Friday, March 5, 2010
When beaders string necklaces together, they first have to make a choice of using beads of one size, or beads of alternating sizes and shapes. Once it’s strung, no one asks the beader to defend his or her choices in creating a strand that’s joined end-to-end to make one complete, artistic object.
So why do so many publishers balk at alternating story shapes and sizes when putting together a collection? Even after the literary acclaim that Hemingway’s Our Time received in the 1930s, very little has been done to experiment with the collective form, which in his case intersperses short short stories (often termed “interchapters” and now termed “flash”) between longer stories; at least not until the 1970s when Jayne Anne Phillips’s Black Tickets emerged. Her publisher, Seymour Lawrence, was a “visionary,” according to Phillips. “He loved the book I gave him; we discussed only the order of the stories in Black Tickets and the title (which was originally The Heavenly Animal). There was no prejudice against one page fictions because they really weren't being published at the time. I put Black Tickets together with the idea that the one page fictions were important in the novelistic arc of the stories, that their presence taught the reader to read the book as an original.”
And it remains an original. So, when I put my first story collection together for submission, I debated whether or not to include some of my flash. One publisher told me she didn’t care much for them, that her audience preferred longer stories. But I enjoyed the form of Black Tickets, and Stuart Dybek’s more recent Coast of Chicago, so I did string them in. And was lucky to find Press 53, where no such prejudice exists. “Great stories are what I look for when publishing collections,” explains publisher Kevin Watson. “Mixing flash fiction and short stories is a non-issue for me. My only concern is whether the stories deliver and work well together.” In fact, several of Press 53’s collections mix the two genres, including Curtis Smith’s Bad Monkey and Amy Knox Brown’s Three Versions of the Truth. As Booklist commented on Brown’s collection, the flashes are “like palate-cleansing dollops of sorbet.”
Here’s to more sorbet in collections, and more publishers willing to string together stories based on merit, not length.
Bio: Tara L. Masih is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (2009) and author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories (2010). Several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. www.taramasih.com.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
In each grave was a coffin. And each coffin just had a picture of a person in it, and a rubbing of their face.
creation note: The original idea for this came from the fact that in 19th century America, going out and picnicking in graveyards was a cool thing that everyday people would just do. Also, having frequented graveyards and taken pictures, I sometimes wonder what the hell I should do with them other than keep them because they’re pretty. Take that, reverse it, and look, it’s creepy. Lots of things look horrible in the mirror.
Bio: Matt Green writes about how his (and other people’s) mad little babies are born on his blog. He has previously had poetry published in Calliope, but hasn’t done anything for you lately
Monday, January 18, 2010
I believe in the short form, the very short form, if for no other reason than that it forces fiction writers to be as precise as poets; forces their stories to get right to the matter, to the point; to Dawn's bunnies. I also believe, however, that readers like longer narratives that allow them to follow characters, or story lines, for pages, not page.
The beauty of VSF is that the writer can show off her mastery of the language-driven form (for, as with poetry, VSF must be exact; each word must be the only word that will do); and the beauty of collecting them in some thematic or stylistic or narrative-arc-ish way is that the writer can show off her mastery of the plot- or character-driven forms, those that are usually in the domain of short stories or novels. In these domains, however, story writers and novelists tend to get awfully lazy; their sentences drag, bunch, sag, sog, droop and die. Don't be those guys. Don't be lazy.
To close, I prefer, sure, to read fewer words when possible but still want the satisfaction of a long story line. So it is to hybrids or genre benders or pastiches or whatever we want to call or not call them that I turn. I hope we see many more of these non-genre-specific works in the years to come. Poets and fiction writers unite. Books, we write. Books. And may the payoffs for reading such absolute-pitch or technical perfection be some aching, thudding, heart-startling profoundness, yes?
Bio: Molly Gaudry is the author of We Take Me Apart, a novella in verse. As a daily warmup, she rewrites others' words. If she were a musician, she would call this "practicing scales." She has no intention of publishing these VSFs, so she blogs them instead: "Velveteen," which was inspired by and written for Claudia Smith, "Morning," by/for Lily Hoang, and "Greet Me," by/for Cami Park.
Friday, January 15, 2010
Pass or Fail
Outside the window of my empty classroom, dry leaves skitter into the lunch trash left behind in the muddy courtyard: accordianed soda cans, checkerboard french fry trays smeared with ketchup, chocolate chip muffin wrappers and vending machine mess. A janitor drags an institutional trash bin behind her to sweep the garbage from the picnic tables.
It’s almost 5 pm and the sun wanes above the weather vane perched atop the crackling painted cupola. 5 pm is high school witching hour, creepy like an off season fun park. In the halls, another janitor passes my door, on the industrial floor waxer zamboni. He nods at me. I sit with a stack of essays about what teenagers can understand of realism in The Red Badge of Courage.
