I think the people who participate in it are very brave. The best thing about it is the opportunity to see how differently other people interpreted the same prompts that you were given—in this respect, I think even people that aren't satisfied with their stories enough to post them should definitely participate where they can. You can't possibly come up with all the crazy things everyone else does. Every mind is different, and witnessing the prompt interpretation as it morphs between writers is really fun.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Do you have any ongoing or upcoming projects you would like to discuss?
Natalie: Other than my historical fiction novel, I also have a completely different novel that is much more satirical, blunt, and modern. My biggest challenge is getting to a point when I can admit to myself that it's time to shop them. I also have a number of screenplays, which I submit to contests and would like to direct myself one day, since I'm a total film nut and have every intention of crossing back and forth between novelist and screenwriter someday. I do freelance editing and tutoring for students. I'm also a singer/songwriter who performs locally sometimes, and I have a huge book of poetry that is occasionally put to music when I find the time.
I also have a website, which is very new, but I'm in the process of transitioning into a new domain name.
NYC MIDNIGHT: What advice do you have for aspiring writers looking to improve their storytelling, whether it be flash fiction or novels?
Natalie: You can't be a successful dancer without being flexible. Reading the same genre or author over and over again is a great way to get pigeonholed and stop yourself from developing a well-rounded craft. The best thing you can do for yourself is make the connection between writing and life, words and action. Experience things firsthand, read as much and as often as you can, talk to people and hear the emotion behind their stories. Understanding art is just the first step to understanding the human experience (or maybe it's the other way around), and in the end, that is what truly makes writing worth reading. Being stubborn and thinking you know where your strengths are is counter-productive. Keep an open mind, write honestly, and learn to stand up for yourself, your aspirations, and your choice of career. It's not easy, but in the end, doing what you love every day is the best feeling in the world.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Will you be back to defend your title in 2011?
Natalie: I can't wait!
Stories by Natalie Grant
'The Keeper of Unwanted Thoughts' by Natalie Grant
SYNOPSIS - A simple mail carrier struggles to deliver letters during wartime, and ends up being delivered himself. Challenge #1 (Historical Fiction / A pond / A suitcase)
'Good Morning, Sir' by Natalie Grant
SYNOPSIS - After another year of capitalism gone wild, shamelessly wealthy men continue to control the world's most powerful industries as if they were kings—which means queens must up their game. Challenge #2 (Open / A junkyard / A pinball machine)
'Inertia' by Natalie Grant
SYNOPSIS - A Marine on a solo assignment in the Middle East contemplates mobility, mathematics, and what happens without an opposable force. Challenge #3 (Drama / A race track / A laser pointer)
'Dusty, With A High Chance of Waves' by Natalie Grant
SYNOPSIS - In a remote Japanese fishing village, one child's darkest fear, the weather, becomes her new best friend... and reveals a forecast for decades to come. Challenge #4 (Open / A border crossing / A mushroom)
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