Archive for August, 2012

by Michelle Reale

Jordan Blum , with a fresh MFA in hand has made quite a splash into the flash fiction scene, both as a writer and editor of the Bookends Review, where he reads and selects a lot of flash fiction for publication.

Michelle Reale:Do you write primarily flash fiction?

Jordan Blum:I’d say I write an even amount of flash fiction and poetry. Prior to graduate school, I wrote poetry exclusively. It’s funny—I always wanted to be a fiction writer in college but I never actually wrote any; I just published poetry in the school’s literary magazine (Rider University’s Venture). When I decided to get my MFA, most people assumed that it would be focused in poetry, but I knew it wouldn’t. I saw graduate school as a way to push myself to write fiction.

Michelle:How did you begin writing in the form?

Jordan:I was introduced to it during graduate school at Rosemont College. The head of the MFA program, Randall Brown, taught a class on flash fiction so I took it and saw a lot of potential for myself with it. I often think and feel in brief spurts of sentiment and action, so the form really lends itself to that. Rather than dragging out an incident for pages and embellishing it with details and filler, the form allows the writer to simply say, “Here’s what happened and now it’s done. What do you think?”

Michelle:When and why did you decide to pursue your MFA? 

Jordan:Well, I’d been a writer throughout college, although I focused mainly on writing about music. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I became interested in creative writing, and again, then it was only for poetry. During the first semester of my senior year, I spoke to a lot of professors about wanting to improve my writing and get published. I also decided that I wanted to be a creative writing professor because the creative writing workshops were my favorite courses (well, besides the music ones) and the instructors I had for those courses were (and still are, of course) very interesting, honest, and unique. I worked in the English department the entire time I was at Rider (2005 – 2009), so I was able to befriend a lot of the faculty there and receive a lot of guidance. I felt more like an equal to them than a subordinate; we would discuss pop culture and new fiction as if we were friends, and I just realized how much I’d like to be like them someday—writing my own quirky stories and discussing others’ in a college setting.

I also knew that I didn’t want to get a doctorate degree because (and this is just my take) it seems to involve a lot of pretention and scholarship, which never interested me. I had no desire to spend, say, seven years writing a paper on an author or a book and then present it in front of a board of “authorities” who would question me all day. I’m not interested in writing a feminist take on The Great Gatsby or discussing the representation of madness in Heart of Darkness; I want to write stories and discuss them with other writers. When I found out about the MFA, I knew it was what I needed. An MFA is geared more toward writing stories than it is writing about stories, if that makes sense, and at the time (2009), it was a terminal degree. I think there are a few Ph. D programs in creative writing now, but I’m not interested in them. My MFA, combined with whatever work I publish, should take me where I need to go in my career. I’m currently teaching within the English department at Rider University (among other places), so it looks like the degree is already helping me.

Michelle:What has your experience been in the program? 

Jordan:In a nutshell, completely positve. Every course I took at Rosemont was intriguing and experimental; the work we read was fresh and controversial, and the work we wrote and critiqued was uninhibited. The instructors I had were very knowledgeable while also being completely approachable and informal. The courses felt less hierarchical and more communal than in college. We were all learning and writing together; there wasn’t an intangible gap between the “expert” teachers and the “novice” students (although the students certainly respected the teachers for their experience). We would discuss some of the teachers’ published work alongside our own, which was very refreshing.

I think that was the main difference I noticed between my undergraduate and graduate career. During college, it seems like you’re sort of taught that the “classics” are the standard and that new fiction/poetry isn’t up to par. You’re also taught to write more formally and traditionally, and your own work is judged based on if it follows set rules. I suppose that makes sense, though, because college is where you learn about creative writing, whereas I think an MFA program is about how to write creatively. I’m not at all criticizing undergraduate careers, as I adored my time at Rider and I’m very proud to be there again, but I think the MFA program is where I was really allowed to develop my writing styles and voices. I was allowed to break forms and represent ideas and actions that may be too odd for conventional readers. Essentially, the reaction to my work during the program wasn’t “you can’t do that because Keats, Wordsworth, Donne, O’Conner, Hemingway, Joyce, and Faulkner wouldn’t do that” as much as it was “well, here’s a fresh take on things. You can do that, but perhaps we can discuss how you can do it better.”