My desk is coffee rings, pencil shavings, chalk dust and greasy student work. I notice the I Can’t Believe It’s Not margarine tub. It’s out of place and placed out of the way, almost enough to miss beside the dying spider plant. I note the lightness of the tub in my hands. It feels empty. I open it. Tucked inside, the tarantula’s molted form rests belly side up on an autumn leaf patterned folded paper towel. A rose body cavity with eight holes like a rotary telephone dial show where the new slid free from the old, leaving behind hollow legs covered with fine hairs.
Later, an email from him: “I left my thing about courage on your desk.”
creation note: When I was in 10th grade, a kid I hardly knew came up to me in the hallway at school with a margarine tub. He opened the lid to reveal a molted tarantula's skin. I asked him what it was for and he said, "English Class". I haven't forgotten that encounter and how bizarre a thing it was bring into English class-- what could the connection be? What were they doing in class? I wrote this short piece after encountering a current student much like the tarantula tub kid from my memories. After several years in the public school system, it's been quite a sociological eye opener to see all of the different archetypes of people out there when they're 14 years old, and also to see how history repeats itself with different clothes and music.
Bio: Tara Dwyer has an MFA in Fiction from George Mason University and currently works as a high school English teacher.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
An Element of Discovery
The two of us, we’re standing, staring at the slippery object on the bathroom floor.
“It’s not mine,” I avow. It takes all of my effort not to fly off the handle. “Is it yours?”
My roommate looks up at me. “No. But if it’s... not either of ours, where did it come from?”
I bite my lip. What a terrible question.
creation note: Tension is one of those things that is essential to the story. Without tension, the work is pointless, like the movie Wimbledon. I’m not superb at tension; dialogue comes naturally, tension does not. I often have to make sure there is an appropriate amount of tension in a story, going so far as to think about it like a movie (action beat, drama beat, sex scene, twist!). A passing thought in my head, this scene represents one of many attempts on my part to foster a friendship with tension.
Bio: Samuel X. Brase writes about writing on his blog, ktvo.wordpress.com, and has been published in The Foundling Review and Prima Storia. In his free time, he sits and hopes that one day, Steven Spielberg will option the movie rights for his unpublished novel.
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Curiously, I wrote the first four sections not as fictions at all, but as prose poems for a summer workshop I was taking. I only workshopped two of them, but I started to see that there was some potential in this project, and I also got a chance to talk to other practicing poets about the pieces and how they worked together. What I realized—in that class and in conversations that followed—is that poets have a lot more experience than fiction writers in organizing book-length manuscripts of very shorts texts.
I know most of the posts on this blog have focused on the generation and revision of individual shorts, and that's obviously a great thing. But if you write in a form long enough, you're eventually going to want to start assembling a book-length manuscript of their works. The problem is that fiction writers mostly have experience with short story collections, and so those are the models they go to for how a collection should be organized. Except that's maybe not a very good way to do things, at least for the writer of very short fictions.
My thought now is that organizing a collection of 20-30 very short fictions in the same way you would a collection of 10-12 much longer fictions is probably a mistake.
Luckily, as I realized in that workshop this summer, there's a much better model for this already available to us in the form of poetry collections.
Talk to any poet a book or two into their career and my guess is you'll find out that they know a lot about how collections can and should be organized. Listen to them, and then go read some poetry collections yourself, looking at how they're constructed. There are so many different ways to organize a collection of short pieces, and poets have already discovered most of the successful ones. Why should fiction writers do all that work all over again?
Bio: Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, forthcoming in Fall 2010 from Keyhole Press, as well as a novella, The Collectors, and a chapbook of short fiction, How the Broken Lead the Blind. His fiction appears or is upcoming in magazines such as Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, Hayden's Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, and Unsaid. He is also the editor of the online journal The Collagist and can be found online at www.mdbell.com.
Read "Cain, Caleb, Cameron"" in Wigleaf
Read "Hali, Halle, Hamako" in Artvoice
Read "Domina, Doreen, Dorma" in Everyday Genius
Sunday, December 13, 2009
What caused her phobia of pickles? Maybe she had a great-uncle, not a large man, he was actually a rather tiny man, but with a roaring voice. And maybe this man, his spine curved bow-like with age, always bellowed “I guess it’s better than ending up drownt at the bottom of a pickle barrel” whenever things went wrong. And maybe they were a family where things always went wrong. And maybe once she went to a dirty old deli with Great-Uncle Abram and while he was ordering a Leberkäse on a Kaiser roll, this small child hooked her fingers over the pickle barrel sitting forgotten in the corner of the dirty deli and pulled herself to her tippy-toes and looked in. And maybe she saw a reflection of her face floating amongst the bloated, briny pickles and she knew, oh yeah, she knew then exactly what she would look like drownt at the bottom of a pickle barrel.
creation note: Brine is the first story I’ve written for a series of pieces I’ve been thinking of writing about phobias. I want them to be funny in my kind of a way
Bio (which I so do not know what to write): On good days, I say I’m a Word Engineer, on bad days, a Word Recycler, but good days or bad, it all comes back to words. My words, in poetry form, have appeared in Baltimore literary magazine called Lite, and in several Internet Zines. When I’m not writing, I’m photographing robots and my photos have been used by NASA in their year end report. My websites are: DarkStory and Fact Or Fantasy I used to post my poetry and prose here but I do not post any new writing since my poems began appearing as other people’s work on various Internet blogs.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
I bought the goldfish at different pet shops out of town, a few at a time, until I had two hundred or more in the freezer.
