Archive for November, 2011

by Michelle Reale

Michelle Reale:  Your new book,  Darling Endangered (Brooklyn Arts Press), is a life chronicled in a fabulous,  panoramic, almost kaleidoscopic way. I love the progression of these pieces.   Were they written with a collection in mind, or were they originally  individual pieces that came together?

Carol Guess: Let’s start with Sarah Palin! The original title of the collection was Rogue Agent Burlesque, but I changed it when Palin’s memoir Going Rogue came out. I did think of the book as a collection early on. I’m not sure it reads that way, but that’s how it was written. Over time I incorporated some older material; because I revise everything intensely the old and the new blurred together, in a good way. After some frustrating close calls with indie presses and contests I did a really productive manuscript exchange with Elizabeth Colen and Suzanne Paola, both of whom felt that the title didn’t reflect the mood of the manuscript. They suggested I change the order of the sections, grounding my readers in time with the childhood pieces. After three years of trying to place it with the old title and order, the book was picked up as soon as I sent it out with those changes. My publisher, Brooklyn Arts Press, has been fantastic. They’re doing amazing books that combine literature and art.

Michelle: These pieces are fabulously staccato—each hits a high note.  Is this effect easier to achieve in short fiction pieces than it is in poetry?  I am thinking here of the “room” to let an image flower ,but still have such distillation of language.

Carol: Thanks for this compliment, Michelle! Instead of actually answering this question I’ll offer up a confession. The book was written as a prose poetry collection, and the individual pieces were published as poems. But somewhat naively, I signed a contract with another publisher, Black Lawrence Press, promising not to publish a book of poems before my forthcoming poetry collection Doll Studies: Forensics appeared with them. They are such a great press, and take such risks, and I really wanted them to publish Doll Studies, and they are, in January 2012. So it seemed fine to sign the contract. Then of course Darling Endangered got picked up immediately, after three years of rejections, and I was in a bind. What we all three decided to do — me, Brooklyn Arts Press, and Black Lawrence Press — was give the book another genre heading. We called it “lyrical short fiction” or “flash fiction.” This made everyone happy, and prevented the two books from competing with each other. Ultimately, though, it reaffirmed my belief that genre boundaries are sometimes no more than a marketing tool. I’m really not interested in those boundaries when I write or read; they only come into play when I try to get published.

Michelle: How long do you work on a piece?  What does the process of writing a short, lyrical piece look like form start to finish?

Carol: Everything takes me a long time. Everything! I’m a really slow person. I’m always late. It’s like I was born with a broken internal clock. So it takes me forever to write and forever to finish things and forever to organize them. With prose poems and short short fictions I work line by line. I’m obsessed with the sentence, with making each sentence perfectly musical and meaningful at once. Then, when I have a perfect line, I try to get another perfect line. Once I have a few perfect lines I move them around to see if they fit. If not, I see if they fit other lines I have lying around, or I write some new ones, or I save them for later. Rarely do I write something in one sitting or as a complete piece. I also take long breaks from writing. There’s pleasure for me when I return to it, pleasure and urgency. I like to feel passion in everything I do. For this reason I resist the idea of writing as a kind of chore. I felt that way through graduate school and I don’t want to return to that mental space.

Michelle: Who are the poets or writers of flash fiction that you admire most?

Carol: To name just a few: Harryette Mullen, Maggie Nelson, Richard Siken, Gertrude Stein, Allison Benis White. I’m eagerly awaiting new prose poetry collections from Andrew Grace and Eva Heisler. The aesthetic I admire most blends sound and sense. The aesthetic I admire least demonstrates only one of those qualities, and is usually defensive about what it lacks.

Michelle: Why the shorter form over the longer form?  Because I am always asked this question I will ask you: why the short form?  Why not a novel?  (annoying question, isn’t it?