Michelle:What is your writing process?

Jordan:I usually begin a piece in my mind while walking during evening hours, as the sun sets. I put on music and let my mind wonder until I think of phrases I like. When something suddenly hits me, I jot it down in my iPhone and then put it in a file called “Scattered Lines,” which is where I store all my phrases, when I get home. I usually have no idea what the phrase is about or what I can do with it; I just like the way it sounds so I save it. Of course, I also get inspired by more broad ideas and I keep them in mind. For example, I’ve wanted to write a flash piece about a feral child for a long time. I haven’t written a word of it yet and I have no idea what it’ll actually be about, but I know that I have to do it at some point. As for the actual writing, I type out the phrase and then just write around it. I can usually tell if I want the phrase to open or close a stanza (if it’s poetry), so I structure the words around that. If the line is for prose, I just wait until I know where it belongs. It’s very organic; it all just sort of develops naturally.

Also, I like to reference pieces in other pieces, which I think stems from my love of progressive rock music. Some of my favorite artists, like Genesis and Jethro Tull, reprise melodies throughout their albums, so I try to do the same in my writing. For example, I just published a poem called “Skyline Fractured” and I’m working on a long poem now in which one of the lines is “…and I watched skylines fracture as you….” I love doing things like that. I guess I’d call it progressive poetry/prose.

Michelle:How long do you let a piece sit before you send it out into the world? 

Jordan:Until it’s finished, which I guess is a cop-out answer ha-ha. Once it’s done, I’m open to sending it out; however, I rarely submit because of laziness, to be honest. I may submit to ten places one day and then not send anything out for weeks. I’m so busy doing other things that I rarely have time to do that, which is a cop-out excuse, too. I think writers are sort of led to believe that a piece can be perfect and that we shouldn’t send it out until then. I totally disagree; if we really tried to make a piece absolutely flawless, we’d never finish it. It’s impossible for something to be perfect because perfection is subjective. I work on something until I think it’s good enough for me. I’m confident that it will get published eventually so I’m content with that. Even the best writers have had a piece rejected 10 times before it’s accepted; there’s no exact science to it and you can’t please everyone. To a certain extent, writer’s can always work to make their pieces better, but they can only go so far. You never want to spend five days trying to decide between synonyms just for the sake of it, and I highly doubt that the color of a character’s shirt will determine if the piece is published or not. I just revise until I like it and then I send it out and hope for the best. One editor may hate “that line about the car ride from his childhood” while another may think “that line about the car ride from his childhood is what makes this piece stand out.” You never know so just trust your instincts.

Michelle:What publication would you most like to be published in that you haven’t yet cracked? 

Jordan:Well, to be honest and somewhat tangential, I would love to be published in this English magazine called Classic Rock Presents Prog. I’ve spent a decade covering progressive music and I have connections many of the artists featured in that magazine, so I think it’s only right that I become a contributor eventually, But hey, that’s a whole other story, right? As for literary places, I’m not sure I have any specific places. I’m not involved enough in the literary world to know which places are revered. I suppose any place that a friend of mine is in, and any place that I’ve been rejected from. Of course, places like The New Yorker are more prestigious than most online journals, I’d say, so that would be a new benchmark for me. One of my biggest influences as a teenager was Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), and he published a lot in Playboy, so I’d love to do that, too.

This could just be me, but I sort of see three levels of publication importance: on-site, PDF, and in print. If a piece is published right on the website, that’s level one; if the piece is placed, say, in the “August Issue,” which is a PDF file of a journal with a cover, table of contents, etc, that’s level two; if a piece is actually in print, that’s level three. Again, that’s probably just my view of it, and I do believe that more people will read your work if it’s online than if it’s printed, but then again, it’s more exclusive to be in print because there are concerns regarding the size and cost of the issue. Overall, though, I can’t pinpoint a specific place; at this point, I’m happy to be published anywhere.

Michelle:Do you notice a difference in writers who have MFA’s and who don’t? 

