advice


by Jim Harrington

Queen’s Ferry Press is in the process of collecting stories for an annual anthology to be titled The Best Small Fictions. Fiction and prose poetry from 6 to 1,000 words published during the current year are eligible for inclusion. For the first edition, nominations will be accepted from October 1, 2014 through January 24, 2015. Journal editors and book publishers may submit up to five nominations (print or online) from their journals, chapbooks, broadsides, or story collections.

I interviewed Tara L. Masih, Series Editor, about this project.

TARAMASIHPICTara L. Masih has won multiple book awards as editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays. Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories was a National Best Books Award finalist. Her flash has been anthologized in Word of Mouth, Brevity & Echo, BITE, and Flash Fiction Funny; was featured in Fiction Writer’s Review for National Short Story Month; and was a finalist for the Reynolds Price Prize in Fiction. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. www.taramasih.com

Jim Harrington: Hi, Tara, and thank you for agreeing to be a part of The Best Small Fictions. What is the purpose/goal of this effort?

Tara Masih: The purpose is to provide a forum for writers who are producing extremely well-wrought small fictions, a forum that recognizes their work at the end of the year. Most of the other genres have this formal recognition, but the short-short story does not. There is of course the venerable Wigleaf Top 50 list, and your own list that appears during short story month, but these lists appear online. We wanted to resuscitate the print series Robert Oberfirst published in 1952–1960, his Anthology of Best Short Short Stories. Enough small fictions were produced at that time to command a yearly volume. Our word count limit is a bit smaller than his, and we have a new title, but Queen’s Ferry Press and I believe enough quality work is being published again to merit an annual anthology. Consider this a contemporary nod to an old era when the short-short thrived.

JH: There have been flash fiction anthologies published before this—the Sudden Fiction series comes to mind. How will this anthology be different?

TM: And the Flash Fiction series. Both groundbreaking anthology series that are highly respected. Each series has its own criteria for inclusion and covers a broader spectrum over a number of years. Ours will be different in that it will be briefer, more inclusive of experimentation and different word lengths, and have the barometer of being the best work within a certain year. I think the confines of the calendar year will lead to a different feel. I’ll be curious to see if any specific topics keep coming up that reflect world headlines. We’re also opening it up internationally, so readers in the States will get a taste of what is being published outside its borders, and vice versa.

JH: The guidelines mention “hybrid fiction” and “experimental form.” Editors and publishers may have different definitions for these terms. Can you tell us a little more about what you’re looking for, as regards hybrid and experimental stories?

TM: I welcome the different definitions of hybrid and experimentation. I’d rather leave it up to the editors to decide what they want to send in. Basically, if it’s small and contains elements of a fictional story, I don’t care what form it comes in. Graphic stories can be submitted, too, as long as there is text.

JH: Do you have an idea of how many stories will be in the final version?

TM: Since this is the first year, I hesitate to give a firm number. We have a goal, and we’ll see if we can reach it. But it will depend on submissions and the quality we receive. We won’t be making compromises to “fill” the book. We’ll only publish what the guest editor feels is the best of the year. We anticipate that it will be a slim, affordable book, densely packed with excellent, eclectic stories.

JH: Robert Olen Butler is selecting the winners from the finalists. How exciting is that?

TM: More than exciting. I can’t tell you what this means to both me and the press. It shows his character, that he’s willing to take time off from writing his latest novel to do this for a small press because he believes in the project and the idea of it. He and I work well together, too, so he was our first choice for guest editor, and we’re honored he accepted. He has a great feel for story and it will be fun for me to see what he eventually chooses as “The Best.”

JH: What else would you like our readers to know about this project?

TM: That this project is for the writers who voluntarily spill their thoughts and feelings on paper, in a small space, then send it out and hope it gets accepted, into a world that doesn’t completely value its worth yet. It’s a tough process and takes its toll. This project I hope will give the writers who are commended the recognition they deserve and a small boost to keep writing, and the editors who publish them the satisfaction that they chose well. Editors often go unnoticed. This gives them some accolades, too. We’ll make sure the publishers of the stories are acknowledged in some way.