Carol: This isn’t an annoying question at all! For me form is often about time. In graduate school I wrote novels because I had time. As a tenured professor I spend a great deal of time teaching, yes, but also mentoring, writing rec letters, responding to email, attending committee meetings, holding office hours, taking the bus to campus and back, etc. My day job doesn’t allow for the kind of sustained attention to my own work that a novel requires (for me). So instead of not writing I decided to work in short forms. I’m glad I did; they’re fun to read, write, and teach.

Michelle: Can you give a bit of advice to those writing short, lyrical fiction? For instance, what are you mindful of when writing pieces like these?

Carol: Given the proliferation of writing programs, it’s out of vogue to say “just write.” But I find advice on writing to be a little bit silly. I mean, you do it or you don’t. You want to or you don’t want to, and there’s no harm either way. When I teach I just try to make a space for everyone to experiment with language, read a lot, and see the world more clearly. So I guess I’m resistant to giving advice to writers, beyond saying it’s important to read contemporary writers and find ways of engaging with current literary conversations.

Michelle: Are you up for a challenge?    Create a short shore piece, no more than 30 words with these prompt words:   cerulean, hindered, unexpected, whisper, dawn, train, glass jar.

Carol: Michelle, I am always up for a challenge!  And rule breaking! I break a lot of rules! So I threw the 30-word limit out the window, literally out the window.

“If You Give Me An Ultimatum, I Will Do The Opposite Of Whatever You Ask”

Jar me awake. Break the glass around the frozen flowers. Train water to drain in unexpected corners, cerulean ceramic mermaids whispering something about cab fare and carbs. O say can the dawn’s early etc go missing. Don’t hinder my decision with hints or whistles. Whichever door I pick is door number one.

Michelle: You rebel !  That was awesome. Thanks, Carol!


Carol Guess is the author of seven books of poetry and prose, as well as three forthcoming collections:Doll Studies: Forensics, Willful Machine, and My Father In Water. She is Associate Professor of English at Western Washington University. Follow her at:  You can purchase Darling Endangered here.

by Erin Kelly

We’ve heard it all before: A story must have an arc. Without it, a story isn’t a story at all, they say. There must be a clear beginning, climax and conclusion. It must open to roaring anticipatory applause, bring the audience to the edge of their seats, and close to a standing ovation. Life may not come wrapped in a tidy little bow, but stories have to.

So they say.

But what role does the arc play in the art of flash fiction? In longer prose, a meandering storyline is problematic, but what about a story that seeks to be told in one thousand words or less? As the shortest of fiction has burst on the literary scene, editors and readers alike have held fast to their story arc, convinced that no good story can be told without it. Meticulous readers demand momentum, resolution, a beginning and an end. Otherwise, they argue, it isn’t a story. They search through the sentences for dramatic structure. They want an opening in exposition that plants us in the scene – one which tells us where we are, who we’re with and what it’s like. Then comes the rising action; the phase in which conflicts are revealed, ones that pit the character against himself or others or both. This rising action brings us to the “turning point,” a.k.a. the climax, where the story changes as the result of [X] event. The falling action follows. Unlike the rising action, this happens with less suspense and fanfare. This is where everything is wrapped up in a march toward resolution, a.k.a. the ending.

This method works well in many great pieces of flash fiction, such as The Infection by Lauren LeBano. In this wonderful 700-word story, our main character is warned that a cut on her hand – caused by a rose thorn – will bloom if it gets wet. Her mother tightly wraps the wound, but the fickle boy who gave her the flowers in the first place comes back and convinces her to walk in the rain. The wound gets wet, but she doesn’t care – not until she goes back inside, the boy goes back to being non-commital, and her hand starts to hurt as the bud forms. Plot this story on the arc and it will mold well.

But there are many other pieces that are also beautifully written without it. Consider this, this and this.

