by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

Overheard recently on a comments thread: “Don’t mind if you submitted there and they didn’t take your story. The editor at […webzine] makes strange choices…”

That’s the beginning of a dangerous conversation. Trust me, kids—you don’t want to go there.

Not that I haven’t thought that way myself, for sites that have rejected me, and sites that haven’t. For the latter, of course, it’s always about someone else’s story.

But I get over it fast.

There’s only one important rule in publishing. The editor is the customer—and the customer is always right.

Or to put it another way—it’s their party, and they get to control the guest list. Don’t whine about it.

The editor chooses what the editor wants to choose, and doesn’t have to justify that to anyone. If the magazine is maintaining a readership, and/or growing, then that editor is doing just fine with those choices.

A quick note on the side, here–publishers read widely. They’re especially curious about competing sites, and there’s a fair chance that they’ll eventually run into someone who’s been disparaging their judgment, even on a site that seems far, far away. Equally bad for your reputation–the editors on the site where you’ve posted your comment have read it too. Gives them a feel for how you might be to work with.

I’m not shy about posting my own opinions on stories. But I keep my opinions relevant to those stories, or to an issue that seems relevant to the site in general and appropriate to the comments thread.

Of course, expressing dislike for a story does somewhat imply a judgment about the editors who selected it for publication. That’s an inescapable hazard. But they’ve opened the door by allowing a comments section in the first place. And that feedback is valuable for many reasons.

So—remember the point of a critique. It’s to truthfully explain what worked for you, and what didn’t, in someone else’s work, or just to give your thumbs up or thumbs down, if you don’t feel like elaborating. But leave the disparagement of editorial choices out of it. Their invitation list is entirely their own business.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable—the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Perihelion SF Magazine, 365tomorrows and Flash Fiction Online.)

 

by Jessi Cole Jackson

Ani King

Ani King lives in Lansing, Michigan with her husband and two very tall children. She has a fondness for short stories and long summers. You can find her at thebittenlip.com.

Jessi Cole Jackson: You mention in the comments following “Butter Face” at EDF that all of your stories tend to be sad and “[butter face] is one of my least favorite expressions ever, so I had to use it.” What draws you to telling sad stories and embracing unpleasant expressions? How do you go about tackling such weighty issues as rape in as few words as flash fiction allows?

Ani King: I can’t seem to stay away from the more uncomfortable elements of life. In some ways it’s probably therapy, a way to excise the past without telling my own specific stories. In some ways I’m trying to give my younger self a stronger voice, and fiction affords the opportunity to find and tell stories that don’t leave me so exposed as the autobiographical would.

In some ways I think flash fiction affords perfect length for stories about terrible things. By nature flash requires that your point or story be concise, almost densely packed. I think the more difficult thing is discovering which angle to tell the story from so that you’re not just using the shock value of the situation to make impact. I don’t care for stories that turn people who have been victimized into two-dimensional plot devices, and with flash, authenticity is something that is immediately noticeable.

JCJ: Would you tell me a little about your writing process?

AK: I’m the least organized writer. I have this ridiculous “Ideas” document on Google Drive that I constantly add to and edit from. Once a story seems to have enough flesh I move it to its own document and then, depending on the story, ignore everything and devote myself entirely to its care and keeping. That part isn’t true all. Between work and family and too many hobbies I pretty much write whenever I get a chance, unless that chance comes easily. Ten minutes between meetings—yes! Whole day off with nothing planned? Nope. Gonna sit here and watch Netflix in my bathrobe. In terms of research I tend to wikipedia-hole myself, but that often leads to more ideas.

JCJ: One of my favorite aspects of your story is your protagonist’s voice and the juxtaposition of her outward strength and size with her inability to fight back, either physically or verbally. Even retelling her story to us, she comes as almost timid. It made me, as a reader, want to fight for her. Is this something you did intentionally? Did you hope readers would respond in a particular way? How did you find her voice?

AK: I started weight lifting a few years ago to combat some joint and back pain due to a long hours desk job. I’ve never been particularly athletic or coordinated, so getting to a point where all of that clicked—the controlled movement, the awareness of what your body is capable of, was a really cathartic thing. I’ve never been interested in bodybuilding, but I’ve seen the effort and control it takes, and I started thinking about how difficult it would be to suddenly feel as if all that work were for nothing. Female bodybuilders in particular are ridiculed by people for their physiques, even in very subtle ways, so I feel like that must tie in even more with those societal expectations for beauty. We also tend to assume that outward strength denotes aggressiveness and so on, so in some sense, yes, the juxtaposition was very intentional.

