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.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
The relationships I’m most interested in writing about aren’t between people (can I say that without being sent off the island?), but between a person and nature or history or technology. So I tend to write one character stories, or create isolated characters without families or friends, and very short fiction lends itself to that because if stories go on long enough a reader will ask, “Hey, where’s this character’s family?” or even, “Is the guy who wrote this story a bearded creep who lives in a cave somewhere?” Really short stories can stay inside a constrained view of the world without giving readers time to worry what’s missing. And even if the story goes right past them without making any impression, at least it won’t take very long. In longer stories, more context might need to be added, maybe explanations of why a character is alone, even if I’m less interested in those details.
When it works, very short fiction can offer a burst of awareness, like a breakthrough moment in meditation or an incredible vista appearing at a bend in the trail. That moment can be a view through the scaffolding of stories we surround ourselves with to survive, like the myth of manifest destiny in “Sanctuary.” And that fleeting clarity is so powerful, when it comes, that the drive to recreate it can lead to more stories. That’s pretty much how I think about fiction in general, of any length, but with very short fiction I think it’s easier to know when it happens, and when it doesn’t. That’s the excitement and risk of the form, an immediacy of success or failure as loud and clear as a song.
Bio: Steve Himmer is the editor of Necessary Fiction, and has just finished a novel about a bearded creep who lives in a cave somewhere.
Read “I Grow Potatoes” in Amoskeag: The Journal of southern New Hampshire University
Read “Sanctuary” at Steve's blog, Tawny Grammer, reprinted from NANO Fiction
Read “The Lion King” at Titular
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Some pieces are just for fun. I work with a group that writes pieces utilizing random words. I always try to use those words in an unusual way. I also have a group of characters and themes that I go back to again and again. My mother (who always wanted me to write about her) is a recurring character as are the buzzards that perch in a tree one hundred yards past my back fence. In other words, my work is all over the place, and I think it's best that way. I get awfully bored when I see a writer's name and know the story or poem will have the same tone or subject as most of the writer's other work. My latest favorite piece? I wrote a flash about mummifying my brother's body. Of course, my brother is still alive, and my mother wasn't too crazy about the flash...
Bio: Tiff Holland writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in dozens of litmags, ezines and anthologies and her poetry chapbook Bone In a Tin Funnel is available directly from Tiff or through Pudding House Press. Her work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and she has work forthcoming in Night Train (the mummy piece!) and Smokelong Quarterly.
Read "Scrapple" at Smokelong Quarterly
Read "Officer Friendly" at Juked
Read "Betty Superman" at The Denver syntax
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
I was a little nervous. I don’t know celebrities. My stomach did the runover snake, the chips of flint sparking or maybe Pringles (the crumblets). On the way over I drove my Subaru and drank a tall, cold can of Budweiser. It was about an hour after sundown. The moon was a Canadian quarter. I thought, “This Budweiser will make me talk OK with Harvey Pekar.”
[Flash tip: When expressing internal emotions, use figurative prose. Sarah isn’t bored. Her eyes glaze over like a dead fish. ]
Harvey Pekar had an odd voice, scratchy and high at the same time, like maybe a metal file rubbed across a unicycle. At first, I couldn’t understand his words. Then I listened closer, I locked into the cadence, the tick and flow. I could now understand. He said, “Killing an animal ain’t ethical.” I said, “Well, it’s all a spectrum.” We talked about whitetail deer and insects and then about whether or not we wear leather shoes and then Harvey Pekar said, “It’s what you said, a spectrum.” Then we ate big-ass greasy onion rings.
[Flash tip: Readers will learn, quickly. So a new voice or style of way or writing flash is perfectly fine. I might represent insomnia as fragments and shards. I might inhabit Elvis as a vignette of cocaine. No worries. The reader will eventually come along. ]
Harvey started talking about jazz and I didn’t understand a fucking word. I drank a jager, a jager, a Stella, a Stella, an IPA. My legs floated around the room and said hi to the ceiling fan and admired the ceiling fan’s whir, the sweet white crystal noise, host of fireflies, there goes the bubbles rising in the glass, glass elevators, and my legs hovering down, settling down, feet into shoes, thighs into pelvis, Jacuzzi soft jeans feel lovely, and I am back again and say to Harvey, “Look man, I don’t know about Jazz. If you are going to talk about jazz all night you’re going have to define terms, OK?”