One of the most wonderful traits of flash fiction is that it needs no neatly tied bow. It needs no concise beginning, middle and end. The climax can range from the first word to the thousandth. Certainly a story arc can exist and obviously thousands of great pieces of flash have been written inside its convenient ebb-and-flow, but I argue that a flash fiction piece can be solid without it. I argue that flash fiction can be tidy without following literary convention. I approach flash not as a miniature short story, but as a peek inside a story, in a way that short stories cannot accomplish. Flash fiction offers us something even more intriguing than your run-of-the-mill piece of short fiction. It offers a glimpse into a person, situation, lifestyle, relationship or catastrophe, which may or may not end neatly, and which may or may not end at all, but will behave just as life does – a continual thread of loose ends.


Erin Kelly is staff editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her fiction has been published widely in places like Keyhole Magazine, Monkeybicycle and the Kyoto Journal. She was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer National Fiction Prize and the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. She currently has two novels under representation with the Jenks Agency in Cambridge and New York and works as a freelance fiction editor, as well as assistant editor for Thrive Magazine. Read more at

by Rumjhum Biswas

Dipika Mukherjee, the author of the Man Asia longlisted (2009) novel Thunder Demons, is a writer and world traveler.  Her book, which is set in Malaysia and deals with issues of race and identity was published by Gyaana Books in India in July this year. She also won the Platform Flash Fiction competition in April 2009. Her first book of poetry–The Palimsest of Exile–was published by Rubicom Press (Canada) in the same year.

In May, 2010 her poem “Shanghai Shorts” was a Fish Poetry Prize finalist in Ireland  and she has performed her work at Out Loud! in Shanghai, China; Huis van de Poëzie in Utrecht, Netherlands; The Seksan Reading Series in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Hideout in Austin, Texas; The Sugar Factory, in Amsterdam, Netherlands; and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, among other places.

Her second Novel Finding Piya is set in India. She has been published in journals like the Asia Literary Review (Hong Kong), The South Asia Review (USA), Flashquake (USA), Freefall (Canada), Del Sol (USA), Pilot Pocket Books (Canada), Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore (Singapore) New Writing Dundee (UK), Asiatic (Malaysia) and Muse India (India). And, has edited two anthologies of short stories: Silverfish New Writing 6 (Silverfish, 2006) and The Merlion and Hibiscus (Penguin, 2002). Dipika has a doctorate in English (Sociolinguistics) from Texas A&M University; her research focuses on the language patterns of Diaspora communities.

Right now she shuttles between Holland and the US. Until early this year she was living in Shanghai, where she is (still) Professor 211 Linguistic Studies at the Shanghai International Studies University. She is also a Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden, Netherlands, where she investigated Negotiating Languages and Forging Identities: Surinamese-Indian Women in the Netherlands. She has taught language and linguistic courses in the Netherlands, United States, Malaysia, and Singapore for the past eighteen years. Dipika leads a nomadic life, but still finds space and time to devote to her passion for creative writing. In this interview she shares her experiences with novel writing as well as the role of Flash Fiction in her writing life.

Rumjhum Biswas: We know you’re an author, poet, sociolinguist and nomad, and teacher, apart from being mom, wife, friend and soon….How do you fit in all these roles in your nomadic life?

Dipika Mukherjee: I like to say that I play all my roles equally badly! Seriously though, I have always had a very nomadic life as my father’s career was with the Indian Foreign Service. I feel lucky, now, to have in a sense lived so many lives in one lifetime. Going to a new place necessitates a shedding of old expectations and ways of being; I strongly believe that the key to fitting into a new environment is losing the certainties of the old. Then, as I talk about a lot in my poetry book The Palimpsest of Exile (Rubicon, 2009), life becomes like a layered manuscript, where the old indentations are still visible under the new.

Sociolinguistics has also been my lifeline–it pays bills, and in my twenties, when I was having children while finishing a PhD at Texas at the same time, the interest in the research did not allow me to consider giving it up, no matter how crazy life became. But writing–prose and poetry both–is an addiction. I become grumpy and surly and downright nasty if I don’t get my fix. I often think about giving up academics for the writing, but life hasn’t forced me into that choice yet, so I’m pottering about, adulterous in my two worlds.

