Archive for April, 2009

I had just finished a flash and read it. It seemed familiar. Then it hit me. It has the same format as many of my other stories. Going through my work I discovered I had a set outline I would use for my work. The story goes like this: 300 or so words of exposition or character description, then a character will have a 100 word speech that will be related to the theme of the story and finally about 50 or so words to finish out the tale.

I told my wife my discovery and she looked dumbfounded that it took me this long to realize it.

Those of us who write flash are easy targets of repetition. Our output are 500 or 1000 word stories, so we tend to write a lot of these little suckers. You can’t blame yourself for falling into a form that has worked before. We have a good idea, an interesting character, a cool final line, so how do you cobble it all together, with the set format. Be careful. This will lead to the characters and the situations becoming set as well.

Sometimes this set format is the perfect vehicle, but most of the times its just expediency. For me, I will use the format on the first draft, but try to shake it up on additional drafts. One of my most popular stories on Every Day Fiction is “Wing Mending.” It started out as a much longer piece that followed the pattern of many=20 of my stories. I just left it in the notebook for a year and then worked on it. I cut out everything but the last paragraph and slightly expanded it and that became the work that you can read on Every Day Fiction.

I suppose the most important thing you can do is write in the easiest and fastest method and then be critical when the draft is done. Ask yourself, is this like everything else I have done? If the answer is yes, then figure out how to change it, or alter it or just leave it in the notebook. Also, read your older work, be aware of what you have done, find the patterns in your own stories. Don’t be annoyed when you find patterns, just don’t get stuck in the rut, write yourself out of it.

 

Dave McPherson lives in Worcester, Ma. He is a co-editor of Ballard Street Poetry Journal. He has been published in several on line and print publication for his flash fiction, if we must call it anything. He is a former slam poet and has performed across New England.

ianwilsonFor the last few years I’ve been teaching a class in writing the micro fiction story at the UCLA Extension.  I had wanted to teach a flash fiction class but someone was already running one. I was very attracted to these short forms for many of the reasons that contributors to Flash FictionChronicles have put forward:  With such a small piece of literary real estate, what can you say?  What can you do?  What are the limits and boundaries of storytelling? 

In the late Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction anthology, I found my model and the class:  250 word stories (exclusive of title) and not a word more. In my classes, I’ve come across some of the best writing I’ve ever encountered. 

But why does it work?

My conclusion is structure. Micro fiction stories don’t need any.  Let me restate.  Near the beginning, I introduce Janet Burroway’s notion of the conventional contemporary short story structured as an inverted check mark which I draw on the board.  Then I erase the conflict and the resolution portions, and leave only the crisis moment.  That’s all the structure you need.  Or I draw the check mark again and after erasure leave only conflict.

Or a third time, all that remains is resolution.  I tell the participants to use any of those possibilities as their structural element and they getit, immediately.  With a singular focus on only a portion of that conventional structure, they bring an amazing intensity and attentiveness to language as a result.  They’ve brought me stories every bit as inventive and as strong as the ones featured in the Stern anthology.

There’s one more element needed to make the pieces something other than mere anecdote.  Each writer needs to find a way to set their moment of a story within a continuum.  That is, this has happened before and it will happen again. Given that sense of continuity, the stories resonate at a muchdeeper level.  They assert their “story-ness.”

If you’re stuck for how to approach these brief stories, try the method. I think you’ll surprise yourself.

 

Ian Randall Wilson is the author of two story collections and the novella, Great Things Are Coming. His work has appeared in many journals including The Gettysburg Review and the North American Review.  His micro fiction stories have appeared in the Vestal Review and have been anthologized.  He is on the fiction faculty at the UCLA Extension where he teaches classes in the short story and the micro fiction story. He is writing a cell phone novel which can be found at: http://mobilenovel.blogspot.com.

gaylebp Dialogue is the workhorse of the novel or short story. It provides plot advancement, character development, and action or movement. In other words, it brings the story to life.

 A character blurting out information that advances the plot is far more interesting than a long narrative description.