Harvey defined terms (I clearly remember micro-tonal), then changed the subject. He told me about two pitchers for the Boston Braves, Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn. Harvey said, “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain." I thought this was pretty clever and had a nice ring to it. Then Harvey talked about the Russians and I know a shit-load about the Russians so now we were really talking. A little neighborhood of conversation. A summer breeze and jangle. I said, “I’ve never heard of that guy, Harvey, and I know all the Russians!” We laughed. Harvey drank another cherry Coke and I had a beer big as Kelly Clarkson. We laughed some more.
[Flash tip: Chekhov could teach you anything you need to know. Read every single story. Then read his letters to his brother. Then read the biographies (there are 314 at this time). OK, now write. Write about your job. If you don’t have a job, get a fucking job. Work there. Ok, now write.
Here is my nursing job
Here is my dog washing job
Here is the time a young lady cut out my heart with a ice-cream spoon and served up my soul on a saltine right before leaving me forever and stealing my dachshund.
but I digress…]
Then Harvey said, “My wife can’t stand me to be around the house” and I laughed too loud and I shouted “My wife can’t stand me either man!” and all the people at the table stared at me and so I felt all tree fall/square and got up and walked right out the door to my Subaru and drove directly home. I almost hit my own dog on my own street. That dog isn’t supposed to be running free. But it happens, man. There he goes—blur of white/spark of black—a dark ghost skittering off after the razor’s glow of streetlight…
[Flash tip: end on an image]
[Flash tip: or try the truth]
I am going to drop some 100% truth on you right now. As I was writing this, 9/22/09, after a lunch of diet Coke and pretzels, Harvey Pekar just dropped by my office here at Ball State University. I felt odd having Harvey Pekar standing in my office. He handed me a handwritten note. The writing is terrifically cacographic. I mean brutal. Loopy, crazy blue squiggles and lizard coughs. Jesus. It’s a long note, so I will just end on:
The beginning line of Harvey Pekar’s note: Sean, If you intend to pursue…
A middle line of Harvey Pekar’s note: More daring are Kotekletaev and his…
The Ending Line: Good to meet you Harvey.
Sean Lovelace blogs at Sean Blog: It All Relates 2 Writing
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
In many ways I’ve changed three-hundred-and-sixty degrees as a writer. I’ve gone from writing two novel manuscripts, three partial novel manuscripts, some thirty-plus short stories over the course of a decade, to now favoring Flash and Micro Fiction. In the past twelve months I’ve written well over a hundred Flashes, publishing close to eighty to date, and still feel like I’m only warming-up.
Early in my writing career, my stories came from an image or character I’d observed or remembered, or that somehow popped into my mind, taking seed. I wrote slowly, liking to “perfect” each line before I moved onto the next. I didn’t use prompts or exercises, but pulled from my memory and imagination. I liked to know where I was “going” in the work, and took my sweet time getting there. That’s also all changed.
Today my Flash stories are still triggered by the observed, imagined, or remembered image or character. However, now for my first drafts, I also use prompt words gleaned from whatever poem, Flash, story, novel, or song lyrics inspires me and write as fast as I can, free of that inner critic, tapping into my sub-conscious, and letting everything spill uncensored onto the page.
I write the Flash in one sitting, put it aside for at least a day, and return to it with fresh eyes, finding its heart, its conflict and resolution. My goal is to revise the Flash to the point where every word counts, where there’s trouble and strangeness, where every expectation is twisted, where there’s a satisfying end, where the work is, hopefully, electrifying.