Jordan:In terms of writing, not really. I mean, I’m never really sure if the writer I’m reading has an MFA or not. I do see an interesting attitude toward the degree, though. It seems that those who have an MFA think that they couldn’t write well without it, while those without the degree think that they don’t need it to be good. We have a lot of discussions about this over at The Lit Pub. I’m not sure how I view it, personally, besides the fact that the degree has gotten me teaching jobs. I like to think that I have a keener eye for my own work and the work of others. Since creative writing is artistic, there’s no real right way and wrong way to do it, besides avoiding obvious clichés. I’m certainly glad I have the degree, though.

Michelle:Tell me about your literary journal and what kind of an aesthetic you are looking for specifically? 

Jordan:Well, I started developing it in June and it went live in July. I’d been planning to start one all year. I’d been submitting work and receiving many rejections and a few acceptances and I thought, “Hey, I can do this, too. Why shouldn’t I have my own journal?” It just seemed like an inevitable thing to do considering that I’m a writer and teacher. Naturally, since they’re also just starting out in the field, I asked my two closest writing friends, Spencer Hayes and Maria Gullo, to start it with me, although I’m technically in charge of it. Anyway, I heard a lot of good things about WordPress so I went with it. I tried my best to make the site look unique and respectable.

As for the aesthetic, I mean, as long as it’s good, we’ll publish it. We don’t look for a specific style or genre. The title of the journal—The Bookends Review—came from our shared love of Simon & Garfunkel. I’ve always thought that Paul Simon is the greatest American songwriter of the last fifty years; he’s often been revered for mixing poetry and music, and since I’m a poet and musician, this synthesis really appeals to me. Specifically, the Bookends album has always affected me deeply, and the way the title song conveys such mature, universal emotions with a simple guitar chord progression and vocal melody is incredible. We even quote the song on the website before stating what we’re about. The combination of brevity and feeling in “Bookends Theme” is utterly brilliant, and I suppose that’s what the journal is about. Give us something short but sweet, something that makes its point immediately and quickly but resonates in our minds all day.

Michelle:What makes a good flash piece?

Jordan:Action, be it emotional, mental, or physical. Something has to happen quickly and it has to mean something. We must be in the mind of the character(s) throughout and feel what he/she/they feel. It should also be unique. I remember a story I read in Randall Brown’s aforementioned class that began with a girl sprouting wings and flying out of her classroom. There was no background information or unnecessary explanation; the moment occurred and then it was gone. It was also symbolic, I believe, so it wasn’t just for the sake of surprise, but I think it perfectly exemplifies what flash is for—the out-of-the-ordinary events. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a realistic story, too, but you don’t want to bloat it too much. For example, if the story involves a granddaughter watching her grandmother die, don’t talk about what the grandmother did when she was twenty. Don’t talk about what doesn’t matter, and if you’re going to reference something in the past, do it as a quick mention within a sentence. Don’t dwell on it too long because then you’re using up words that could go toward progression and importance. Show me what the granddaughter feels in that room on that day.

Michelle:What kinds of mistakes do people make with the form? 

Jordan: Mostly, they take too long to get to the point. The start out telling the reader why he or she should care about the characters. As clichéd as it sounds, don’t tell; show! Certain situations have inherent meaning so there’s no need to blatantly state what you want readers to feel. If you’re doing your job correctly, the reader will understand the message automatically. A flash piece isn’t like a novel; you don’t have 20 pages to introduce your major characters and settings. You have maybe 200 words to suck a reader in, so you have to make it both logical and lively. At the same time, you don’t want to rush into madness. You don’t want to start a story with “Billy was a clown who robbed banks and today his dog went with him and then Jacob, another clown, whose sister dated Billy in tenth grade, had chicken pox.” That’s certainly a lot of plot for a couple dozen words or so, but what the hell is going on in it?

It’s not easy to write a flash piece; the balance of simplicity and significance is tricky, and as I’ve said, what one person hates, another person may love. When we look at submissions for the journal, we can usually tell if we’ll take a piece or not just by reading the first paragraph (of course, we read the entire thing anyway because we’d want to the same level of respect for our work, and hey, maybe we’ll change our minds). When we send out reject letters, we’re careful not to imply that the piece itself was bad. It just isn’t for The Bookends Review, but if another place takes it, fantastic. It’s not so much that a writer has made a definitive mistake.