RB: Tell us a bit about your nomadic life.

DM: My father was a career diplomat, so I grew up around the world as the globally promiscuous child –belonging to many places and none.  We would live in a foreign country for three years and then return to India for two years of de-programming; I would go from wild International schools to vernacular schools in India with drab uniforms and the national anthem sung every morning. It was bizarre! But I think all this mixed-upness has, even as an adult, made me able to get into a country and start fitting in quickly.

As a child I lived in Delhi, Geneva, Jakarta, Wellington and Kuala Lumpur with my dad; as an adult I have worked in Texas, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Ohio, Amsterdam and Shanghai. Love it, although now the urge to settle in Asia is getting really strong, especially now that my 17 and 19-year-old sons are in US universities, so there is no tension about their education.

RB: Writing needs quietude. How do you manage it with your hectic schedule?

DM: I try to go away for writing retreats. Formally, I have been on Centrum residencies in the USA twice, and informally, I try to schedule a quiet week or two when ever I can, at a conference or something away from the daily grind and I can just write. My academic work, both in Amsterdam
and Shanghai, has been research-intensive, so I have planned my schedule so that I write for three hours, then research for three, and alternate my day like that–it helps me deal with my boredom with anything when I do it for too long!

But for writing, when I am on a roll, I can stay up nights, go without food, etc in order to finish what I am writing. It makes me jump out of bed every morning,
even on the bad days when the editing (yucks!) isn’t going so well. Writers have to be, I think, intrinsically selfish, about needing the time and space to write. Nothing else in my life demands such total slavishness or gets it, and my family, by now, is generally ok with that. Not all the time, but mostly.

RB: Do you remember the first bit of creative writing that you did, as a child or teen? What inspired it, tell us a bit about that first experience?

DM: I really feel that my life in Wellington, New Zealand, between the ages of 10-14, helped shape me as a writer. NZ, even though it’s a tiny country, has an amazing reading program that gets kids reading very young. I first published a poem in a newspaper in Wellington when I was 10 years old; it was one of those children’s pages, and I had sent in my poem secretly.

When it was published, just seeing my poem in print was so wonderful that it had me hooked for life. Of course, that people read it and praised it didn’t hurt either! But it was a terrible poem, really bad, full of clichés about how I couldn’t write a poem but at the end of it wow, a poem on the page! My English teachers at school encouraged me to write all the time and I did a home-made novel and all sorts of cringe-worthy efforts that now live inside a leather suitcase in my parents’ home in Delhi.

RB: What writers did you love as a child and now?

DM: I started off with studying English Literature in Delhi Univ – and got a BA and an MA in the field – where I met interesting authors, like Amitav Ghosh, who were just beginning their careers. I went to Texas A&M with the intention to study British modern fiction but quickly realized that I was tiring of a field that seemed so subjective in its analysis of writing. I stopped reading canonical “great books” for a while and started to read more widely.

I have been reading a lot of Pakistani fiction lately–enjoyed Naqvi,Shamshie, Mueenuddin, Aslam–the list goes on. In Shanghai, I read all the Chinese authors I could get my hands on, especially Su Tong, who’s a favourite. I like the present sprout of Malaysian authors: Brian Gomez has a wicked sense of humor. I love AS Byatt’s literary fiction.

RB: Tell us a bit about the inspiration, research and writing process/experience for your just published book Thunder Demons.

DM: I remember that I had a thought about a woman drowning while her infant daughter watched the scene. In 2002, I used to go for long walks and Agni, the protagonist of Thunder Demons, started to talk in my head then. At that time, I was also co-editing “The Merlion and the Hibiscus” for Penguin India, and I think that editing this collection made me think that I should write.

In my twenties, with the kids and the dissertation, I stopped writing prose –I felt I could only do poetry, and that too in short bursts. I had no time for the sustained focus that writing creative prose required. Thunder Demons went through various name changes and I showed an earlier version to my editor in Penguin India who was very encouraging, but the story took a long long time to achieve any coherence –first novels are hard! I wrote my second novel in five months–really–and have been editing it for three years now, but Thunder Demons has been a nine-year process.