Jade gave me her key before I told her to shut up her phony laughter. When we were friends.
I hid the fish in her house like Easter eggs. In the hem of the curtains. On top of the fridge. Under the rugs, the mattresses, the sofa cushions. In the back of the kitchen junk drawer. Behind books on shelves. In the vents. Above the door jambs. Inside the flue.
I left through the garage side door. With the butt of a flashlight I punched out a pane of glass next to the door handle from the outside and left the door open. I’m clever.
creation note: I love my neighbors. They are my friends. But I hate their lawn machinery. One particularly noisy construction episode in the cul-de-sac involved getting woken up by a jackhammer. I did not think friendly things. This little story came of that.
Bio: I am an undergrad student at George Mason University. Born and raised in London, England, I have lived in the Washington, D.C. area since the mid-1970’s.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Dead birds washed up on deck, caught in storms, doomed. The ornithologist touched a salt water-sodden dead bird with the toe of her boot. Spider watched her write GREEN THROAT in her notebook and kick the dead bird across the slippery deck.
The ship had recently taken on a staff of performers. Spider pulled her cart aside to let them pass in the corridors. One evening Spider was followed into the hot cave of the laundry by a boyish little acrobat.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” the acrobat demanded, hands on her hips. Her smooth gold hair slid like a curtain across her heart-shaped face. Spider said nothing.
“You don’t speak English?” the acrobat scowled. The machines rumbled in the bright-white room.
“There’s something wrong with you,” the acrobat said. “Let me reach in and undo it.”
The acrobat pressed Spider down in a cart of sheets. The odor of bleach engulfed Spider, filling her throat and skull. She closed her eyes and saw in her foggy mind her heart’s desire: her favorite dead bird, ATLANTIC PUFFIN, its parrot bill and webbed feet bright as clotting blood, in the ornithologist’s hands, cradled in those hands forever.
creation note: This story was inspired by the phenomenon of exhausted migrating songbirds collapsing on boats at sea.
Bio: G. Walker is a birdwatcher, teacher, and writer living in Richmond, Virginia.
Friday, November 20, 2009
These people have tried talking. They think it is an effective way to communicate. For personal reasons, they do not talk anymore. If one of them wants something, they bang their skulls together. The theory is if their brains are closer together, a thought will transfer. If one of them needs something, they cry while doing this.
creation note: This is one piece from a serial. In this form, I think it can be difficult to distinguish between poem and story, and that they can be one and the same.
Bio: I’m enamored with the idea of poetry and fiction being friends, if not symbiotes, and my influences include Danielle Dutton, Sara Veglahn, Lydia Davis and Zachary Schomburg. My work appears in Dogzplot and is forthcoming in The Northville Review. My new blog is Big Strong Words.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Reading through the archives here at the VSF blog to date, I'm struck by the preoccupation with, well, size. By my rather cursory and unscientific count, at least a quarter of the two-dozen or so essays that precede mine address, in some fashion, very short fiction in comparison to not-quite-as-short-fiction. Most of them seem to feel a need to defend the honor, as it were, of VSF.
This anxiety about short forms, this worry that when it comes to writing, greater length really does = greater quality or more substance or SOMETHING better, is nothing new. It’s an old story, anyway, in poetry. After his first book was panned, John Keats rushed to produce his first epic poem, “Endymion,” to prove he should be taken seriously. (It didn’t work. It would take the 33 lines of “To Autumn” to do so.) Many other poets have followed suit.
Despite the fact that I prefer “This Living Hand” to “Endymion” (though the opening of the latter is a thing of beauty, I’ll admit) I struggle with the size question myself. Even as I write this I’m performing word counts on the essays that precede mine to make sure mine holds up. The notion that my life will be worthless unless I produce a few novels covers me like a pall at all times.
But here’s the thing about novels: they’re so full of description. I read my favorite books over and over again, and I love Watership Down more than I should be willing to admit, but every time I read
The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood,
where the ground became open and sloped down to an
old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading
patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s
mercury and oak-tree roots …
I think the same thing: Where are the bunnies? Can we please get to the bunnies already!