I think the reaction I most wanted from readers was for them to feel connected to someone who frequently is presented as a caricature. Finding her voice was a lot easier than expected—I’ve talked to a number of other rape survivors, and there tends to be a sense of wryness after a while. Particularly with women who are not considered conventionally attractive and who have been greeted with a mild sense of disbelief, or even a hint that maybe they should consider themselves lucky that such a handsome man was interested in them. It’s revolting, and a lot of us use darker humor to stave off the real horror of hearing those offhand comments.

JCJ: What was the hardest part of writing “Butter Face”? Do you have a favorite part of the story?

AK: Writing the actual rape scene is a close second to writing the ending. I wanted to convey what happened with enough sense to make readers feel it, but without being graphic. Being in that headspace is hard. It’s an icky place to be. As far as the end, that’s always where I struggle. Where does this part end? Where do I leave her? Is she ok? Do we need to know that?

JCJ: What are you reading? Who are some of your favorite authors?

AK: Oh! I love this question! I’ve been reading a lot of short story collections lately: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell, is fantastic. The title story is incredible.  Also, Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link, and The Wilds, by Julia Elliott. Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood definitely has some teeth to it, and her take on aging is so beautifully done. I also tend to read a lot of online magazines and journals: Every Day Fiction, of course, and freeze frame fiction. Apex, Clarkesworld, Pank, and so many more. I love how accessible the internet has made literature as a whole. I tend to gravitate towards authors like Lidia Yuknavitch, Neil Gaiman, Catherynne Valente, Margaret Atwood, and most recently the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood.

JCJ: What projects are you currently working on? Can you point readers to some of your other stories, either forthcoming or published?

AK: I’m currently working on a series of linked shorts inspired by a magical realism piece I wrote last year: http://roseredreview.org/2014-winter-ani-king/. Also a sci-fi short story loosely inspired by the Pig Prince fairytale, and a literary fantasy novella. I have upcoming publications in freeze frame fiction’s YA Volume, Pidgeonholes, which is newer and really lovely, and a poem in Spry Volume 6. All of my previous publications are listed on my very low traffic blog.

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Jessi_Cole_Jackson-150x150

Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in New Jersey, though she’s not from there. By day she builds costumes for a Tony Award-winning theatre. By night she writes stories, questionable poetry and lots of abandoned outlines. When she’s not working she enjoys cooking, reading, and exploring local farms. You can read more about her sometimes exciting (but mostly just normal) life at  jessicolejackson.com.

by Jeff Switt

JeffImage

Are you struggling with your short fiction pieces? Those stories in the 500-word to 1000 range. Are you receiving less-than-glowing remarks from your contemporaries? Too many revision requests from site editors? Maybe flat-out rejections? Perhaps it is time to go back to shorter stories.

“Every word must count.” Right?

But what about those adverbs you dearly need to follow those verbs to make sure the reader feels the impact of the moment. The adjectives thrown in like sprinkles on a cupcake to make the setting perfect.

Yes, that’s what I’m writing about.

Let me share my experience with writing flash fiction.

I started short. Really short. 25-word short at a site called Nailpolish Stories, where the task is writing 25-word stories using the colors of nailpolish as the titles. Piece-o’-cake you say? Maybe. Maybe not.

It is not a simple task to pen twenty-five words which have a beginning, middle, end, a character(s) and something resembling a plot.

“Every word must count.”

Those words haunted me (in a good way) as I wrote my first drafts. Then I questioned every word, one word at a time as if through a microscope. Out with that word; in with a new. Then, looking for better words. Out with clichés; in with original thinking. Bad adverb. Bad adjective. Bad dogs!

I finished a handful of stories and submitted. One was accepted. I was elated. In a few months, a few more stories were accepted and published. From there I moved on to a 50-word story site. Then to sites with 100-word limits.

As I expanded the length of my stories I approached each paragraph with the same care and diligence as I did my 25-word stories. Tight. Tighter. Tightest.