You can read some of what I believe to be my more successful published Flashes to date here:
“Under Water,” Monkeybicycle
“Babies On The Shore,” PANK
“Rocket Into A Pocket,” (So New) Necessary Fiction
Myfawny Collins and Kathy Fish, to name just two of the best contemporary Flash writers in our midst, both had enormous influence on my growth as a Flash writer. Go read their work. Study how they do what they do. You’ll learn far more from their Flash stories than you ever will from reading this essay. Good Luck!
BIO: Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from elimae; PANK; Wigleaf; Storyglossia; Monkeybicycle; Word Riot; mud luscious; Staccato Fiction; (So New) Necessary Fiction, and many others. She blogs at www.straightfromtheheartinmyhip.blogspot.com.
Writing flash is no easier or harder than writing a regular short story. You can just write more of them, so your chances of getting a good one among the pile are higher.
Don’t try to be too profound. I suppose this is a personal preference, but my favorite stories are the quiet ones. I would prefer to read a 200-word story about a couple who, while washing dishes, realize their differences might doom them, rather than a 200-word story that tries to incorporate a car chase, zombies and a moralistic ending about human nature. (Actually, if someone could do that, it would probably be pretty cool.) Not to say you should be boring or mundane, though. However, bringing out the extraordinary in what otherwise might be boring or mundane is what really gets me.
You’ve got the opportunity to drop into people’s lives at just the right moment. No set-up, no history, no getting-to-know-you first dates—jump right to it. You can sneak up on your characters at that very moment the change is happening, the verdict is in, the sex is bad, the relationship is doomed, the gun is fired, the vampire is bitten, etc. And then leap out again, leaving the reader with just enough information to get all that’s come before and all that’s to come in the future and why all of it matters deeply.
Flash takes up less space in print journals, so editors are happier to see your work than the 29-page short story you slaved over for months that would take up 1/3 of their real estate.
There are tons of amazing web-based journals out there that publish flash, and they have quicker turn-around times. So you get rejected (or sometimes accepted) quicker!
There are tons of amazing web-based journals out there that publish flash. So if you do get published, you can send the link of your story to aunts, cousins, friends, enemies, pets, and they can actually read it. And like it. (Except for your pets, who, unless they are really really interesting, will probably just sniff the computer screen and walk away to pee.)
Flash is like poetry. The words matter. Every one. And don’t be afraid to cut them.
Know your strengths. I think every writer is different. Some have a better grasp on the moment, some drift towards more complex, longer stories that would do better in novel form. While I think everyone has the capacity to write all different lengths, it’s important to know what attracts you and what you think you do best. And go with it.
The most important thing, and sometimes the hardest thing, is to have fun. The stories that I think are my best are the ones that I had fun writing.
Bio: Tara Laskowski is the 2009 Kathy Fish Fellow and writer-in-residence at SmokeLong Quarterly. She earned an MFA from George Mason University and continues to fight traffic living just outside of Washington, D.C.
Read “Ode to the Double-Crossed Lackey in ‘Thunderball’” in Barrelhouse
Read “Only a Number” in decomP
Read “The Hamster” in Smokelong Quarterly
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Dear English 398
Your professor and I go way back. Let me tell you about your professor. One time she and I were at this bar and –
Sorry. Forgetting myself here. On to business.
I'm tempted just now to use a fancy term to describe the writing of 'flash,' as people call it. Like all such terms, it loses in exactitude whatever it might gain in sex appeal, but I'll go ahead and use it: the art of the dive.
Whatever could I mean by this? Let's see.
For readers, the full-length short story might offer immersion, twenty minutes, half an hour's worth. This accords w/ that dictum of Poe's that you've all probably read at some point or at least heard about: the short story has to be readable in one sitting. What this doesn't accord with, at least in most cases, is the experience of writing a full-length story. It takes time. It takes some people (wince) a lot longer than it does others, but it takes time, and because of that many of the writers I know are liable to think of full-length stories as an investment, one that is made hopefully but that entails (sorry for the unpleasant terminology) risk.
I'm just about to arrive at some kind of point here. Hang on!
If you're a writer, and you're going to invest time in something you know from the outset might fail, there's going to be a temptation: work more carefully! Keep your eyes open! Catch mistakes before they kill you! But here's the problem. The part of your brain you stimulate when you urge yourself to take care is not the part of your brain that writes good fiction. (This might be one explanation for what people call 'writer's block'….)
