advice


by Jeff Switt

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

“Every word must count.” Right?

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

Yes, that’s what I’m writing about.

Let me share my experience with writing flash fiction.

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

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

“Every word must count.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

by Andreé Robinson-Neal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andree-New

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

By Julie Duffy

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

What Is Horror?

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

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

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

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

SubGenre Confusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Not To Write When Writing Horror

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

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

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

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

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

How To Horrify

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenge of Flash Fiction Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s nothing to be scared of!

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

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 I feel differently now. Feel free to agree, or disagree, or add your own take on the quote and what I said. Below is the next post in this series.

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“You’ve got to write the book you have to write, not a book you think will sell even if you don’t care about the idea and story. “ -Bob Mayer in The One Sentence Idea.

A couple of my flash stories have been sitting around for a few months, and I’ll probably never finish them. Why? I wrote the stories based on writing prompts. In one case, the idea sounded good at the time; but the theme isn’t something I’m passionate about. I can’t get into the story and character enough to make it work. A second story is one I’m not sure I can write. I don’t have any experience in the problem the character is facing. I suppose I could find someone who does and talk to that person about her experience. I could, but I won’t. There are other stories I’m more interested in—and capable of—completing.

Are you stuck on your current WIP? Maybe the problem is the story line has led you to an idea you aren’t interested in. As I’ve found, forcing the story along doesn’t work. It may be that it’s time to back up and have the character go in a different direction at some point in the story. Perhaps this would work with my second story above, if I can figure out a different path. Hmm.

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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 Akhtar

There was a little dust-up recently in the comments section of an online flash site when a fair number of readers weren’t impressed by a particular story. Many of them found it shallow, lacking in a fully-developed plot and with unengaging characters.

The author’s defense? It was just a little piece of fun he’d barely spent two hours total on, including the rewrite. Supporting argument? Hey–it got published, didn’t it?

On his own blog, the author posted the positive comments (and positive parts of largely negative comments too), and wrote a minor rant against the idiots who couldn’t appreciate his worth.

The moral of this story: Don’t be shocked when at least someone in the crowd wonders where the Emperor’s skivvies are.

Authors: Do you maintain, even in your head, “A” and “B” and “C” lists to guide you in submitting your work? Do you consider non- or low-paying sites fallbacks when you want to meet your own quotas but don’t have anything “really good” to submit?

Don’t do it.

Bad enough in the olden days of print magazines, where it might have been a little harder to keep track of everything a prolific author wrote. Praise for the good stuff tended to drown out any grumbles about the bad; once someone had a bit of a reputation, he could sell almost anything somewhere.

But now, with the internet, we can easily find almost everything you’ve had published. And “we” might be not only the general public, but that agent you’re dying to impress or the publisher with the power to offer a lucrative contract.

Everyone understands the chronology of a writer’s growth. They’re not going to hold your early works against you, if you’ve gotten much better since then. But what about those half-hearted stories that happened to suit a particular site’s needs at the time—for whatever reason—but don’t really showcase your worth?

Can you really say—not to those faceless critics in the horde of the great unwashed, on whom you heap your authorial scorn—but to publishers and editors and agents who’ve done a casual internet search and decide, based on something that wasn’t your favorite, that you might not have the stamina to be their pick—”well, I really didn’t give a damn about that one, but they took it anyway?”

If you are a “real writer,” you won’t have contempt for any segment of your audience. Five acceptances, or fifty, or five hundred—you haven’t earned the right to take readers for granted.

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

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