Michelle:Who, in your opinion, is writing great flash these days?

Jordan:To be honest, I don’t read a lot of flash pieces other than those for the journal, so I’m not sure who the heavyweights are in the genre. Of course, I’m friends with a lot of writers through Facebook and they always post links to their work (as do I. It’s all part of the game), but there’s an odd sort of nepotism in discussing them. I really like Alex Pruteanu’s work because it’s bold and unflinching. He likes to challenge his reader’s expectations and beliefs. The same goes for Meg Tuite, although her style is different. And of course, I always liked Randall Brown’s work; after all, he led me to this path. Finally, as biased as it may sound, Spencer Hayes has a very distinct view of the world, and his writing is extremely brave because of it. He’s often asks me if he should tone down elements of his stories and I say, “No, absolutely not. If a hundred people hate this because it goes too far and shocks them, you’re doing something right.” A story should never have excessive violence, sex, swearing, or negativity just to have it, but these writers implement these elements with purpose. It’s like a lot of art—many people may not dig it, but those who do will love it.

I’m also a fan of all the writers we’ve featured on the site, obviously, but I don’t want to mention anyone specifically because then I’d be leaving everyone else out.

Michelle:Take my flash challenge! In 200 words or less, create a flash piece using these words:

candy, lamp, asphalt, brass, sink, arrows, eyeglasses, boxer shorts.

Jordan: Oh, shit…

“Rebecca was texting her fiancée about the mysterious lipstick on his boxer shorts when she crashed against the divider near Exit 23 on I-95. She noticed the arrows indicating that the lane was closing up ahead, but the constant buzzing of the phone and urgency of the argument distracted her. She nearly choked on a piece of candy as her head struck the steering wheel with enough force to shatter her eye glasses (leaving fragments under her eyelids) and force her brass engagement ring to crack and fall to the asphalt, along with the finger it surrounded, which hung out the open window. Smoke escaped from the engine as her essence escaped her body.

Suddenly, she was fully enveloped in a new domestic life with Todd; he read by lamplight while she cleaned up dinner in the sink. Afterward, they cuddled and watched B-grade horror movies. They both heard yelling from outside, as if someone was in need of medical attention. Through the curtains, she saw flashing lights and heard The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy” emanate from the radio and fill the space between the sirens. They ignored it and continued enjoying their utopia.”

Michelle:  Now, that wasn’t difficult was it???  Thanks, Jordan!


Jordan Blum recently received his MFA in Fiction and he currently teaches at several colleges. Outside of that, he writes about music for Delusions of Adequacy, Examiner, Sea of Tranquility, and Popmatters. He also records his own progressive rock/metal under the pseudonym of Neglected Spoon. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Lit Pub, Bong is Bard, FictionBrigade, Connotation Press, Used Furniture Review, Emerge Literary Journal, and Eunoia Review. During his free time, he likes to yell at strangers about how much Genesis sucked in the 1980s.

Rumjhum Biswasby Rumjhum Biswas

Last month we interviewed one half of Fractured West’s editing team, Kirsty Logan. This month we get up close with Helen Sedgwick , Kirsty’s co-editor, and learn that is a lot more to this quieter half. Helen is a freelance writer and literary editor based in Glasgow. She won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2012. At this time, she is working on a short story collection, as well as a novel. She has published short fiction and nonfiction; they can be read in Spilling Ink, Litro, Novel Magazine and Nature, among many others. As an editor, Helen works for Freight Books and Cargo Publishing. Apart from co-editing Fractured West, of which she is also co-founding editor. Helen is also the review editor of Gutter and co-host of Words Per Minute. She teaches creative writing for the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and has performed her work at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe and Glasgow’s Aye Write.

Rumjhum Biswas: You have won the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award this year. Please tell us a bit about the award, work/s that won you this recognition, and where you plan to go in your writing life now.

Helen Sedgewick: The New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust is one of the most prestigious awards for new writers inScotland. As well as helping to fund the winning writers, the Book Trust also sets each of the winners up with a mentor and runs a variety of helpful events such as voice coaching and reading nights. I won the award for my short story collection in progress, Statistically Speaking. All the stories approach current scientific topics, from astrophysics to medical science, in a fictional and accessible way. I plan to use my year as a New Writer to complete this collection and start work on a new novel.