Now I am writing 1000-word stories with some success and satisfaction. When other writers remark that I packed so much story using so few words, I know I have accomplished a critical short-fiction goal. One of my favorites is Going Nowhere at Every Day Fiction the story of a carjacking romp going from bad to worse.

Let me close with a quotation from a forgotten source: “If you’re happy getting what you’re getting, doing what you’re doing, then there’s no reason to change.” If you would like to “get” more recognition from your writing, “get” more satisfaction, why not give writing 25-word stories a try. How long can that take? ?

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Jeff Switt is a retired advertising agency guy who loves writing flash fiction, some days to curb his angst, other days to fuel it. His words have been featured online at Every Day Fiction, Out of the Gutter Online, Dogzplot, Boston Literary Magazine, Shotgun Honey, and several other short fiction sites. His latest venture is A Story in Three Paragraphs.

 

by Andreé Robinson-Neal

Road Kill CollectionThere is something about the term “roadkill” that catches the eye, particularly when it’s on the cover of a book. And when the poor animal in question happens to be a stuffed bunny, there is no doubt that what is contained between the front and back covers should be investigated.

Jon Sindell’s The Roadkill Collection does not disappoint—a turn of the last page leaves the reader wondering what hit them. He meanders across miles of emotion and causes sharp intakes of breath, bursts of laughter, and shakes of the head. For example, in “The Muffin Man,” Sindell gives us a glimpse of a girl’s experiences with homeless ministry and how an innocent gesture can cause the path to turn.

In Gregory’s tent, I lay on his shoulder. He smelled like liquid soap and earth. He laid his hand on my belly so gently, I could almost feel a baby in there. (“The Muffin Man”)

A parental nightmare of a different kind appears in “Victory Torch,” where the main character crashes (and burns) in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League.

Sindell conquers many subjects, from love to gardening to sports, and back again. One of the shorter pieces called “That’s Not Love?” takes the reader on a swift trip through the less sensual side of parenthood and thin-walled apartments. The angst of barely concealed disappointment and hatred rings through in “A Zinzinnati Red”, while the depth of a mother’s love is apparent in “Insidious.”

Who loves this country. You think I don’t? Think this purple heart don’t mean anything? That it don’t mean a thing that my name’s Schmidt, and some of the guys I shot coulda been Schmidt’s? … First one guy hits his fist in my cheek, then they all join in … I spit out a tooth, and out my blood pours. Commie red. (“A Zinzinnati Red”)

There is sharp wit in this book that leaves scars. In “One Clear Shot,” the reader is treated to graduation day and a mom who’s waited for just the right moment to get a little closer to even with her ex-husband. She delivers a verbal “mortal wound” that takes the soul of her victim in style.

The love of the game (baseball), nature, and the great writers of history all speak clearly though the stories presented in Roadkill. While this is Jon Sindell’s first flash fiction collection, it will hopefully not be his last.

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Andree-New

Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury—both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.

By Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300For those of us raised on the movies, it can be hard to know exactly how to define ‘Horror’ in short story form. Is it any story with a monster in it? Is a dark story with supernatural elements enough to count as Horror? Is Twilight Horror or Romance in disguise?

What Is Horror?

Horror, put simply, is “fiction intended to frighten or disturb the reader on some level,” says Shawn M. Garrett, editor of Pseudopod.

“On the surface, people enjoy the thrill related to being scared/threatened in circumstances which are obviously artificial, much like a roller-coaster … On a deeper level – people enjoy being able to explore dark thoughts, ideas and scenarios [to] reinforce previously held beliefs or…to question presumptions.”

“Horror is about fear and how people deal or sometimes don’t deal with it,” says Paul Popiel, a writer and editor with horror stories in two recent anthologies (Fantastic Futures 13 and Vampires Suck).

“Horror also is comfortable blending with every other genre, or taking over other kinds of stories and mimicking their elements while injecting fear into the whole.”

SubGenre Confusion

Speaking of ‘other kinds of stories’, Horror is another of those genres with a dizzying array of sub-genres: the classic ghost story, dark fantasy, the conte cruel, splatterpunk, bizarro, quiet horror, the weird tale, monster stories, psychological horror, some noir and dark literature…and more.

So does a writer need to know/understand them all? Our experts came firmly down on the side of ‘no’.