Now that I’m attempting longer forms as a writer, I better understand the role that passages such as the one above serve, in terms of setting pacing, tone, mood, etc., in a book-length work. But there’s still a big part of me that wants to get to the bunnies. Even now when I read, I tend to skim, or skip entirely, passages devoted to setting and other physical descriptions, or even action sequences. Where it’s at, for me as a reader, is with dialogue and character. (“Scenery is fine—but human nature is finer,” John Keats said.)
When I think about what I like, and don’t like so much, as a reader of fiction, I’m reminded of the advice Seymour Glass offers his brother Buddy in Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction:
If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write
that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer.
You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and
ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world
Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s
choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly
believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and
write the thing yourself.
The wonderful thing about VSF is, it allows you to shamelessly write the thing you most want to read. It lets you get right to the bunnies—whatever those happen to be for you. Insists upon it, in fact.
Bio: Dawn Corrigan has published poetry and fiction in a number of print and online journals. She’s an associate editor at Girls with Insurance and an original member of the writing collective The Nervous Breakdown. She promises all her stories don’t end with characters balancing plaster animals on their hands, just because two of the three below do. Thanks to Laura for the invitation to participate in this cool project.
Read “Our Happiness” at Monkeybicycle
Read “Life Force: A Fairy Tale” at Pindeldyboz
Read “Pink” at Wigleaf
Sunday, November 8, 2009
John Freeman, editor of the literary journal, Granta, authored a recently-released book entitled The Tyranny of E-mail. The primary thesis of the book is that that the relentless flow of e-mail with which we deal has left us disconnected from one another, reduced our attention spans and decreased our abilities to live with mindfulness and deliberation. I find it difficult to disagree with his observations and am certain that his book is deserving of its many impressive reviews.
However, in listening to a recent radio interview with Freeman, I found myself extrapolating, somewhat indignantly and perhaps without merit, that Freeman might consider both the writing and reading of very short fiction to be among the unfortunate results of living in the fragmented age of e-mail. Though his observations about writing were made in support of his position that communication is no longer as thoughtful and meaningful as it was in the past, I couldn’t help but hear some of what he said without considering it in context of his role as an editor of a literary journal.
Most directly, Freeman stated that, in dealing with a “grazing” style of reading, “we never get into the deep submersion that you get in a long-form narrative,” using novels, biographies and narrative poems as examples. He went on to say that “when you give yourself over to a text in that sense, you engage a part of your imagination which is crucial … to developing empathy and a supple understanding of how people interact with the world.” My frustration reached its pinnacle at this point, as I thought of numerous writers who demonstrate and evoke those very elements masterfully in remarkably few words.
These, along with other indirect statements, left me wondering whether Freeman’s opinions were an indictment of my preferred form of writing. As I did not wish to draw such conclusions unfairly, I e-mailed, (in a true instance of irony), a question to the station, by which I asked Freeman whether it was his opinion that very short fiction is a byproduct of the disruptive e-mail phenomenon he describes, and is therefore less legitimate in that, by nature of its brevity, it cannot capture the imagination as longer form narrative can. I provided the context of my own writing experience, and proposed that this form encourages significant imagination, in that its readers must be capable of inferring information that, in the interest of conserving words, its writers do not actually state.
My question was not addressed on air. To find if there was, indeed, any foundation for my suspicion with regard to Freeman’s views on very short fiction, I listened to the interview again, pulling relevant quotes, some of which I cited above. I found additional evidence of that foundation in his assertion that the book Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, was successful in large part due to its presentation in short sections, most of which did not exceed 1200 words, a word count that dwells in or adjacent to that of very short fiction. He referred to Dan Brown’s use of very short chapters to make the same point.
Still curious, I reviewed Granta’s submissions guidelines. I do not subscribe to Granta, nor have I recently read an issue, and cannot attest to the length of the fiction it generally publishes. Its submissions guidelines state that there are no restrictions as to length, and Duotrope indicates that Granta accepts work consisting of fewer than 1000 words. I am, however, doubtful that Granta publishes a significant amount of very short fiction. Though my arguments are circumstantial, I believe that his statements indicate that Freeman, the editor of the well-respected journal, might be dismissive of very short fiction, especially that which is published online, as a means of communicating anything more than the “200 pithy short e-mails” that he crafts daily.
I hope that I am wrong in this regard; if I am not, I hope that Mr. Freeman looks at such quality literary journals that highlight very short fiction, as Wigleaf, Quick Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly and Vestal Review, and realizes that this form has the potential to demonstrate exceptional depths of imagination, empathy and understanding of human relationships within its own restrictive word limits. Though the nature of today’s frenetic means of communicating is inarguably disruptive, it does not follow that our ability to create effective narrative is likewise compromised.
Bio: Lauren Becker lives in Oakland, California. Her active imagination and overdue deadline on this commentary led to her admittedly ill-supported postulations that ensure that she will never be published by Granta. Her work has appeared in PANK, Opium Magazine, Wigleaf, Pindeldyboz and elsewhere.