Thunder Demons has been challenging to market –it is such a niche book, and my American agents & publishers would say that there is very little interest in Malaysian politics out of Malaysia. Although I have a British agent based in London now, she is concentrating on my second book, which is about international adoptions fuelling child trafficking in India, as that has more “international appeal”. But I kept working on Thunder Demons–as a Malaysian permanent resident with a son and a husband who hold Malaysian citizenship, the inequities of Malaysia are something I wanted to address. My academic research is also in the field of Malaysian language planning and policy (my co-edited book, Language Shifts Among Malaysian Minorities as Effects Of National Language Planning: speaking in Many Tongues was published by the Amsterdam University Press in April 2011), so I know Malaysia very well. Then Thunder Demons, as an unpublished novel, was longlisted for the Man Asia Lit Prize in 2009.

Before this, I was getting published in magazines like the Asia Literary review and all that, but suddenly, WOW, I was in a list with Su Tong, whose novel “Rice” I first read as a teenager! I am such a fan of Su Tong and just being in the same longlist as him felt like winning. As soon as I read his excerpt I knew that no one else on that list had a chance, but it didn’t matter. The Man Asia listing gave me a lot of confidence and an agent. I found Gyaana Books as a friend, Anu Kumar, had recently published with them, and the rest is history.

RB: Thunder Demons has a number of chapters that fit flash fiction length. Is this something that the story demanded? Or do you personally enjoy writing flash sized chapters?

DM: I think, subconsciously, I do write flash fiction length. Last night I finished a story I had been struggling with and I realised that it was flash fiction length when I stopped writing. Some stories need a longer treatment so I go back and write in the details but as a first draft, I think I do write about a 1000 words and then evaluate whether I like the story arc or not. I was told during a panel discussion on Thunder Demons that when the action speeds up my sentences become shorter and the writing fast-paced with short chapters. I really did this subconsciously, and was not even aware of this effect until others pointed it out. So much of writing, as seasoned writers keep repeating, happens almost as if you are a conduit for the story and not its deliberate maker.

RB: Can a whole novel be written in coherent flash pieces, what do you think?

DM: In my experience, No. In one of my critique groups, there was a talented young lady who was writing her memoir as a collection of flash pieces. She had lived a very interesting life and had a lot remarkable stories, but as a book-length piece it had the effect of a strobe-light that flashed so fast that it became uncomfortable to read after a while. Flash pieces are usually intense, whereas novels allow for some description, some flashbacks, a slowing-down of the narrative that allows the reader to weave together the disparate threads. A collection of flash pieces doesn’t allow for such necessary downtime, in my opinion.

RB: You have also written a number of flash fiction pieces. What is your take regarding flash fiction versus longer stories? How stylistically apart are the two forms, or is it just a question of length?

DM: I think it is a question of topic. I wrote “The Roof, The Sky” which won the Platform prize in 2009 based on a single powerful line actually uttered by an Indian painter who was a path-breaker in every way. The line stuck in my head and I wanted to highlight that line, not her life, or anything else in the narrative.

Flash is good for such things, as is poetry. Sometimes it is a question of whether to write a poem vs flash fiction, but never flash fiction vs a longer short story. When I wrote “Titli” about the Mumbai terrorism, that couldn’t have been a flash piece, although some of the separate parts in that story can stand alone. So the length is really decided by the topic, or rather, what should be fore-fronted in a story.

Flash fiction is really like taking a picture. When I wrote “Fuzzy Liberty” which was published by Del Sol Review, it was after I saw a picture of a Fuzzy lady Liberty. Then the story just came to me, including the last line, which I heard in Kolkata years ago.

RB: You’ve undertaken creative writing workshops and also teach. What are the issues students face when writing specifically flash fiction?