JM: Thank you, Tara. This sounds like an exciting project, and I look forward to reading the finished product. You can learn more about The Best Small Fictions on the Queen’s Ferry Press website.

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jimharrington2

Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. His stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, Ink Sweat and Tears, Near to the Knuckle, Flashes in the Dark, and others. He serves as the Managing 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 more of his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.

by Andreé Robinson-Neal

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Hopefully you all survived the three most momentous days of November: Gray Thursday, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday. And if shopping and eating were not on your list of to-do’s for the month, Flash Fiction Chronicles had more than enough to keep you occupied. The month began with a visit with Rolli and a review of his latest book, I Am Currently Working on a Novel, which is enough to distract you from whatever else you planned to do online today. R.L. Black added to the distraction by giving us fantastic tips about writing spooky flash fiction. She points us to the things that make great flash but takes it further with one primary pointer for writing horror flash: “write what scares you.”

Some might interpret the slope as John’s descent, but he’d have to arrive somewhere first before having a drop off and I don’t think he reaches the pinnacle of anything other than his own misery.

That wonderful line is from Susan Tepper’s chat with Richard Fulco for November’s UNCOV/rd. He’s talking about the main character of his debut novel, There Is No End to This Slope. You will most certainly want to slip your credit cards away after you pick up this morsel.

For many parts of the world, November is a solid mark of fall—brown leaves, cooler temperatures—and drives writers in front of their space heaters or fireplaces to conjure unplagiarized versions of dark and stormy nights. Elizabeth Maria Naranjo gets us in the mood for what comes next: the editing process. Many writers hate self-editing but hate having their work dissected by someone else even more. If you came up with the next best seller during the month for NaNoWriMo, give her article a once-over so you know how to react when you take a first look at the mark-up after editing. But before you click “send” to get your tome into the hands of your editor, consider Cameron Filas‘ suggestion to make notes from previous rejections and comb through that manuscript first. He takes us old-school by suggesting sticky notes, but he advises we can keep it high-tech, too. And before you decide to chuck the idea of using a third-party editor (instead of your best friend), give Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s piece on what a real editor will tell you and how it helps your writing a good once-over.

If you are not a flash fiction writer but want to give it a go, Mark Budman offers practical points and examples of how it’s done. He even reminds us that “flash writers are the enemies of fat.” Perhaps his article should have come along in January when we make our New Year’s resolutions … Fortunately RK Biswas’s review of  My Very End of the Universe – Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form is a giant bellyful of flash and skill-builders. Rose Metal Press offers this hefty volume, not just for our reading pleasure, but to help us learn the what’s and how’s of “doing flash.”

Speaking of how to do flash, Aliza Greenblatt introduces us to Jeff Switt, the EDF Top Author for October, whose piece “Halloween Coming Out” gives us a sample of someone who has a handle on this flash business. Gila Green offers us a step-by-step for building character-driven flash in which we cut the fat and get on with the enjoyment of writing.

As we neared the end of November, Jim Harrington brought back an interesting quote for us to sink our teeth into. The point is something that serves as a main ingredient in most of the posts from the month: tell the story. And the period on the sentence? Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s share from the EDF Archive, in which the author offered a great story that, as she says, is also “a perfect example for writers on why less is so often more.”

Hopefully our November offerings satiated your mental hunger pains for flash and more! Be sure to visit for more this month.

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

 

by Julie Duffy

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Continuing in our series of writing for genres, this month we’re talking about Humor. Or Comedy. Or both.

Comedy Or Humor?

Kurt Luchs, founder of The Big Jewel and a writer whose humor has been featured in The New Yorker, The Onion and McSweeney’s, knows a thing or two about the topic. He makes a distinction between humor writing and comedic writing.