Read "A Boy" at Monkeybicycle
Read "A Simple Explanation" at Storyglossia
Read "Where is San Diego?" at Opium Magazine
Monday, November 2, 2009
again and again--and when they say this I assume they mean they write a
draft and then take it out sometime later and look at it and revise it and
put it away and take it out again, over and over during the course of an
extended period of time--I have to admit that I do not always work that way.However, I take a very long time--at one sitting--to write each piece. I
rarely have a piece that just "flies off my fingers." I take hours at a
stretch to write a piece, and all I might end up with is a little flash! But
I revise extensively as I go. I examine each word and sentence as I write
it. I ask myself: Is this really what I want to say here? Are these the
words I want?
I have written a lot of flash and I have read a lot of flash. I know all the
easy ways to take a story. So I ask myself: What can I say here that will go
against the grain? That might surprise people? (That might surprise me!) I
am always aiming for freshness--and unexpectedness. I want readers to go,
Whoa. I didn't know this is where we'd end up. Or: Look at that word!
Sometimes a flash can succeed on the strength of one well-placed word.
Spending hours at a stretch looking into your own head, probing, searching
for freshness, honesty, novelty--see, right now I'm seeking one more word; I
am going to think and think until I find that one right word that I want
here to complete this thought--buffoonery? Drollery? (Sometimes I'm just
looking for funny bit.) Spending hours at a stretch looking into your own
head, probing, searching for freshness, honesty, novelty, drollery--it's
exhausting. Words, phrases, sentences get added and then shitcanned. For
perhaps an entire half-hour I'll just sit there, trying to come up with one
goddamn word! By the time I've written the flash (hours have passed), I've
flipped through--examining, trying out, ridiculing, adoring--hundreds and
hundreds of words.
Then I'll put the flash away for a long time. It might be months. Sometimes
years. And then I'll look at it again and I'll go, Who the hell wrote this?
I can see exactly where it goes wrong. I'll fix it. Then I'll put it away
again. And then maybe an editor or someone I know at Zoetrope might go, Hey, Ellen, what happened to that flash you wrote a long time ago? You know, the one that used the word "chiffarobe"? I'm like, It's sitting in my computer. And they'll say, Can I have it? And I'll go, Yeah.
Bio: Ellen Parker is a fiction writer and the editor of FRiGG, an online literary magazine that runs flash, short stories, and poetry.
Read "So Long" in SmokeLong Quarterly
Read "Something Blew" in SmokeLong Quarterly
Read "Summer TV" in Press 1
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Thinking of a Title for Your Story
So you’ve followed one word after another until you’ve finished and now you have a piece of very short fiction. What to call it? Is there an earthworm in it? You could just call it Earthworm. Et voila. Simple enough. Or maybe there isn’t an earthworm in your story, but there could be. In this case, especially, call it Earthworm. Joseph Young does this in one of his microfictions, except he calls it Spyglass, not Earthworm, and you can see how it completes the story so perfectly, even from the beginning.
I wanted a new way. So I asked my friends, Who do I most resemble?
Shakespeare, said one, because of the earring.
FDR, said another, because of the wheelchair.
Hitler, said a third, because of the way he touches his hair.
I took these with me and went to the ocean. The fish flipped on the silver waves. All around was the sand, ten thousand miles of the never changing sand.
Really long titles are another unique way to service your very short fictions. They can enhance a story structurally when they’re as long as or longer than the story itself; creatively, they can be used to supplement or as a counterpoint to the story’s content. Very long titles are one of my favorite things in small fictions, when used well, like here, by Nicolle Elizabeth, in elimae:
Levar Burton Was Not A Babe On Star Trek To Me Because He Was A Trusted Individual I Watched For Information On Reading Rainbow As A Child
I took notes. I was a very serious six year old. Again every part of me itches as it did then.
Thinking of a Story for Your Title
Sometimes random word combinations float across our consciousness, and similar to thinking, “Wow, that’d be a great name for a band!” we think, “Wow, that’d be a great title for a story!" Great band names and great titles are often interchangeable, which helps if you’re starting a band, or know someone who is. There can be many stories, but only one band.
Wow, that’d be a great title for a story! Many Stories, One Band. Seems too good to go to waste. So what now? There are the words, at the top of a blank page; it’s time to tease out the story. One thing that makes this an interesting title, aside from the Many/One contrast, is the multiple meanings of the words “stories” and “band”—stories can be stories you tell, stories in a building; bands can be musical, wedding bands, bands of rubber or other things. In very short fiction, multiple meanings can be used to great effect as shortcuts. I’m going to try to do that here, on the spot, with this title, and hope it kind of works.
Many Stories, One Band
Falling. Last in a series. Counting windows. Sun glances gold off pale, curled fingers. Blinding. The end.
Okay, I think you can see what I did there. Hope it helps.
Bio: Cami Park writes small things various, and is often filled with an impossible, irredeemable love. She maintains a web presence at Mungo.