DM: I think there is still a certain distrust of flash fiction, almost as if it’s a disease of our modern society which can’t handle anything longer than a soundbite. But of course, flash has been around in Chinese literature for a long time. It is slowly gaining popularity among writers, and online magazines are mushrooming with flash fiction because it IS easier to read something shorter online than a story of five thousand words. Some students who come to a Creative Writing class like flash fiction as warm-up exercises; I have found that the brevity of the medium is less daunting than asking them to, say, start writing the prologue of their Big Novel. Students do eventually enjoy writing Flash Fiction, but essentially, a short story of 3000-5000 words is still generally considered a tougher thing to write and flash easier.

RB: What according to you spoils a piece of flash fiction that was otherwise progressing nicely?

DM: I think a good flash fiction needs to have the impact of an epiphany–not in the religious sense but in the way it hits you. Something commonplace made uncommon. One can’t dither about or meander on a separate trail when writing flash–it has to be tight with a punch. Like other genres, bad flash fiction also ends with a whimper.

RB: What draws you to a piece of flash? Which are your favourite flash fiction stories? Any writers of this form that you’d recommend we read?

DM: As I said above, a good flash has to hit me with some force. I haven’t been reading flash fiction at all lately as I have been busy with my book, but I have enjoyed reading the flash fiction in the Fish anthology out of Ireland. The prizewinners there are very very good, and some of the stories are incredibly short and powerful. I have enjoyed Flashquake & Smokelong too. I also liked some of the Flash stories in the contest organized by Caferati a year ago –nice twists on our Indian myths.

RB: What is next in your plate, apart from Finding Piya, the first chapter of which has won second prize in the Short Story Radio First Chapter Competition 2010?

DM: I am also working on a collection of short stories. I have had various short stories placed in publications around the world, so I think it’s time I did a collection.

RB: As a writer when something catches your eye as a potential poem or story, do you let it stew inside your head or jot it down somewhere, since you are always travelling.

DM: I always try to jot it down. I have a moleskin notebook that goes everywhere –I don’t have the time to power up a laptop or a device, I jot and scrawl my way though an inspiration.

RB: Where do you enjoy writing most, any favourite spot?

DM: I write best with some noise. A cafe is excellent and Shanghai, especially, was full of atmospheric cafes with coffee and good food. I enjoy nibbling while writing, which accounts for a lot, in every sense of that word!

RB: One last question before we go, do you have any words of advice to budding Indian writers writing in English?

DM: I think I would say just keep writing A LOT. You have to get a lot of rubbish-writing out of you before the good starts appearing.  It’s hard work and you should only do it because you can’t imagine a life without writing, or if you don’t write for a few days you get crabby and miserable. It has to feel like an addiction and not a job. Get a writing group or form one; you are NOT your best critic, and other good readers and writers can help your writing take form. Live a full life so that you have something to write about.


Rumjhum Biswas lives her writing life at the edge of the sun toasted city of Chennai, in a corner where migratory birds cruise the sky above the din of a burgeoning IT hub and an ancient temple dips its toes into a not so ancient pond. You can also find her at Writers & Writerisms and the Polyphagous Poltergeist, the latter more occasionally.

by Sheila Newton

What does Alice in Wonderland have to offer writers? You might say Lewis Carroll’s imagery, allegory and analogy in his brilliant novels offer the writer a superb platform from which to put together a great story.  And you’d be right, of course.

But what I’m alluding to in this article are the subtle messages in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass: clues that Alice and her friends offer in a wealth of wise words, to help a writer plan, plot and sub-plot, develop characters, edit well and keep to deadlines–whether it’s a short story, a piece of flash fiction or an epic novel.  The significance of imaginative prose in Lewis Carroll’s writing cannot be underestimated: explored as writing tools, the “Alice” stories will inspire the writer to aim for the heights of artistry and creativity.

Planning And Outlining

Alice says to Cheshire Cat: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 6)

And in writing, everything does depend on where you want to get to!  Planning and outlining your story should be a well-traveled path, signposting the conflicts and sub-plots along the way.  Clear markers of chapter synopses in developing a novel will aid in the organisation and maintenance of the writer’s focus.