“Humor to me is something written by a humorist, which is to say something funny, yes, obviously, but also something smart and exhibiting some sense of literary style based on a deep knowledge of literary history,” says Luchs.

“Telling jokes and sort of stringing them together until you fill out the page or you feel like stopping, does not constitute humor writing. That’s what Dave Barry does. Is it funny? Quite frequently. Is it comedy? Definitely. Is it humor? I would say no, because it’s got no sense of literary style, no layers, no nuance, no form. For that reason I doubt people will still be reading him in the next century, but I bet they’ll still be reading Benchley, Ian Frazier and Veronica Geng.”

If we agree to draw this distinction between comedic writing and literary humor, does that mean Humor is the only kind of funny writing that has any depth?

Perhaps not. Eric Bosarge of Eric’s Hysterics was quick to remind us that, “comedy is really just drama in disguise,” which helps to explain the peculiar ability of humor to make serious point—something we’ll talk about a little later in this post.

Christopher Fielden has a more broad definition of the genre:

“Humor is a genre that should bring a smile to your face while you’re reading it.”

Milo James Fowler agrees and reminds us about the role of the author’s intent.

“Writers of humor want readers to enjoy themselves.”

There is, of course, an audience for both literary humor and for ‘stories that make you laugh’, but Luchs’ definition is a useful one to bear in mind as you try to find homes for your writing.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Why write humor?

Sometimes the answer is simple:

“It’s more fun to write than any other genre,” says Fielden, who likes fun so much that he created a uniquely silly prize for his literary contest: the winning stories are bound into an anthology, strapped to the front of his motorbike and driven from his home near Bristol, in the southwest of England, to Hull, on the opposite coast, and back—a round trip of almost 500 miles.

Sometimes the motivation to write humor is a reaction to events in the news, or to problems in society. Consider the Ezra Pound quote supplied by Kurt Luchs:

“Journalism is news. Literature is news that stays news.”

Sometimes it can even be a reaction to the prevailing tone in your favorite genre.

Milo James Fowler’s comic science fiction hero, Captain Bartholomew Quasar is pompous, ridiculous and hugely popular. He recently won Fowler his first book contract. So why write funny science fiction stories?

“A lot of today’s science fiction is pretentious, bleak, and nihilistic. Where’s the fun in that?”

But there is also a more serious side to Captain Quasar’s adventures, says Fowler.

“The fallibility of human nature is something we all can relate to. We should laugh at ourselves on a regular basis.”

Christopher Fielden agrees, “[Humor] can allow you to tackle sensitive subject matters in a way that people can relate to and appreciate.”

Just as long as you don’t forget to bring the funny, says Fowler. “There may be serious societal issues or thinly disguised current events at the heart of the story, but laughter is the ultimate goal.”

Making Funny Stories Funny … And Stories

Inspired to write a humorous story? Stop! Read on for tips from our experts about how you can write humorous stories that are more than a wannabe stand-up routine.

Humor is there to enhance a story, but the story itself is still the most important thing,” warns Christopher Fielden.

Eric Bosarge had a similar comment.

“I look for the piece to be grounded by a clear narrative thread and for the story to progress.”

And beware trying too hard:

“Some writers try and be funny for the sake of being funny, or try and be laugh-out-loud funny with every word. This can lead to melodrama, an overuse of exclamation marks and poor story structure,” says Fielden.

Fowler agrees. “Don’t go for a punchline. Readers can see one of those coming from a mile away.

Kurt Luchs offered this guide through the process of writing and revising a humor piece:

“Every single sentence needs to be either a setup to a joke, the joke itself, or a follow-up joke that may itself become another setup. There can be sentences without laughs, but no paragraphs without laughs.

“There should be running gags that ratchet up the premise in some interesting fashion, or even parallel sets of running gags that intertwine and conclude in some unexpected but satisfying way. The thing should both climb and cohere.”