So. A dilemma. For me at least, the very short story is one way out. It's a dive. An escape from the daylight of my brain, from my plans and ambitions, etc. Swoosh, I'm in the water. And I know that I'll be back up soon – so the investment-risk thing doesn't apply.
Yes, the analogy is cloying…. We'll leave it behind.
I'll say this: I think some of my own best stuff is very short stuff. In that category one of my personal favorites is a story that I wrote on a day when I was busy and not technically 'writing.' I was busy, as I say, but when I had a second at one point I read a short by Lydia Davis. I'm embarrassed not to recall the title just now, but I loved it. I wasn't sure why I loved it. I didn't immediately see what made it a story. But I loved it as fiction, and when I set it down my blood was fizzing. I wanted to write something, you know. And so I did. What I wrote hadn't been an 'idea' in advance -- or an image, a 'kernel,' any of that. It had been nothing.
Of course this is all simplified. I'm not suggesting, for example, that with shorts there's no rewrites (stuff in the first paragraph of the one I just mentioned ended up in the last paragraph of the final version). I'm not suggesting…..
Oh enough of this. You see what I'm suggesting, right?
Happy writes, all. Bedevil her for me,
Bio: Scott Garson is the editor of Wigleaf. His chapbook, AMERICAN GYMNOPÉDIES is forthcoming from Willows Wept Press. Scott blogs at Patterns of Silver Light and So Forth
Read "Eight Micros" at FRiGG
Read "American Gothic" at Smokelong Quarterly
Read "Ode to a Bad Album" at Hobart
Monday, September 14, 2009
It's in the cut of the panties, not the color. That is, writing flash fiction is about the details, but the right ones. If a character is wearing granny panties or a thong, you will be telling more about her personality than if she's wearing green or blue ones. The same goes for a man's underwear. With so much less space, every detail's importance gets heightened, as does every sentence, every word. Flash fiction will, at the very least, teach a writer about the economy of words. Ultimately, these skills that develop inherently from the process of writing a very short story, will begin to translate to everything you write.
As I began writing this miniature essay I wanted to catch myself in a contradiction, so I looked back on my story, "Accidentally Ahmed," knowing full well it wasn't packed with meaningful details. Read it here at Gander Press Review. I thought if I could show an example that went against the argument I'd set up in the first paragraph, it would provide a better opportunity to learn. What I realized, though, is that despite the ambiguity of the story (let's be honest, it deals in vagueness), it is entirely set up by a detail, not one necessarily integral to the reading of the story, but certainly important to my character. And that happens in the first line: "The license says my name is Ahmed, but really it's Rick." Sure, it's no whopper of a line, but in a story that revolves around a taxi and mistaken identity, the most important detail would be the license posted on the back of the seat. And like many good writers, I can't claim to have made that choice on purpose, it was ingrained in the idea itself, and I was lucky enough to tag along.
In this circuitous fashion there may be no better proof of how important the right details are. I could have written a different opening to "Accidentally Ahmed," but without the detail about the license the only thing that would have stood out about the story would have been its vagueness. That single detail forgives the lack of other details, because every bit of the story hinges on the mistaken identity factor.
The tricky part, or maybe if we're being honest, the crappy part, is that the right detail is always going to be different, and sometimes may not be the right one at all. But that's the wonderful thing about revision, that with each time going through a story we see each detail in a new way. We can alter those panties, make them a different cut, a different size. We can make them belong to the husband instead of the wife until, like some demented Rubik's cube, everything clicks into place.