 Through dialogue we discover character traits about the various people who populate our stories. How a person speaks and acts while talking says a lot more about him or her than mere words.

 And dialogue provides real time action. You are in the room with the characters as they speak. You’re eavesdropping or right in the middle of the conversation. Or the character might be speaking directly to you. 

 In order to know how a character speaks or acts, or even the words he uses, you must get to know your characters…intimately.

 First, make the characters seem real to you as well as to your readers. Let them speak to you and trust them. Most writers will tell you they actually “hear” their characters, and it is that particular “voice” that makes a character unique.

 Write a biography of your main characters, whether it’s a paragraph or a page, describe who they are, where they came from, their background. If you are having difficulty, start with a “stock character” straight from central casting. If you want a villain, pick a character from some old movie, like Edward G. Robinson, and than make him your own creation. You can always find a picture in a magazine that fits the type of person you want in a particular role. Cut the picture out and devise a background for him or her.

 Add character traits (Steve Brewer’s Buddy character in Lonely Street talks with a lisp), physical attributes (Sue Ann Jaffarian’s Odelia Grey is a plus-size paralegal), and limitations (Jeffery Deaver’s quadriplegic cop, Lincoln Rhyme, in The Bone Collector) to make each memorable.

 Even the name you give a character can make a difference. A man called Ivan is probably Russian. A bouncer in a bar would more convincingly be called Buster rather than Orville. Christa Faust named her former X-rated movie star Angel Dare in her novel, Money Shot.

 Avoid creating a cast of characters with a run of names like: Mary, Margaret, Martha, Maggie, Maisie, Millie, Molly, Mona, Myrna, Mildred, and Mergatroid…unless you are doing it for fun. Make a list of each proper name used (cities and streets, too) to make sure you aren’t beginning each name with the same letter, or you might end up with a sentence like this: Sadie and Sue from Sarasota spent Saturdays working at the soda shop on Sycamore Street. 

 Readers will respond emotionally or viscerally to characters who have flaws, so make them vulnerable (Sherlock Holmes’ 7% addiction to cocaine), multifaceted (Riggs in Lethal Weapon), and psychologically different (Norman Bates in Psycho).

 But most importantly, give each character who trods the pages of your story a goal. Without a purpose, why have the character in your story? And the person who has the strongest goal is your villain, the person who wants to stop your protagonist from achieving their goal.

 One more thing about character, make at least one person in your story likeable: someone to identify with and cheer for. And remember, a character too perfect, too clever, too humble, or too pitiful isn’t likeable.

 If you know your characters, you can find their individual voice, even if the character isn’t human. For instance, Bruce Cook (writing as Brant Randall) in his book, Blood Harvest, gives voices to both a dog and a crow, and both are done superbly.

 Dialogue is the illusion of conversation. Eavesdrop on people, from the couple chatting in the grocery line to someone on his or her cell phone. Unless they’re planning the next Brinks robbery, the conversation will probably be ordinary at best, and more likely – boring.

If you know your characters well, you can get inside their skin (write that biography) and discover their words and actions. Dialogue performs a function like a costume, and if written well, it enhances your characters, advances the plot, and gets the reader up close and personal with the people you have created.

Where a character was “born,” went to school, and his neighborhood will dictate his speech pattern, whether it’s a Southern drawl, a French accent, or a gangsta rapper from the ‘hood.’

Good dialogue always adds something to the plot, whether it builds tension, imparts needed information to the other characters (and the reader), or even slows down the pace when you need a breather.

Dialogue also sets the stage by creating mood (a whispered message) or sets the tone (a knock-down drag-out verbal brawl). And dueling dialogue between opposing characters brings the reader right into the action. But note, as the argument gets more heated, the length of the sentences gets shorter.

After you have written your scene, read it aloud or have someone else read it to you, or use one of the many software programs that reads your work back to you. It will make a huge difference. You will hear things you didn’t know you wrote (both good and bad) and you will pick up the redundancies and misused words. And you just might find out how good you are at writing dialogue.