RB: Please give us a glimpse of your day to day writing life.

Helen SedgewickHS: My days tend to be very varied, but always begin with a cup of coffee! I usually spend the mornings working rather than writing, I work as a freelance editor, and then spend my afternoons or evenings on my own writing. I try to do some writing every day, even if it’s only a few hundred words. I have created a small office space in my flat so I can get away from all the distractions that come with working from home. I also have writing days once a week with my friend and co-editor and Kirsty Logan. If I’m struggling with a particular story or finding it hard to get started, having someone else there really helps me focus.

RB: You are co-editor of Fractured West, a journal of flash fiction. How did the idea for Fractured West come about? Tell us about your new magazine, the inspiration, the ethos, style and editorial.

HS: Fractured West  like many ideas originally came about from having a chat! I’d previously worked as an editor on From Glasgow to Saturn, the on-line magazine of Glasgow University’s creative writing programme, and I really wanted to set up my own magazine. I got talking to Kirsty, who also wanted to run a magazine, so we decided to work together. Winning the Gillian Purvis Award to found Fractured West really helped, and allowed us to create the first two issues of the print magazine and the website. From the start we wanted the focus to be on new voices. We wanted to publish new, emerging or previously unpublished writers. We have both always loved flash fiction, so it seemed like the perfect fit.

 RB: You have co-written a story or more with your co-editor Kirsty Logan. We normally tend to think of writing as an intensely solitary exercise. How do you go about the process of co-writing a story? What advice do you have for other writers who would like to work together?

HS: I think Kirsty and I were able to write together because we know each other so well. We have a very strong working relationship, but we also usually agree about what makes good writing. We have similar taste and are interested in similar topics–although we sometimes address them in different ways–so co-writing felt very easy with her. It’s certainly not easy with everyone, though!

RB: What short story form do you enjoy working with most, the usual 3000 /5000 words, the traditional flash – i.e. under 1000 words, the even more challenging less than 500 or 250 or 100 (drabble) or even 50? What according to you are the highs and lows?

HS: Just to make things difficult for myself, my favourite length doesn’t really fit into any of the brackets. A natural story length for me seems to be 1000-2000 words, a bit longer than flash but a bit shorter than traditional short stories. Maybe I should come up with a new name for that length of fiction! I do vary it though, and have written stories as short as a tweet, like this one that won a competition during Social Media Week. At the end of the day, a story should be just as long as it needs to be.

RB: Did you write as a child? Or is it something that you discovered you had in you in college, etc. Either way, do tell us a bit about those early years.

HS: When I was younger my main interests were music and science. I never wrote very much as a child or teenager, or even as an adult until quite recently. My first fully-formed short story was written in 2007, in my late 20s. I guess it took me a long time to find what I loved! It’s been great having that atypical background, though, and my early interests in science and music certainly feed into my writing now.

RB: Were there people to encourage you when you started out? Any mentors or people or even incidents and/or books that you’d especially like to mention?

HS: I first started writing when I signed up for an evening class at Glasgow University’s Department of Adult and Continuing Education. My two teachers, Fiona Parrot and Nick Brooks, were very encouraging. I went on to do the MLitt at Glasgow and my tutors there, Zoe Strachan and Alan Bissett, were also a huge help. But most of all, I think my main source of encouragement comes from the other writers that I know, writers like Margaret Callaghan, Kirsty Logan, Katy McAulay and Maria Di Mario. Having people to talk to about writing and the sense of community that comes with that is essential.

RB: Your story “Horizon View” in Algebra Issue 2 is written in an unusual, and if I may call it, experimental style; each portion or paragraph located in a different geographic and time zone, often within time spans that take seconds, but connected with the following, all of which finally create an Aleph-like effect on the reader’s mind. I also found elements of flash in this story. Can you tell us about the inspiration and writing process behind “Horizon View?”

HS: The piece was commissioned by Tramway and the brief was to write a story inspired by the theme “In The Days Of The Comet.” That title originally comes from H.G.Wells, but we were able to interpret the theme in any way that we chose. I wanted to write about the snapshots of humanity that a comet would see during the brief time it passes close to Earth on its trajectory. I used the flash style, and the sense of circularity, to mimic the motion of a comet through the solar system.