Read "On Mondays, Francesca Takes the Stairs" at Smokelong Quarterly
Read "after life" at elimae
Read "The Oddest Thing Ever Found in a Pocket" at FRiGG
Friday, October 23, 2009
Do you get it? Hysterical, right? I know! Wait…No! I don’t know! And neither do you, unless you’re some kind of freakish genius that sucks at the teat of the collective consciousness like it’s your job. What am I writing about?
Flash Fiction. When creating it, I often approach it as telling a joke in reverse. I try to think of the punch line first, even if the story isn’t meant to be funny. Having a sense of where the finish line is helps to give a story direction, regardless of the story’s length (flash fiction, full length short story, novella, novel).
I often think of “Wonder Boys,” the movie in which Michael Douglas is writing a tremendously long book (amongst other things). There’s a scene late in the movie where he’s sitting at his desk, pecking away in his slippers, when he realizes he has no idea where the book is going, hence its ridiculous length (let’s not forget to credit Katie Holmes with the assist in this scene). For hundreds of pages, the book meanders aimlessly. Having an idea of what you’re working toward is a good way to stay out of this noose.
Beginnings are extremely important too, for that first line needs to have some kind of great hook to pull the reader in. Once you’ve established that, and have at least some kind of idea where the story is going to end (it doesn’t necessarily have to be a pre-planned line—it can be, but it doesn’t have to be), then you have the guts of the story to play with, and it’s in the guts where the magic happens, and where the writer (and ultimately the reader) gets to have some fun. Essentially, this is the place where you tell your “joke.”
Before I go, let’s see if I can make a super short flash using my punch line:
Marcel did not sleep and he did not eat meat. After witnessing the murder of his family by a giant chicken at the age of fourteen, Marcel promptly became a vegetarian and an insomniac. He had only two small joys in his life: his work as a janitor and The Biggest Loser on NBC. He took pride in his cleanliness, and found great inspiration in the tears of the obese.
One evening, after long hours of sweeping, Marcel came home to find a giant chicken in his kitchen. Terrified and delirious, Marcel crouched in the corner as the chicken pecked at his self-confidence.
“You are ugly and have no friends. You have stupid hair. I hate you.”
This petty attack did little to stir Marcel’s anger, but when the bird clucked, “Your place is a dump, and The Biggest Loser doesn’t hold a candle to The Apprentice,” Marcel ate the chicken, then went to bed.
Note: In honor of the “flash,” this article is exactly 500 words long. And yes, I’m counting these words too.
Bio: Mel Bosworth lives and breathes in western Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, PANK, and Annalemma, among others. In 2009 he received his first nomination for the Pushcart Prize. Please visit his bloggy.
Read “The Humble Origins of The Milky Way (Boys)” at LITnIMAGE.
Read (and watch) “A Matter of Perspective” at Shape of a Box.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Bio: Barry Graham teaches writing at Rutgers and wrote The National Virginity Pledge (Another Sky Press). Look for him online at www.dogzplot.com.
Read "The Same Story" in FRiGG
Read "Blackhorse" in LITnIMAGE
Read "Apollo" in LITnIMAGE
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Very short fiction can’t overcome awkward phrasings, careless repetitions, flimsy word choices. There just isn’t enough soil to bury an error, whether large or small.
Good editing is about varying approaches and assuming different perspectives.
Read your work in different ways: silently, mouthing the words, pronouncing each syllable, out loud, a little louder, now just a tiny bit louder than that.
Read your work at different times during the day: first thing in the morning when you’re still shaking off the sleep, after a seventh cup of coffee, late at night when you can barely keep your eyes open.
Read your work as another person: pretend you’re someone who hasn’t read a lick of fiction since high school, an angry New York editor with a fat cigar and “REJECTION” stamp, dabbed in red ink, hovering inches above the page.
Edit in different fonts and font sizes. Single-spaced, double-spaced, triple-spaced.
Export to PDF and let that creepy robot read to you (also – a quick side note – it’s a lot of fun to feed the creepy robot dirty words)
Put on Track Changes. Sometimes it will push you to take bigger risks, rewrite more freely, since it’s so easy to revert back to the original.
When you have the story memorized, can recite it back verbatim, without a mistake, forwards and backwards, standing on your head, then it’s probably all right to start these steps over again.
Bio: Ravi Mangla lives in Fairport, NY. His very short fiction has appeared online at Sleepingfish, MonkeyBicycle, FRiGG, elimae, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He interviews writers at his blog, Recommended Reading.
Read "Jupiter" in Wigleaf
Read "Sparkle" in Hobart
Friday, October 9, 2009
A few things got published, but I was never much of a poet. What I liked, though, and what’s stuck with me and informed my fiction writing since then, was the satisfying sense of finality and completion I experienced after finishing something short and brief, whether four lines or four stanzas. I also really liked the compressed impact that a poem can have—I wanted my short fiction to be like that too.