A good humor piece is as tightly and carefully constructed as a sonnet.

Humor In A Flash

Happily, humor is one of the genres that lends itself to flash fiction the best.

“The longer a piece of humor is, the harder it becomes to sustain and the harder it becomes to keep building into a fitting conclusion by topping itself right up until the end,” says Luchs.

He describes the natural limit of most humor pieces as 500-1000 words, but that doesn’t mean that all short, funny tales are good flash fiction.

“A flash-sized tale is not an oversized joke,” cautions Fowler. “Weave the humor throughout your piece.”

And don’t forget to revise rigorously, says Bosarge. “[Writers] should look over the story and ask themselves, ‘did I miss any opportunities for a laugh’ before hitting send.”

Ending On The Right Note

“Endings are hard, and hardest of all in humor,” says Luchs. “Ideally the ending should be the funniest—or one of the funniest —parts. Again, if the piece has been cleverly constructed, and the writer has several plates spinning in the form of running gags, an ending will often emerge naturally out of that. Circularity, returning to the beginning in some way, can work, especially if there is some extra twist.”

Another option is to amplify the humor—or the satire—by changing the tone at the end. Luchs explains,

“Sometimes it’s better to let the ending twist away from humor a bit, if that fits with the premise. There is a reason that many albums by the audio comedy troupe the Firesign Theatre end on a wistful or tragicomic note instead of a punchline.”

An ending he can’t abide is the ‘shaggy-dog story’, where the entire story is a set up for a single punchline.

“We have an editor whose only job is to hunt down the authors of shaggy dog stories and put them out of their misery. It keeps him busy year round.”

We can only hope, here, that Luchs is being humorous.

On Selling Humor

Selling humor is hard. It was the one thing that everyone I interviewed agreed on. It doesn’t pay well and there aren’t enough markets. (Santa, are you listening?)

“There are perhaps half a dozen outlets worth being seen in,” says Luchs, “and even they don’t pay.”

It’s also hard because humor is such a personal taste.

“Not all funny bones are created equal,” admits Fowler, who had his own run-in with commenters at Every Day Fiction, not all of whom appreciated his sense of humor in Future Tense / Present Perfect.

“…. I just keep sending my work out there until an editor snatches it up.” Fowler adds. I can almost see his wry smile, even over email.

Christopher Fielden felt so strongly about this that he started his own humor contest. Luchs edits his own humor publication. Fowler has gone with a small publisher to bring out his first Captain Quasar novel.

“My advice is,” says Kurt Luchs, “if you don’t love this thing, if you aren’t passionate about it for its own sake, stay away.”

If you simply can’t help yourself, then take some encouragement from the words of the often-published Milo James Fowler:

“Some stories take a couple rejections before finding a good home; others take a couple dozen. I’ve sold 97 short stories so far, and I haven’t lost hope on any of my homeless tales yet.”

How does he recommend we follow his example?

“Weed out as many unnecessary words as possible. Polish until shiny. Rinse and repeat. Dunk and swish. Line dry. When ready, submit to a publisher as weird as you are. Then go write something new—and funnier.”

Now, doesn’t the thought of that make you smile?

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

by Jim Harrington

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I began writing fiction in January of 2007. In October of 2008, I created a blog where I posted a quote and then wrote about what the quote meant to me as a writer. Honestly, the daily posts were intended for myself. They were a way to force me to think about each quote and how it might change my writing. If people reading my comments gained from them, so much the better. I’m going to post a few of these as I wrote them—even if feel differently now. Feel free to agree, or disagree, or add your own take on the quote and what I said. Here’s today’s article.

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Fugedaboudit (first published 2/15/10)

Forget symbolism, forget literary theory, put aside your desire to be anthologized. Tell the most authentic story you can, with as much attention and sensitivity to life as you can muster. — Randall Silvis Write to Connect With Readers. [The Writer, January 2010]

It’s all about the story.