Bio: Ryan W. Bradley writes very short fiction accidentally, often thinking he's written thousands of words, only to check the word count and find it's only ninety-six. Then he revises and it's down to sixty-four. Some such recent examples have been published or are forthcoming from Gargoyle, Third Wednesday, Space Squid, and Tulip. You can find him raving like a mad man at his blog, Ryan W. Bradley
I belong to an art critique group, the only writer amongst 5 to 10 visual artists on any given critique night. It’s a critique group like any writing group; people display their art work, people talk about it, suggest ways to improve, etc. We had a critique last night, and of course, true to form, I started an argument. I have many problems with workshops, the experience of them rubs me the wrong way in lots of ways, but chief among my problems is that I’m incessantly the devil’s advocate. It’s an itch, I can’t stop its rising, and when I scratch it, I make arguments.
One of the things that came up last night has come up many times in writing workshops. We were critiquing one painter’s work—a woman, Kathy, who uses stencil and silkscreen in addition to paint in her work—and another woman, Maggie, another painter, an extremely accomplished artist and art college lecturer, told Kathy that she needed to give us more, that her work was very good but it always left her, Maggie, feeling that she didn’t know her intentions, that Kathy’s work always approached understanding but always stopped short of giving us, her audience, what we needed to get inside the work, what we needed to really get the work.
Now, let me stop a moment and tell you, if you’re going to write very short fiction, and I’ll go ahead and say it now, if you’re going to write good very short fiction, this is going to happen to you. People are going to read your work and they are going to scratch their heads and they are going to say, Hmm, this is really nice, but I feel like I need more. I feel like it approaches me getting inside this world, but it stops short, I want more.
Kathy’s painting, in my opinion, does not need to give us more, which is the argument I got into with Maggie. It’s okay that it stops short of giving Maggie, and the rest of us, what we need, everything we need, to feel comfortable in its world. It’s okay if we can’t entirely orient ourselves to Kathy’s subject, her use of paint, her composition. This discomfort we feel is part of what makes Kathy’s work work, what gives it tension and mystery and interest. Resist interpretation, I told Kathy, and Maggie, and the rest.
Good very short fiction, especially when it gets really short, resists interpretation. It has to, by its very nature. There aren’t enough words in very short fiction to give us the whole world. As writers of vsf, we can only give our readers so much, so much texture, so much character, so much backstory. The form demands that we leave things out, lots of things.
This leaving out is going to frustrate some readers, it is going to make them uncomfortable. Some readers—intelligent, creative folks—will insist you give them what they need to feel oriented, to feel satisfied that they understand what you, the writer, are up to, what your intentions are. The pressure will get intense, at times. Whole rooms full of people may say the same thing: give us more. People don’t like to be left wanting, left in discomfort.
Of course, there are different kinds of leaving out. Of course. Some leaving out may be bad for your story, some leaving out might be the result of you not having control of your words, your characters. But! Leaving out is going to happen—if you write vsf. It has to. It must, by its very nature. And, in my opinion, the best vsf leaves much out. The best vsf, in my opinion, leaves the reader in a state of discomfort, a state of wanting more. The best vsf does not try to replicate what short stories do, giving us vivid settings and deep understandings of character. It can't, it's too short. The best vsf resists interpretation. Resist interpretation.
Bio: Joseph lives and writes in Baltimore, MD. His book of microfiction, Easter Rabbit, will be released from Publishing Genius Press in December 2009.
Read "12 Micros" at FRiGG
Read "3 Micros" at Lamination Colony
Read "5 Micros" at Grey Sparrow Journal
There are no rules. And yet there are. And my rules will be different from his rules will be different from her rules will be different from your rules.
Cliff Notes (or Spark Notes) are awesome. They distill complex texts into something more manageable, highlighting the most relevant information for the discerning reader who has failed to adequately prepare for class (stop looking at me like that!) or would like a better understanding of, say, Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, without having to read the entire text, not that I’m speaking from experience. As you start to think about writing in the short short form, it is useful to consider Cliff Notes.
Forget Rule 2.
Short short fiction can convey a complete story. Or it can describe a moment. Or it can capture a series of moments. Or D: None of the above. Writers will often pontificate about the project of flash fiction. In the end, you should write what you want to write until that thing no longer needs to be written. Sometimes you will reach that place in 300 words. Other times, 750 words but as a general rule of thumb flash fiction, or my preferred term, short short fiction is fewer than 1,000 words. Listen to what your writing tells you about where to go and when to end. The shortest story I’ve ever written is 61 words long.