My future wasn’t in poetry. This was a detour and I knew it all along, having always gravitated toward fiction. But when I switched back to fiction (a couple of unpublished novels; “traditional” length short stories), I also started writing shorter short fiction, all the while influenced by my brief foray into poetry.
Poetry taught me about the need for language to be disciplined. The way words fit, the way they speak to each other, the way they sound, even the way they look on the page—these things were important. In a poem, you can’t, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard, include the parts that readers skip over. Every line, every syllable, every comma needs to be exactly where it should be and everything needs to be just so. Every word should seem inevitable and haunt the reader with its inevitability.
Likewise very short fiction. A twenty-page short story better be tight. But a three-page story? That sucker better be fucking airtight. The reader should be breathless by the last sentence, simultaneously left wanting more and hungry yet also fulfilled and completely satisfied. There is no room for a whimsical digression or long-winded description about the color of a leaf.
Get in, get out, leave a mark, hint at or pull back the veil of human mystery—that’s what I look for as a reader of very short fiction and it’s what I strive for as a writer too.
Bio: Andrew Roe's fiction has appeared in Tin House, One Story, Glimmer Train, The Cincinnati Review, and other publications, as well as the anthology Where Love Is Found: 24 Tales of Connection (Washington Square Press). A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, he lives in Oceanside, California. Predictably, he has a blog.
Read “Why We Came to Target at 9:58 on Monday Night” at Freight Stories
Read “Three” at Wigleaf
Read “Why Is There Champagne in the Fridge?” at Night Train
Monday, October 5, 2009
2. I’m in line at the coffee shop.
3. We’re barreling down the road toward the hospital.
If the above lines are the first sentences of three, individual stories, which story would you want to read? I’d choose #3. And that’s what a writer has to do from the beginning: hook the reader. Some call it the “first sentence hook,” but whatever you call it, it’s important. As a reader, I’m even more interested in the first sentence than the title. Sure, the title gets me to the first sentence, but the first sentence gets me through the rest of the story—especially a flash. Keep in mind that I’m talking mainly about traditional narratives.
So what makes #3 a better opening line than the others? Immediate tension. Yes, there are other things at work, too—present tense, the verb “barreling” being more exciting than “was sitting” in #1 or “am” in #2, etc.—but the action is what forces me to pay attention. Even if my initial assumption is wrong—someone’s hurt and they’re driving him or her to the hospital—I’m still intrigued enough to continue. Plus, #3 conjures a host of other questions that #1 and #2 don’t. For instance, what happened? Who’s “we”? Is anything gonna happen on the way to the hospital because of the way they’re driving? In short, I care. I care because I want to know what’s going to happen.
I do think length plays a role, though. Because most of my flashes are long, in the area of nine hundred words or so, my first sentence has to do more work than the first sentence of a fifty-word flash. From the perspective of a reader, even if I’m not hooked at the beginning, I’m more likely to read a piece if it’s really short. But, if I see several paragraphs ahead, and the first one’s not doing it for me, I don’t have a reason to continue reading. Thus, you can usually get away with a weak first sentence if your piece is incredibly short. However, why would you want to?
And then there’s the ironically absolute statement: there are no absolutes. Sometimes you don’t want a first sentence that pulls out all the stops, which is fine. As long as it pulls me into the story, you did your job.
Bio: Jason Jordan holds an MFA from Chatham University. His forthcoming books are Cloud and Other Stories (Six Gallery Press, 2009) and Powering the Devil's Circus: Redux (Six Gallery Press, 2009). His prose has appeared online and in print in over forty literary magazines. Additionally, he’s Editor-in-Chief of decomP, accessible at www.decompmagazine.com. You can visit him at his blog at poweringthedevilscircus.blogspot.com.
Read “Spelunking” at JMWW
Read “Skin Deep” at Night Train
Read “Reverence” at Wigleaf
Thursday, October 1, 2009
I’d recommend other writers find a collaborator to try this with. What a great thing not only to take someone else’s words and work with them and care for them as if they were your own, but also to give over care of your own words, words so meticulously chosen and labored over, and entrust them to someone else. It was an eye-opening experience—an amazingly cool one.
Kathy hybridizes Joseph [Joseph’s originals in brackets]
I'm signed on, baby, she said, I'm yours. Starting today we live simply and honorably as the bears. They removed their rings and clothes. He took the jar of marmalade and dropped it from the back porch, red protoplasm and glass. She watched the honey bees.
[He took the jar of marmalade and dropped it from the back porch, red protoplasm and glass. She watched the honey bees chew it in their jaws. They’ll get jelly footprints, one said. Bad teeth, the other.]
You dress like a Communist, he said (as windmills, an army of them, signalled). I admit I have concerns with this and that. Her clothes, her shoes, always in the same shade as her hand. 102 miles, she said, pressing the corner of the mapbook to his eye.
