Monday, September 14, 2009

from Roxane Gay

Rules Are Meant To Be Broken

Rule 1
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.

Rule 2
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.

Rule 3
Forget Rule 2.

Rule 4
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.

Rule 5
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.

Rule 6
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.”

Rule 7
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.

Rule 8
There is wisdom in clich├ęs. 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.

Rule 9
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.

Rule 10
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.

Rule 11
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


  1. Best line, of many, - "no one remembers lazy writers". Nicely done, Roxane.

  2. m, i love breaking rules. one of my favourite pastimes. it's nice to have some rules to break. and i think i'll follow some of them sometimes too. cuz they're just that good.

    rule four makes me happy inside. and rule nine is an exciting challenge.

  3. Amen to rule 11 though I'm fairly stuck in Rule 5 so I'm going to spend time practicing rule 8 or maybe apply for a job at Cliff Notes.

  4. David already quoted my favorite line here, so I'll only add how much I appreciated: "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." As a purist myself, it's "D" that I struggle with, but am learning to admire in others' work and nurture in my own. Another home run here.