Sometimes, I am a purist. I believe in a beginning, a middle, and an end. I believe a short short story can and should contain these elements until it can’t and shouldn’t. Walk before you run.
I edit a literary magazine. The most common critique I offer is, “I want to be surprised. I want to fall in love.” There are no new stories or so it goes but really to say that is tired, tired, tired. There is no need to beat that poor horse’s carcass. I don’t mind old stories. There is a reason they keep being told. They’re good. Your challenge is to make that often told, good story great by imbuing it with your voice. By being original. Or charming. Or different in some way but not so different that your writing is incomprehensible nonsense. The second most common critique I offer writers is, “Experiment with purpose.”
My father is a frugal man. Waste not, want not. The same holds true for writing short short fiction. It is not that less is more. Some words matter more than others. Write with words that matter.
There is wisdom in clichés. The best writers are the best readers. Your prescription: Read, and not just the stuff you like. Read poetry, plays, prose, prose poetry, experimental work, cross-genre writing, nonfiction, whatever. A well-rounded literary diet can only improve your writing and help you find the discipline necessary to tell a story economically.
Short short fiction is not the easy way out. It is not a panacea for the modern age conveyed 140 characters at a time. Lazy writers think they can write short short fiction because it is easier and it doesn’t take as long. No one remembers lazy writers.
Think about cadence, about the natural rhythm of your words. Read your short short fiction aloud. It should flow effortlessly. It should sound pretty. If it doesn’t, ask yourself why.
Break rules 1-10.
Bio: Roxane Gay’s writing appears or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Annalemma, Gargoyle, Keyhole, Monkeybicycle, Storyglossia and others. She is the associate editor of Pank and can be found online at I Have Become Accustomed to Rejection.
Read "What You Say, What Is Done to You" at LITnIMAGEe
Read "Tender Mercies" at elimae
Read "What Long Legs Mean" at dogzplot
Read "Motherfuckers" at decomP
Sunday, September 13, 2009
There's a chapter in the Beverly Cleary book "Beezus and Ramona" where the two sisters are in an art class, under directive to paint a picture of an imaginary animal. After endless rumination (and self pity over not being inherently creative), ten year old Beezus decides to try for a carefully rendered Pegasus.
Meanwhile, four year old Ramona doesn't stop to think. She paints a blue stripe across the top of the page for the sky -- lots of little kids do this, actually. She tufts footprints across the page, which are meant to represent Ralph, the imaginary lizard who follows Ramona everywhere. After about five minutes of painting, Ramona steals the lollipop of the boy sitting next to her. Chaos ensues, she goes out to the playground, and her painting is never completed.
Beezus is frustrated by her Mobil Gas-like Pegasus -- she's only finished the sky, and an outline. She has a moment of inspiration: Why not paint a picture of Ralph as if he were visible? After all, since Ralph isn't real or visible, she's free to do what she likes! Beezus sets aside Pegasus, and gets another piece of paper. As she paints Ralph, she makes him breathe cotton candy and adds lollipops to his spine. Why? Because it just seems right.
For the first time ever, other people admire her work. Her teacher tells her that her picture will be hung in the center spot of the bulletin board. Much more important? For the first time, Beezus truly enjoys painting. And she no longer worries about whether she is creative.
It's hard to set aside Pegasus. It's hard to believe that Ralph can truly matter. But sometimes, at the end of art class? It's so obvious that you could kick yourself for not having seen it sooner.
Bio: Erin Fitzgerald got an MFA in writing a long time ago, and wrote a lot of short stories and novellas before she wrote any flash fiction. She lives in Connecticut, and is editor of The Northville Review.
Read "Four Sieges" at Hobart
Read "Early Decision," "Riposte," and "Waiting Room" at PANK
I live on Long Island halfway to Montauk on the south shore near to the Atlantic. On occasion for business in Manhattan I take the train. It used to be that I drove to an office in Brooklyn, alone on average 5 hours a day for twelve years. If you spend two hours driving without the radio playing it gets to a point that you are stuck with yourself, and it also gets to a point that it is worthwhile for a writer to make up very short stories... ones that we can remember long enough to get to the end of the drive and then write them down.