[They were headed for California’s midriff, the bellyring of the state. Nevada had gotten a tan in the same shade as her hand. 102 miles, she said, pressing the corner of the mapbook to his eye.]
And all the while, he laughed, adjusting, we behaved like elephants chasing grasshoppers. She wasn’t sure it was an intelligent use of power.
[3 chickens ran in ellipses, chasing grasshoppers. She wasn’t sure it was an intelligent use of power. He caught one, let her feel its firing head.]
The bridge traveled over more nothing, cracked brick and sand. They went for a long time before she thought to say, if I'd known I would have paid more attention. Their cheeks, their cheeks and kneecaps were ruched and raw, yes, but I can't say I remember their eyes.
[The bridge traveled over more nothing, cracked brick and sand. They went for a long time before she thought to say, Turn off the gas. He did and they went on from there.]
Eventually, he believed he could eat the moon. Make an arrow of his body. Walking was no different than flying. A counterculture of rogue cornstalks waved rich in the wind. Goodbye ghosts, he said, pouring the fish, ridiculously.
[She put her hand in the bucket, to stir the minnows like soup. The grass waved rich in the wind. Goodbye ghosts, he said, pouring the fish, ridiculously.]
Joseph hybridizes Kathy [Kathy’s originals in brackets]
My brother opens his arms, showering my bed with a happenstance of wrapped and tied things. His face in the tv light dissolving, reconstituting. I've seen this one, he says.
For a week, I set loose marbles, buttons, red caterpillars. These last have curled themselves to tight wheels. Just asleep, I say, to my brother, but he’s now refused to watch.
[My brother opens his arms, showering my bed with a happenstance of wrapped and tied things. His face in the TV light dissolving, reconstituting. I've seen this one, he says. Let me change it, then, I say. Feeling all over. Knocking everything off.]
How to Prepare, How to Eat, Where Has the Summer Gone, and You Ought to Be Ashamed
The kids eat with their faces in their plates, suckling soft and pungent things. There are four of them, but sometimes it’s as if the water has made six, stringing them from the lean summer sun. They have failed to stick to their exercise regimen and their arms have grown soft, their chests concave. They have not carried up the deck umbrella, nor strung its spokes with the festive lights. The neighbor woman marches over with blackberries.
[How to Prepare, How to Eat, Where Has the Summer Gone, and You Ought to Be Ashamed]
[They have failed to stick to their exercise regimen and their arms have grown soft, their chests concave. They have not carried up the deck umbrella, nor strung its spokes with the festive lights. The neighbor woman marches over with blackberries. Ignoring the signs.]
He'd sent mittens in red and green, forgetting that it was summer there and that his children's hands had become large and grasping things. And that they ran shirtless like pagans at night under a foreign sky. Well, he says, attempting something generous, but this breaks off under scrutiny of his feet. They’ve gone so white, ten knobs, so tender and necessary of sleep.
[He'd sent mittens in red and green, forgetting that it was summer there and that his children's hands had become large and grasping things. And that they run shirtless like pagans under foreign stars. They take his gifts and dress up the tree like a sentry: a monster with four hands.]
He Shoots, He...
Dumanski fakes left, fakes right, powers down the middle. Ignores Carver. Ignores the crowd. Lobs a three pointer. Fails. Wrests the ball from Carver. Hangs back, dribbles. The crowd. Dumanski, aflame, bows. Carver, charging. Dumanski muttering. My moment, my moment.
After that there is just the hoop, the bruised sky, the bruised peach in his bag. See you, he says, fading over the black top.
[He Shoots, He...]
[Dumanski fakes left, fakes right, powers down the middle. Ignores Carver. Ignores the crowd. Lobs a three pointer. Fails. Wrests the ball from Carver. Hangs back, dribbles. The crowd. Dumanski, aflame, bows. Carver, charging. Dumanski muttering. My moment, my moment. The crowd, with naked intent, seizes the court. Seizes Dumanski. Dumanski lets fly the ball. Dumanski, pummeled, obliterated. Smiling.
I Gather Them Up Like Kindling
It’s one of those late nights, surf rushing. All the cards are red or black, though we don’t know which. My brother's arms and legs break off, then break apart. His hands spider across the floor. Scatter like that.
[I Gather Them Up Like Kindling]
[He says, those are fragile. But I can’t stop myself. The sounds of glass and bones. My brother's arms and legs break off, break apart. His hands spider across the floor. Scatter like that.]
Bio: Kathy Fish's stories are published or forthcoming in Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, FRiGG, Wigleaf, Keyhole, Quick Fiction, and elsewhere. A collection of her work is now available from Rose Metal Press in a book entitled "A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women."
Bio: Joseph Young lives and writes in Baltimore, MD. His book of microfiction, Easter Rabbit, will be released from Publishing Genius Press in December 2009.