Shawn M. Garrett of Pseudopod, says, “while I think writers should have at least some fast and loose knowledge of the various ways things can be done in their genre of choice, they shouldn’t let a lack of an intensive knowledge of those approaches hinder them in writing.”

But it does help to “know what the reader expects out of the niche,” says Popeil. For example, splatterpunk readers expect graphic descriptions of violence, while fans of bizarro want their stories “to fall down a much weirder, and much deeper rabbit hole.”

While everyone agreed that writers should write the story they want to read, it can be useful to be knowledgeable about the genre if only to “know a little about where the sub-genre’s gone and what areas are over or under explored” (Popiel).

Garrett adds that being well-read in your genre includes knowing a bit about its history and the master writers who came before you.

“Having some idea of the major figures and what they wrote can help sharpen one’s focus as to what you do and do not want to achieve,”

It also keeps you from falling into a common trap: using overly-familiar tropes.

What Not To Write When Writing Horror

As with all well-established genres, there are some well-worn plot paths that the new writer should tread with caution. Strange Horizons’ Writers Guidelines page offers a useful list of the Stories We’ve Seen Too Often.

They go on to acknowledge that “horror stories are more often about mood or tone than about original plots”, but it’s worth treating these familiar tropes with caution. Instead, dig deeper, says Ben Phillips, a Pseudopod editor,

“If your entire plot and resolution can be summarized in a simple sentence like one of these at all, it probably wouldn’t hurt to complicate it.”

Another sign of an underdeveloped story, says writer Popiel, is “using the monster name as a way of describing the creature instead of showing the reader its powers, weaknesses, what it likes for dinner on the first Thursday of the month.”

Pet peeves for Garrett include, “over-explanation, poor pacing (rushing things when suspense would help, dragging out events for no good reason – especially when the story is merely attempting to just deploy a twist or a small idea), ambiguity used to cover writing weakness or lack of focus (or as an easy out).”

How To Horrify

But don’t despair! Our experts shared some tips for writing truly great horror, too.

Garrett says that on one level great Horror writing shares the hallmarks of all good genre fiction: “…concision, self-awareness of your goals and purpose-driven writing (what are you trying to achieve with the story?  How best to do that? How not to waste the reader’s time?)” adding that in Horror specifically, the writer needs to pay close attention to “…atmosphere, interesting (not necessarily likeable) characters, pacing, use of ambiguity, acheiving the ‘uncanny’.”

R. Tallis, author of the Gothic horror novel Forbidden, says, “I have a feeling that real horror requires incomprehension.”

There is a danger, he says, in the recent trend towards creating sympathy for the monsters. It robs the story of a true sense of horror “when we give our monsters an internal psychology.”

Paul Popiel values writers who “build an atmosphere of terror or dread. Keep the reader guessing as to what’s going to happen.”

He also encourages writers to use “old monsters in new ways…building cool new creatures that I wish I’d thought of.”

The Challenge of Flash Fiction Horror

Writing flash fiction is a challenge in any genre, but it presents a particular difficulty for Horror writers.

“Horror stories depend on a ramping up of tension to the scare,” says Popeil. “… If you only have a thousand words then it’s all about picking the right details to bring things to life.”

“Honestly, I’m still on the fence about flash fiction,” says Pseudopod’s editor Garrett. “At its best, a good flash story should be hard and compact like a jewel, shining with purpose and function.  At its worst, it may be costume jewelry—it looks exactly the same on the surface but is cheap, disposable and lackluster.”

He confesses he’s worried that flash fiction can tempt writers to be lazy and uncritical in their own writing (“it can be justified as undeveloped because ‘hey, it was a flash and I didn’t have the space’”).

A valid concern, especially in the atmospheric world of Horror.

To help, Garrett shared his notes on the introduction to Irving Howe’s Short Shorts, which describes four types of story structures that work well for flash fiction. Garrett suggests that the third and fourth (“Snap-Shot” stoires and “Fable-like”) might work best for Horror.

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One of the strengths of the Horror genre is its ability to absorb and play with the tropes of every other genre while examining the human condition. So if you’re a writer who likes a challenge, and you’re willing to dig deep, why not try your hand at Horror?

There’s nothing to be scared of!

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Julie Duffy is a writer of short fiction and host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay May.

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