But this particular story was composed while I was riding on the train and had recently acquired a smart phone that seamlessly works with my word processor. The entire story was composed on my phone. There was something about the tool of the composition that lent itself to the brevity and compactness of the piece, in particular that my fingers and thumbs are too large for the keyboard. Read "Tree Reader" at elimae.
After this story was published in elimae I was contacted by an editor of school textbooks and asked if I would mind to have it published in an anthology of American short stories for HS students. They sent me a check. I am very happy that it goes from phone on train to online to print and that it will appear at the back of a book that starts with Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne and moves forward. It being likely one of the shortest stories in the anthology I anticipate that it will be read, and thus, leave a bit to the world of writers that is to come.
My other story here has to do with transportation as well. It dates back to when I had my office in Brooklyn and was weary of so much lonely commuting, but also a bit mystified at how long stretches of time seem to vanish from our memory and that in our lives our times of travel in retrospect seem very fleeting, almost instant. Read "The celestial teletransportation conduit" at insolent rudder.
In an authorial tradition it is a contemporary recasting of Hawthorne’s "The Celestial Rail-road" which in itself was an antebellum recasting of Bunyan’s "Pilgrims Progress". I very much enjoy allegory as writerly phenomena and the problems of comprehension and understanding that it introduces into a modern text. I enjoy the tradition of recasting, and I enjoy a whole lot reading Hawthorne, and not solely The Scarlet Letter. I feel an element that is missing in a great deal of contemporary short fiction, much of it written in a very hurried and untutored manner then nearly instantly cast onto the Internet, is a measured sense of the past of a well ploughed literary tradition. You may notice that Hawthorne's story is shorter than Bunyan's, and that my story is shorter still. A lean toward miniaturization and tight brevity of expression I consider a traditional literary movement.
My occasional musings can be found at my blog, Orgrease Crankbait. You will also find a list of a whole lot of blogs of authors and online zines. Not only is it of value as a writer to read old work of long dead authors, but to read and support the work of our immediate contemporaries as well.
There are two regular train riders, both older guys, who just look bitter. Sometimes, if I’m staring at a blank page (yeah, I’m an old schmo who writes in a notepad rather than a laptop or crackberry or iPhone), I look at them to find my inner crank. Other times, I board the train, already vaguely aware of what I’m going to write about. An example would be the day I got on the train, almost trembly, knowing I was "finally" going to write a story about a kid sitting in a school nurse’s office, with a big STUTT marked on his forehead, an ER marked on one cheek, and an ER on the other one. I’d been seeing that image for a few weeks, at random times, and had been sort of working through it in my head. The morning I finally wrote about it, the story sort of spilled out. It’s here: "Still" at Tulip.
A few months ago, I hopped on the train, not needing to look at those bitter guys. I was bitter myself, thinking about how the afternoon/evening before my next-door neighbors had been hanging out in their pool, chilling with neighbors and their kids, without inviting us. My bitterness was laughable. I don’t really know my next door neighbors and have made little, if any, effort to. I’m way too paranoid to let my son in their pool without me standing around the whole time. I'm a lawyer. Why would they want me over in their pool, probably planning a lawsuit! I didn't care about any of that. By the time I arrived at Union Station, I had a story written about a father who glances next door and sees a boy floating in the pool. It’s here: "No More Carl" at Everyday Genius.
Bio: David Erlewine lives and lawyers near Annapolis. His beautiful blog is Whizbyfiction. He plans to keep writing flash fiction until he can retire in June 2032. Then he will tackle a novel.
A story 25 words or less that suggests a larger, more complex story.
Complete but not self-sustained (beginning, middle, end). Be
imaginative and have fun.
Bio: Robert Swartwood is the editor of Hint Fiction (W.W. Norton, 2010).
Read "Corrections & Clarifications" in elimae
Read "Lea & Perrins"in Lamination Colony