The Dar-Ron Motel
September's FLASH on the FIVE comes from the fabulous Okay Donkey, which also means we have our first repeat offender (see: "The Falling Baby"). I know there are sooo many great lit mags out there I haven't pulled from yet, but once I read "The Dar-Ron Motel" by Julia Strayer, I knew right away that I wanted to spotlight it! Click on the link below to read the story, and I'm sure you'll see why. Then come back to check out the interview, where Julia gives us a peek behind the curtain of how this great story came about!
FAVORITE LINE: The doctor says I should spend the night nearby, just in case, and now I think I’m crazy for doing this so far from home.
It's no surprise that my favorite line here is the opener, as so often is the case with me and my favorite flash pieces (see: "Hooked! Writing Killer Opening Lines"). But this opening line is just so engaging and doing so much work for the tension of the story right out of the gate! The subtle use of "just in case" and "doing this so far from home." I begin the story with so many questions. And it's important to note there is a difference between being intrigued and being confused. Julia does intrigue perfectly here. And then instead of answering the questions raised in that opener, we start to get a series of daydreams, what-if’s, and alternate realities that the character imagines. And in doing so the tension is building because we are still thinking about the implications of that opening line. It lingers over the story like a dark cloud. We eventually get enough to piece together her situation, but this is a great example of how the subtle delay of information can create tension. But it has to be organic to the character and the story and not feel overly-contrived or that we as readers are being unfairly manipulated. And it is in these musings that we learn so much about the character, what she is like, her state of mind, etc. As with all good flash, so much packed into a small space. Check out this piece’s fascinating origin story and the amazing journey to quick publication:
1. I'm always curious about where stories come from, that first tiny seed. What was the inspiration or idea-spark for “The Dar-Ron Motel”?
I have a fear that if people know how a story is created, the magic leaks out. But you asked so nicely…
Three writing friends and I agreed to share photos as a writing prompt, similar to using a list of words to incorporate into a story. I used three of the four photos—motel, unicorn, and Halloween.
When I write from photos, I only look at the first and write as quickly as possible. I don’t think and I don’t look ahead at the other pictures. I write until I’m stuck then look at the next photo, incorporate the idea, and write more. I keep doing that until the first draft is done or until I run out of pictures. You can see where and how the photo changes happen in “The Dar-Ron Motel” because the motel, unicorn, and Halloween appear in that order.
Many people on social media pulled the quote: I wouldn’t cut up my name and share it with any guy because that only leads to heartache and dead unicorns. That sentence only came about because I had to force a unicorn into the story. Sometimes I find gems when I set up constraints. Interesting aside: after the story was published, I looked closer at the unicorn pic and realized what I thought was a unicorn was really a flying horse. Ha! That would have created a different story.
2. I’m obsessed with the opening line – “The doctor says I should spend the night nearby, just in case, and now I think I’m crazy for doing this so far from home.” – There is such immediacy and tension and mystery all in that opener. Just in case? Just in case what?? And why is she so far from home? And then this sentence is made all the more beautiful and brilliant by the fact that you withhold the answers that this sentence begs. We don’t really piece things together until the bottom of the third paragraph. I’m always championing the idea that what we leave out of a story is just as important as what we put in. Can you talk to the decision to be more elusive with the details of the character’s situation?
I would love to claim this was purposeful, but it wasn’t. I recently finished writing the first draft of a novel and set it aside to rest. In the meantime, I’ve been writing flash from a secondary character’s point of view—to understand her better before I start the second draft. I know enough about her to do what we all do naturally when we tell a story— assume the audience has some shared knowledge of the past, or decide there’s only time to talk about one thing for now, thinking we’ll pick up the pieces later.
The immediate story on this character’s mind is the motel. The only reason we get the rest of the information about her is because it’s in service to how she sees the motel. Or maybe the other way around.
3. Another aspect that I really love about this story is that it is almost a story entirely made up of daydreams, hypotheticals, and imagined realities. Whether the focus is “Darla and Ron” or the personal life of the night clerk or “The Francine” hotel, almost nothing on the page is actually about the character, her situation, why she’s there, etc., etc. Yet by the end of the story I feel as though I know her so well! Why do you think this works so well?
We know people by what they notice and how they think. Another character might notice missing baseboard molding in the motel desk area, misaligned electrical switch plates, the worn counter. Another character might notice cigarette burns in the brown leatherette couch and the smell of mildew and stale beer. And yet another character might notice the motel is noisy, too close to the road, as if the building itself is trying to hitch a ride to somewhere else—in search of a new life.
The reader can tell those characters are different from Francine and from one another. We learn about each character by what they observe and how they interpret those observations. I try to crawl inside each character to see/hear/feel/taste/smell what they experience, which is most likely different from what I would notice if I were there. I don’t want to be in the story as the writer; I want to become the character.
4. Can you talk to the process and lifecycle of this story, maybe giving us an idea of its journey from inception to drafts/revision into submission and publication?
I spoke about the drafting process in the first question, but I’m so glad you asked this because this story didn’t proceed in the normal way. I worked through several drafts on the day I received the photos and then did something I’ve never done. The story was a bit feral, threatening to run, so I submitted it the same day. Not the smartest decision, I know.
I sent the story only to Okay Donkey because I thought it was a good fit for them and I’ve admired them for so long. I send flash to only one or two journals. I’m not a throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what sticks kind of writer. Editors sometimes ask if I’ll send work, but it takes me a long time because I write specifically for that journal. (If one of you is reading this, I haven’t forgotten.) That wasn’t the case with Okay Donkey; I just showed up on their front porch at dinner time.
Editors Eric Andrew Newman and Steve Chang appreciated the story’s weirdness and saw what it could be. They asked if I’d be willing to expand it, so I did a few more free-writes around areas they identified. At one point, I called a friend who has some personality similarities with the character and asked a few questions about how she’d react in certain situations so I could understand the character better. The initial draft I sent was 380 words, and the published story is 424 words. Not going to lie, I’m having a bit of separation anxiety without Eric and Steve. I want them to move in and edit all my writing now.
I don’t recommend doing what I did because editors are busy, and, although they were so kind and giving, I felt bad for taking their time. I should have done that work myself before sending it out, but I was so excited about the weirdness of it, I couldn’t stop myself. Everything works out the way it works out and the story is better for all their input. I’m very grateful for their patience and insight.
5. What are you working on now, and where can we see more of your writing?
I have two novels in progress and a novella-in-flash project I just started. The first piece of flash from the novella-in-flash (titled “Hello?”) comes out at Jellyfish Review on November 4th. I’m very excited about that.
My website has links to all my published writing: www.juliastrayer.com. The flash is all accessible, but many of my short stories are only available through print issues. I wish more of those were available online.