RB: Can you tell us about other stories that you’ve written using new and unusual techniques? With regard to flash as well?

HS: I’ve written quite a few twitter-length stories, which is always a challenge. I’ve also written a piece about the origins of the universe in the style of a cake recipe! That was part of the Once Upon A Universe collaboration at the Galloway Astronomy Centre.

RB:  Who are your favourite writers, and also some of the flash fiction writers you admire?

HS: I always find this such a difficult question, because my favourite writers change with my mood. I love William Trevor’s and Capote’s short stories, and Dave Eggers’ collection of short shorts made me want to write flash in the early days of my career. Janice Galloway’s short fiction is a huge inspiration as well.

RB: What genre do you enjoy writing more? Have you written any flash in that genre? Please share if they are published.

HS: I don’t really think in terms of genre, I just get interested in a topic or character and start writing. I struggle to place my writing in any particular genre at all. I have called my science writing fictionalized nonfiction, although that’s a bit of a mouthful! My stories in Litro and Cazart are examples of this style.

RB: You have a very interesting set of current projects list at your Helen Sedgewick blog.  Please tell us some more. And also, are you planning to use the flash fiction form in any of these?

HS: My collection of science-themed stories will certainly involve some flash, and because it’s my favourite project at the moment I’m giving it priority. I’m looking forward to getting back to novel writing as well though. One of my ideas for a book came from the Titan Arum at Kew Gardens, the largest single flowering plant in the world. It’s sometimes given the name “The Corpse Flower” because it smells so bad, how could I not write about that?

RB:  Give us a glimpse of the spaces/places/situations that have triggered a story idea in your head. And if you weren’t near your computer/writing pad, how did you go about keeping that idea tethered?

HS: It’s hard to say exactly where ideas come from, because they often start from the most unlikely combinations of inspirations. But places certainly are an influence from a particularly desolate beach I visited as a child to a small chapel I saw on holiday inPortugal. Like most writers I know, I carry a notebook with me everywhere. All the ideas get jotted down, even if they sometimes turn out to be illegible or nonsensical! And if I can’t reach my notebook, I tell myself that the really good ideas won’t be forgotten.

RB: What words of advice and caution do you have for writers submitting to Fractured West? Also what puts you off in a flash fiction?

HS: The one thing I’m always looking for as an editor is a new idea. The most common problem with submissions to Fractured West is not that they’re badly written, but that they feel familiar. The voice, themes or characters are too similar to what I’ve read before. So my advice to writers would be: Find something new to say. And I know, it’s not easy!


Rumjhum Biswas is a writer based in Chennai. Her fiction and poetry have been published all over the world. She has prizes and accolades for poetry and fiction inIndia and abroad, including having one of her stories among Story South’s top ten stories of 2007, being long listed for the Bridport in poetry in 2006, shortlisted for Aesthetica’s Creative Works in 2011 and recently the first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Competition.

by Jim Harrington 

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Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. He serves Flash Markets Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read his stories at

Alexander Burnsby Alexander Burns

To ameliorate the misery of my daily commute, I’ve taken up audio books again. I did this before, when I had an hour-long commute, then fell out of the habit after moving closer to work. Over the past few years, the trip has gotten increasingly longer. I might as well have stayed in my old city because the 15-mile trip to work now takes me a good 35 minutes. Usually worse going home. I live in North Texas, so there’s no other option than a soul-numbing drive. I recently churned through China Miéville’s The City & The City. So good. I can add it to the list of his books I recommend, along with all the others. There is an excellent interview with him here.

The book and my interest in urban planning over the past couple years—how it works and how it doesn’t work (as in not solving my commuting problems)—are making me think about cities and how I’ve used them in my fiction. When I write about cities, I tend to default to New York. I’ve been there a couple times, but more importantly, so has everyone else. It’s been the setting of so many stories, in prose and film, that it’s an easy place to envision and an easy place to emulate. But it feels lazy.