Make a few of your characters sound different by giving them an accent (Did y’all get another dawg?), a speech pattern (like, ya know, a teenager’s, like, special way of, like, speaking), an interesting phrase unique to one person (Who loves ya, baby?), and word choices (Fiddle-de-dee).

Let your dialogue work harder by adding action tags to the usual he said/she said. Which is more interesting: “Go ahead and date my ex-wife,” he shouted. vs. “Go ahead, date my ex-wife,” he said, slamming his fist into the wall. Or have a character twirl her hair (bored), yawn (really bored), or grind a cigarette into someone’s hand (shall we say, piqued?) Even not saying something speaks volumes: “I knew you wouldn’t care if I left you,” he said. She bit her lip.

Just make sure somebody (a character or the reader) learns something new during any conversation. If there is no purpose to the dialogue, rewrite it or dump it.

Let your dialogue work for you. It has a lot to say.

 

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool has one published book, Media Justice, and several short stories in anthologies, LAndmarked for Murder and Little Sisters Volume 1. She is currently the Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles, and a member of Mystery Writers of America. Her latest short story appears in the anthology, Dying in a Winter Wonderland, which was voted one of the Top Ten of Softcover Books as selected by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA) of 2008.

Sarah Hilary

The piece of art pictured below by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller was commissioned by Modern Art Oxford and the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh. 5,000 books glued together as bricks to make a house you can step inside. The smell inside is wonderful, of starch and paper. But I wanted to take it apart and READ.

I recently wrote four pieces of short fiction, to a deadline. I’d pledged to write three pieces within three hours. All four stories were written to prompts provided by a writer’s forum. The prompts were excellent, thought-provoking and meaty. The forum was pledged to write a total of 100 stories within two days and it achieved that target. Each story was posted anonymously and then commented on by the other writers. For each story you posted you had to comment on at least three stories by others. Great discipline, because reading is a vital part of writing and critting hones skills like nothing else.

house_of_booksThe process worked very well, smooth and seamless. It was the first time I’d taken part in a challenge at this particular forum, which includes some stellar writers, and I’ll admit I was nervous. But once I’d pledged to take part, I relaxed that part of my brain where I keep a tight lid on the voices that are always bubbling under waiting for me to pay attention to the stories they want to tell. I let three voices rise to the surface and let these three check the prompt lists until they found something that suited. Then I wrote. The fourth voice came direct from the prompt itself which was of course how I was meant to approach the whole exercise.

It was interesting to see how other writers critiqued the stories, not just mine but everyone’s. These are serious writers, many of them award-winning. They had serious comments to make about the stories posted at the forum. What interested me most was a tendency to read the stories not as tales being told to them but as tales they would have told differently. They read, in other words, as writers rather than readers. I went back and checked my own critiques. I did the same. We were nearly all of us reading in this way, seeing a story we would like to tell and nudging the author in that direction. This is not to say that the comments weren’t useful and constructive. They absolutely were. But I made a mental note to put my writer’s hat aside and read as a reader, keeping my own ego out of it. (I mean ego in the true sense rather than as vanity, although god knows I suffered some serious pen-envy reading some of those stories!)

All in all, a great day’s work. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing, the reading and the taking part. I highly recommend the exercise, to writers everyone, especially those seeking to hone flash fiction skills. 

 

Sarah Hilary is a frequent contributor to Every Day Fiction  (Lolita’s Lynch Mob is an all-time favorite) and on other flash sites around the web.  Check out her blog, Crawl Space, where she lists all her online writing and then check out her other brilliant FLASHES of fiction.  Pick Ugly, was one of the Commended entries to the Leaf Books Nano Fiction Contest 2009, and will be published in their anthology.

bosleyI’ve never considered myself much of a flash fiction author, but looking at my catalog of published work, I find a handful of them there, and in most cases my stories are in good company. I’ve always felt that writing good flash was a bit beyond my reach.

Truly talented authors manage to create a perfect blend of plot, detail, and emotion into something that can stay with the reader for hours, days, even years. Luckily, I was ignorant enough to think it was as easy as it looks–lucky for me, not the poor editors who might have read the attempts–because if I had realized how difficult it really is, I don’t think I would have even bothered trying.