The ‘Stream Of Consciousness’ Method Of Writing

Some writers choose not to follow a particular path – letting the pen do the walking for them.

“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“…so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6)

Many writers follow their hearts rather than their heads when developing a plot. And that’s fine.  But remember, when utilising the notion of a “stream of consciousness” the process is more likely to flag up ideas for multiple plots, rather than provide an outline for one particular story.

Character Profiles

Writers need to know their characters inside out.  By profiling comprehensive life-stories, discrepancies are less likely to occur.  If a character profile is devised for each story, there will be no changeability in the personalities appearing in the text.  Their individual traits will spring to life on the page as colourful, three dimensional, real life personas.

Who are YOU?” said the Caterpillar.
… Alice replied, rather shyly, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present –at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 5)

And so it goes when a character’s trait suddenly manifests itself in a dissimilar or changed attribute or behaviour.

Sharing Ideas To Develop A Story

Sharing ideas, plot outlines, or excerpts from stories, can help to determine potential incongruity with characters and situations.  Sharing can also highlight errors or omissions along the way.  It could also prompt questions from the listener; questions that may not have entered the writer’s head; situations that could be advantageous or integral to the plot; situations that may become apparent in the context of a good sub plot:

“Once upon a time there were three little sisters,” the Dormouse began in a great hurry; “and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well–“
“What did they live on?” said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
“They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

Perhaps the writer had not considered this subject area within the original idea/plot.  Dormouse needed time to think.  Now, his plot is beginning to develop.

“They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked; “they’d have been ill.”
“So they were,” said the Dormouse; “VERY ill.”

Perhaps an exciting sub plot could develop here.

 “Why did they live at the bottom of a well?”
The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, “It was a treacle-well.”

A development occurs within the main plotline.

“…And so these three little sisters–they were learning to draw, you know–“

Dormouse has decided to use a further sub plot.

“What did they draw?” said Alice.
“Treacle,” said the Dormouse, without considering at all this time.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 7)

Sharing ideas gives the writer clarity in developing a “whole story” outline or synopsis.

Keeping Characters Real

“… you’re only one of the things in his dream,” said Tweedledum, “You know very well you’re not real.”
“I am real!” said Alice, beginning to cry.
(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 4)

It is essential that even the most surreal character, scenario or plot seems real to the reader; that the writer brings the story to life.  If the descriptions, dialogue and narrative are convincing, then the reader is hooked into reading on–into reading every word on the pages.

Make The Reader Believe

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age…sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 5)

If, as writers, we use our imaginations to the fullest extent, we can not only make our readers believe the impossible, or the improbable, but we writers can make ourselves believe too!  Imagination, belief and self-belief are key components in good writing.

Beware Of Purple Prose!

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say,’I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 7)

Like the March Hare says, “you should say what you mean.”  And that extends to conveying to the reader exactly the point you are making.  As readers, we’ve all been privy to lengthy sentences that meander around in circles.  We’ve all had to suffer cloying over-use of adjectives and adverbs –often the hallmark of flowery, overwritten prose. “Purple prose” such as this can lull a writer into believing that this style of prose strengthens the writing, when, in fact, the opposite is true: when that ambiguity bug infects the writing, leaving it weak, fuzzy and open to misinterpretation.

After all, where “money is power” to the businessman, “words are power” to the writer.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”  (Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

The Editing Stage

“Dormouse was sitting between them [March Hare and Mad Hatter], fast asleep…” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 7)

 Sleeping on a story after its completion is the best way forward. Putting the story “to bed” for a couple of days, allows for a period during which the story can “settle.”  Then, when revisiting the piece, the writer can scrutinize the story and edit with fresh eyes and a clear head.