In “Shades of Red,” my superhero story, I made up an unnamed metropolis that is basically New York with different street names so I don’t have to worry about being faithful to a real place, and don’t have to worry about someone saying, “Hey, that Museum is on 5th, not 8th!” or whatever. It’s a poor man’s world building.

Thinking back on the story, I did a decent job of painting a picture of a few different, varied parts of the city, casting certain areas as being affluent, others as run down. There’s a building that comes to life as a dark god and tries to eat our hero. It’s a whole thing. So that’s pretty cool, I think.

The other story that jumps out at me is “Four Liars”, a flash piece that uses two different versions of London to portray some time-paradox hijinks. The story was inspired by a tower in Ireland.  I liked using the steampunk fantasy London versus real London to show a shift in the space-time continuum.

Notice the similarity, though? These aren’t places I live.

In Miéville’s work, cities are living, breathing characters and understanding how they work and their development is crucial to understanding the stories, whether it’s London or New Crobuzon. I envy his capacity to do that. Miéville lives in London, so he’s got a rich tapestry to work with. What am I going to write about? Who cares if a monster knocks over a McDonalds? Or if that character worked at Wal-Mart? Wow, what a unique experience shared by millions of people in the exact same copy-paste store across the country. My suburb is a haven of suppressed rot and dysfunction? Guess what: they all are, and have been for decades, and better people than me have written about it a hundred times over.

But maybe that’s something I can work with? Maybe that very frustration can be useful. I can’t be the only person feeling this way.

I’m a huge fan of cities that work. New York and San Francisco were revelations. I look forward to visiting Chicago, Seattle, and Portland. In Texas, cities are looked down upon, and the citizenry insists on arranging everything according to an ill-conceived order that favors cars over people and ends up with a place untenable for either. The distant corporate chain is worshiped, and no building is built to last for more than five or ten years because in a little while they’re going to pick up and push further out from the city center, insulating themselves from any culture that isn’t tied to fast-food convenience. If I didn’t live here, I would never visit Dallas or Fort Worth. There are worthy tourist attractions, but it’s an oppressive slog to visit most of them.

Sidewalks and buses are detestable signs of poverty, and to suggest that maybe it would be nice to be able to bike somewhere other than a park is the worst kind of sedition. Walking somewhere is sure to get you inquisitive looks and offers of help from people who assume your vehicle broke down somewhere. The car culture is even reflected in our houses, which are basically just garages with a shed for sleeping attached to the back. We are forced to choose between places that are livable and places that have good schools for our children. Legions of the habitual short-sighted defend this living arrangement as though it is the essence of freedom, instead of the opposite. Anyone wondering how to fix America would do well to look at this first.

I could go on, but there are people and websites that explain it all better than me.

It’s something I’d like to work on. Create a city that feels local. Or just use local cities, try to pry some culture out of them, use specific details, and explore the problems that make them unique in spite of their best efforts. We absorb so much of the setting we live in, why not actually use it?


Alexander Burns
 lives in Fort Worth, Texas. He writes because he doesn’t have a basement in which to build robots or time machines. His work has appeared at Every Day Fiction, 10Flash, The Future Fire, A Thousand Faces, and Big Pulp, and recently received an honorable mention at the Writers of the Future Contest.

Randall Brownby Randall Brown

Desire, it is often, perhaps too often, said drives narrative into being, and there is not only the desire of the main character to consider, but the desire of Reader, Writer, and some believe, even the Text itself. When you write very short things, you are often told what your text really wants:

“It’s begging to be a short story.”

“I’m certain this piece wants to be a prose poem.”

“What your text really is, what it’s telling you it is and you can’t hear it but I can, is that it wants to be a novel, maybe even a trilogy.”

So, yes, flash texts yearn, and I wonder, perhaps too much, what they desire and from whom they want it. What does the flash text crave from its characters, its readers, its writers? These text whisperers, the ones who hear things in my texts, would have me believe that the flash text wants to be something other than it is. I doubt it. I’m certain of the flash’s desire to be what it is, but what other yearnings burn inside that flash? Here are six guesses about what a flash text wants.