A typical contemporary short story of about 2000-3000 words has plenty of breathing room.  Heck, you can even fit a couple of character arcs in there if you really want to. Now here’s the thing that amazes me, a skilled author can do that same thing in 500 words.

How do they do it?

Gosh, I couldn’t tell you for sure; I’m still trying to figure it all out. But I do have some suspicions based on some general observations of successful fiction.

Like any other type of creative endeavor you intend to share with an audience, the first and foremost rule is:

Be engaging.

When you engage the reader deeply enough that they read on, you’ve succeeded as author. If you don’t capture the reader’s attention, then unfortunately you have failed. Sorry, try again. That being said, engaging is a subjective thing, but majority wins. Artistically successful authors don’t pander, but they aren’t spewing out complete gibberish either, right?

The next thing I’ve noticed is flash fiction, like any fiction, must contain conflict. I think scope is important here; flash is often about capturing a brief period of time.

For example:

A picture of your dog: boring
A picture of my dog: boring
A picture of one doggy-bone: boring

A picture of your dog, my dog and one tasty doggy-bone: a flash story.

Without conflict you don’t have a story, without conflict you won’t engage the reader. It seems reasonable to to keep the scope as tight as possible. Of course you’ve got plenty of room to build some implicit meaning with dramatic symbolism; perhaps one of those dogs is a mangy old stray, and the other is frilly pampered pet.

Stated inversely, very few authors could pull off a flash fiction that encompassed the complexities of say, World War II. Then again some might be able to. Maybe you’re one of them; it’s certainly worth a try. To paraphrase Hemingway, big emotion doesn’t necessarily come from a big story. Personally, I’m not going to worry about big until I’ve mastered small.  Simple is beautiful.

After the scope of the conflict is properly sized, I think the most important thing is detail. Flash fiction is not only about capturing the perfect moments, it’s about capturing the imperfect moments as well. Imperfections make it real, imperfections make it engaging . . . does that stray have fleas? I hope so, because fleas are creepy and crawly and gross. And I like that. As a reader, minutia is what puts me in the story, it’s a form of equity the writer builds, it can carry me over the rough spots later on.

Often a good piece of flash has a punchline of sorts. Was there a third dog hiding in the bushes that bounded out and stole the bone while the first two were fighting? Yes? Good, I didn’t see that coming. Truth be told twist endings are actually much more advanced technique than they  first appear. As a lifelong bibliophile I’ve seen it all; it’s hard to surprise me. I suspect a lot of readers feel this way. As a new writer, I’m probably not really clever enough to pull this off yet, but I don’t let that stop me from trying. Practice makes perfect.

Finally, I think word choice is so much more critical in flash. Short stories have a small amount of leeway–tone and theme have a little wiggle room . . . novels even more so, but in a flash story every single word should be meticulously considered. The right word, in the right place can save you a whole sentence elsewhere. But I stress right, avoid using words you wouldn’t use in conversation with a fellow writer.  An esoteric, discommodious, multisyllabic word might leave your reader . . . annoyed. Try to avoid that.

So that’s all I know about flash fiction, and a good bit of what I know about story telling in general.  As you can see, it would easily fit into a thimble with plenty of room  to spare. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to seeing your flash stories.

Bosley Gravel, eclectic hack writer, was born in the Midwest, and came of age in Texas and southern New Mexico.  His fiction focuses on the absurdly tragic, and the tragically absurd. He likes good black coffee, nightmares, Billie Holiday, and that hour just before the sun comes up.  His genre fiction has been podcasted at Well Told Tales, The Dunesteef, and published at Macabre Cadaver, Reflections Edge, Tales from the Moonlit Path and many others.  He also rather shyly admits to a hacking out a few literary short stories which have appeared in Shalla Magazine, The Deepening, The Fabulist, and Every Day Fiction.  He has a gothic horror novella coming out on March 15th 2009, in ebook format produced by Shadowfire Press, and has placed a story in the upcoming Dead Bait Anthology by Severed Press.  Check his site for links to these stories and more, plus reprints released under the Creative Commons License.