Keeping To Deadlines

“Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!” said the White Rabbit as he checked his pocket watch.  (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 1)

Being late for a submission deadline is setting the writer up to fail.  Given that cut-off date, the writer needs to plan and timeline events so that the manuscript is ready on time.  If only the White Rabbit had the modern day advantages of Google calendars or mobile phone reminders!

No Nonsense

The red queen shook her head, “you may call it ‘nonsense’ if you like,” she said. (Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 2)

Oh, Red Queen, I couldn’t possibly call it nonsense.  The “Alice” novels, embedded in the category of children’s nonsense stories are, in fact, more than just children’s books–and the nonsense is not as random as it seems at first glance.  Can’t you hear the “BOOM” as the minefield of writing is detonated, creating a wonderland of no nonsense?

As wise words blast up from the earth, the end-product–the story–settles out of the dust, into something truly artistic and creative.


Sheila Newton lives in the North East of England with her husband and two cats. She acquired an RGN and a degree in Education throughout her nursing and teaching careers, then in 2010, she caught the ‘creative writing bug’.  She has been accepted for publication with the small press magazine, Debut, won first prize in an ‘about writing’ competition and around 20 of her articles and short stories have been published online.  An avid reader, walker and blogger, Sheila has recently been invited to blog for North East Life online: she also blogs for a local blues/rock band.  Catch up with her on her personal blog, – and her website,

Copyright© Sheila Newton 2011



This is a reprint from an earlier Flash Fiction Chronicles article.

by Jim Harrington

I’m one of those nerdy types who actually reads software manuals from cover to cover. I know. I know. Anyway, when I decided to write fiction, I, of course, read a number of books and articles on the craft, including those containing the advice to purge the text of adjectives and adverbs.In the beginning, I revised my stories to delete every one of those dastardly intruders and replace them with strong nouns and verbs. It was an excellent challenge, and my writing improved.

However, I don’t completely agree–see, I used an adverb (an unnecessary one, either I agree or I don’t, but one I chose to use)–with this practice. Sometimes a precise noun isn’t descriptive at all. How many of you know what a Nashville Warbler looks like? If instead I write “a yellow-breasted songbird,” my readers will have a clearer idea of the picture I’m painting.

On the other side of the argument is the idea that, in flash in particular, every paragraph, every sentence, and every word has equal importance. Using precise verbs and nouns and not relying on adjectives and adverbs, strengthens the prose and allows the author to pack a big story into a few words.

Here’s an example of adverbial clutter.

“Harold inched slowly across the room.”

What’s wrong with this? “Slowly” is redundant. If Harold “inched” (to move slowly and carefully, by definition) how could he not do it “slowly?” “Harold inched across the room” says the same thing and saves a word—and is more precise than “Harold walked slowly across the room.” There’s a tension to “inched” that isn’t there with “walked.” Here’s another way to think about this. If your 400-word story contains thirty sentences and you save one word per sentence, that’s–oh yuck, math–a lot of words!

So, while I don’t subscribe to the dictum to delete all adjectives and adverbs from my prose, I do ruminate on each word until I understand exactly why I decided to use it.

Here’s a story that first appeared in Static Movement. Are the adjectives distracting?

The Robber’s Fiance
by Jim Harrington

Dressed in a jogging suit, her hair damp from the shower, Inocencia sits on the sofa in her parents’ guest house and lays her head on Javier’s bare shoulder.

“I thought you loved me,” she says.

“I do,” Javier replies.

“Clareta says she heard you telling your friends you would have the drugs for the party Saturday night.” A purple-tipped finger traces a vein on his leg. “Am I going to this party, or just my father’s drugs?”

Javier sits her up and turns her to face him. “Of course, you’re coming to the party.”

“There may not be a party,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

Javier turns at the sound of the door opening. Inocencia’s father enters, followed by two men each twice Javier’s size.

“Did you think I wouldn’t tell Daddy?”


Jim Harrington discovered flash fiction in 2007, and he’s read, written, studied, and agonized over the form since. His Six Questions For Blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” In his spare time, he serves as the flash fiction editor for Apollo’s Lyre.