Beginning writers, and those somewhat beyond the beginning stage, struggle to find their writing voice. Sometimes the struggle is such that the writer stops writing. In other cases, writers attempt to copy voices from novels and short stories they like. My guess is this doesn’t work out very well. Understanding how a writer writes and being inside the writer’s head when he does are two separate things.

I don’t remember struggling with voice. I probably did. It’s always been about the story with me. If a piece failed, it wasn’t because of the voice. No, it was because I wasn’t invested enough in what happened to the character to be able to write the tale.

I like today’s quote. Why? Because it tells it like it is. Forget about similes and metaphors. Forget about writing “fancy” prose. Forget about getting published and being famous. Just write the story. If the writing is good and true to the characters, the rest will take care of itself.

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Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. His stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, Ink Sweat and Tears, Near to the Knuckle, Flashes in the Dark, and others. He serves as the Managing 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 more of his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

 Sarah AkhtarThere’s a lot of disdain these days for traditional publishing. Unknown writers look at the odds, and then at the alternatives, and are increasingly tempted to self-publish.

There are plenty of springy-looking platforms to leap off of. Anyone willing to invest a little money and a lot of time can start marketing their own work.

Should you bite that apple?

What’s so great about brick and mortar publishers, anyway?

Web-based publishers have cut overhead to the bone and many of them are marvelous. They’ve created a reader’s paradise. Even the cheapest paperbacks are largely unaffordable to people on limited budgets. But an e-book can be less expensive than a cup of coffee from the corner deli.

And web-based writers’ groups help fledgling authors build supportive audiences and markets for their work. You can be in the midst of a thriving artistic community no matter where you live.

But one of the fruits of a healthy community is a sort of self-censorship. It’s not dishonesty, but rather the desire not to wound. If we all said everything we thought, with absolute truth, all the time, life would become unbearable.

And writers’ circles or critique groups tend to form around people of similar levels of achievement. Everyone’s growing together. And everyone hopes for success, for themselves and their colleagues. There’s a powerful fellowship of encouragement.

This Eden needs a serpent.

I have never joyfully welcomed the email saying “there’s a slight problem with your story.” Seriously. Would I have sent it in if I thought it wasn’t ready?

It took me well over a year to skip the mental hyper-ventilating and get straight to revising, whenever a rewrite request arrived. I can still feel my head lowering mutinously as I read any criticism of my work.

But most of the editors I’ve worked with have helped me strengthen my own voice. Sometimes I don’t accede to every single suggestion, but I have never declined to revise a story, when requested.

That was a mistake in only one instance, but I knew at the time I was going for publication rather than the purity of my artistic vision, so to speak. So I take full responsibility for that.

Your mastery of craft is constantly growing. I’m pretty confident in my own gifts, now, but even so, it startles me to see how a beginning story from a couple of months ago, say, will seem awfully lacking today. I’ll need to rework those first few paragraphs before I can go any further.

When you self-publish, you have few brakes on that giddy road towards becoming a fine author. There’s an enticing tidbit that people like to munch on—the lists of successful authors showing how many times clueless agents and publishers turned them down, before they signed their first book contract.

Yes, it is true that genius is not always recognized in a timely way by the minions born to serve it. It’s true that very fine writers are rejected every day, and that self-publishing can be a midwife to works that truly deserve to see the light of day.

It can also make a name for you that you might wish you could escape, later. Maybe you’ve got great potential now but you’re not quite there yet. Maybe in a year or two or five, undaunted by rejection, you’ll have found that remarkable voice you always knew was inside.

Or maybe you published before you should have, and you had a brief exciting moment of seeing your stuff offered on Amazon, with wonderful reviews by everyone you know, and you never got any better than you were at that moment.

Don’t just believe the people who like you, and care about you, and want you to succeed. Think about why some of those people who’d love to have discovered the next new great talent are saying you’re not ready yet.

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

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