  1. To recreate the world in its image. At the end of “The Oven Bird,” Frost asks “What to make of a diminished thing?” That diminished has a number of meanings, like most things in Frost’s poems, but I’m drawn to “be-little” as a possible one. It’s the world that has become little, and Frost’s implied answer, or one such answer—”You give it a poem”—might lead some readers to think that the poem itself is a diminished thing, too. I don’t think so. Was it Frost who said, “The world isn’t fallen because Eve bit an apple, but because we believe she did?” Or was it someone writing about Frost? The point is that flash believes the world isn’t captured by words, but recreated by them. Each word carries that weight of re-creation (or is that recreation?), of procreation, of the compressed big bang. It’s the world stripped of the immaterial. It wants not the world as it is but the world as it might be, if flash were in charge.
  2. To matter. As most tiny things do, flash knows what you might think of it, its size associated with insignificance in your mind. Flash wants you to confess this thought, that you’re like the middle school social studies teacher who desires a full page for the “A.” Flash doesn’t fill pages the way those “A” students do. Flash must find other ways to matter, to add up to something, than the word after word, the failed action after failed action, the words chasing that hard-earned resolution, hard-earned because it took page after page to get there. Flash searches for the alternative way to matter in this world. Sometimes it finds profundity in what others find nothingness; other times, it finds meaning by eschewing their desire for somethingness. Flash doesn’t fit the tired, old rubrics; it needs another vision against which it gets it value.
  3. To be attended to. The process of reading a longer piece is the process of forgetting, so much so that I wonder if the novel, for example, works primarily subconsciously, as much an echo as a voice. A novel’s words want to disappear from consciousness, want to take root like the archetypal images of dreams. A flash’s words demand your attention, especially those (very) tiny flashes. A flash shouts out, “Attention must be paid!” It’s later flash wants to haunt you, like a flashback, a tiny moment in the midst of the ongoing narrative, a burst of something concentrated.
  4. To be inhaled. Sometimes, I think flash writers oversell the long hours spent working on a flash piece, as if they feel that anything so small must be defended as “work.” Having written and published longer pieces, I don’t feel that I constructed flash the way I did the longer pieces. Flash is okay coming out as an exhale, and I read somewhere that with each inhale, we take in the molecules from everyone who has ever lived. Maybe I made that up. I can’t remember. In any case, that exhale of flash adds your own nature to the nature of all that’s ever been. Flash is okay being easy to get out of your system. Flash doesn’t want to be constructed and deconstructed, taken apart in bites. Swallow me whole, flash says. That’s the way flash came into the world, the way it’ll go out.
  5. To be measured by its girth. If we were to check Flash Fiction’s in-box, we’d find spam after spam for Fiction Extender pills. Too tiny? Take two of these. Girth, that “measurement around the middle of something,” might be a better measurement of flash. Its breadth! And within that breadth exists both breath and bread, something maybe important, for flash is certainly bigger than a breath and smaller than a breadbox, and the point is what? Breadth has associated with it concepts such as range, extent, scope, depth, reach. Flash won’t be taking any pills; it knows there’s more to it than meets the eye.
  6. To be loved. Because it’s what we all want, isn’t it?, in spite of our protestations about rejection meaning anything to us. Flash wants your big, big love, and of course it wants to deserve your love, be worthy of it, doesn’t want it given just because it wants it. Flash wants maybe then, the possibility of your big love, the potentiality of it, the hope of it. Maybe flash wants more this than flesh. Maybe flash would burn skin and leave only bone.


This article was originally posted at Flash Fiction Chronicles on March 24, 2010.


Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning flash fiction collection Mad to Live (Flume Press 2008), a collection that has been recently republished by PS Books in Philadelphia as a Deluxe Edition with “bonus tracks.” Over 300 poems, essays, and short fiction pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous literary journals and his  work has received nominations for the Pushcart, O. Henry, Million Writers, and Best of Web Prizes—and has appeared in various anthologies, both here and abroad, including The Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. In December 2010, he founded and currently manages Matter Press, a community-based, non-profit literary press that publishes an online literary journal (The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts). He also is the founder of FlashFiction.Net, a nationally recognized blog with a singular mission, “To prepare writers, readers, editors, and fans for the imminent rise to power of that machine of compression, that hugest of things in the tiniest of spaces: flash fiction!”  

He can be reached at