CRAFT


by Julie Duffy

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In this series, we’re taking a ‘back to basics’ look at Genre: what certain genres encompass, what readers look for in a particular genre, how to write well (and terribly) in that genre. We’re talking to writers, editors and publishers to bring you the tools you need to succeed in genre flash fiction.

Science Fiction

Science fiction is big. Really big. Both in terms of audience and the many ways you can write fiction and have it called ‘science fiction’. It is also a mature genre, having come of age in the first half of the 20th century. Since then, its vast audience has had time to form strong opinions about what is and is not science fiction.

“Friendships have been forged and broken over the question ‘what is science fiction,’” warns writer Linda Nagata, with her tongue only partly in her cheek.

The good news is that, with such a large and popular genre, there is room for all flavors of story: from Star Wars-style ‘space opera’, to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘hard’ science fiction, to ‘science fantasy’ time travel tales. Then there’s your post-apocalptic, near-future, military and sociological fiction, not to mention, cross-genre, bizarro and slipstream, all of which can end up under the ‘science fiction’ banner.

Is your head spinning yet?

What Are the Basic Requirements for Science Fiction?

Linda Nagata provided us with a good definition of science fiction,

“Loosely, science fiction is a story that involves some speculative or yet-to-be-invented technology.”

She goes on to qualify this: not every story involving gadgets counts as ‘hard’ science fiction.

“If magic or supernatural elements are present, I think of it as fantasy, even if technology is part of the story.”

The Twilight Zone is an example of this. Many stories revolved around technology, aliens or space travel, but there was never a technological ‘answer’ to the story’s puzzle. The mystery was supernatural, and so, while it appeals to the kind of audience that likes science fiction, The Twilight Zone is more properly called ‘fantasy.’

What Readers Want

Again, let’s remember that genre definitions have more to do with ‘helping the audience find stories they like’ than they do with ‘defining your work.’ With a focus on the reader, it’s easier to see how all these sub-genres fit under ‘Science Fiction.’

Science fiction readers tend to be looking for action (physical or mental), a story that challenges assumptions, and stunning, thought-provoking ‘what ifs.’ At the very minimum, says Nagata, readers will;

“…have a curious mind and be open to stories set in worlds that are not outside our front door.”

Most of all, however, readers want stories about interesting people who are facing up to new challenges (or perhaps old ones) in the face of the technology in the story.

How to Squeeze Science Fiction into Flash

In flash fiction, there is very little room to build a realistic world. Genres and sub-genres can help readers make mental shortcuts and understand what to expect.

“A reader has to have some common shared background with the writer in order to understand what he reads,” adds Mark Budman of Vestal Review. “This background comprises the language, the vocabulary, the experience, the culture, the history.”

Of course, relying too much on a genre’s tropes leads to clichés.

“If you’re seriously interested in writing science fiction,” says Linda Nagata, “you need to be aware of [the] diversity, at the least so you’ll know what the clichés are, and also so that you’ll understand the needs of different story markets. So read widely, and read a lot.”

She suggests that, because of the tightness of flash fiction, science fiction flash writers might rely on standard settings — “a present-day laboratory, a space capsule that has lost power, a post-nuclear-apocalypse wasteland—something the reader has seen before and can grasp without much explanation.”

Another way to make room for world-building is suggested by Michael Arnzen, flash fiction author and Professor of English at Seton Hall University.

“Start as close to the end as possible. Perhaps we are just one character decision away from an outcome, or one clue away from solving a mystery.”

Both approaches allow you to spend time following the characters through their emotional journeys.

And, to satisfy a science fiction reader, it’s not enough to throw in a bunch of gizmos and technobabble: the events in the story must make sense. Even in the champion-of-weird sub-genre of “slipstream,” the plot (and the technology) must follow the story’s own internal logic.

E.S. Wynn, chief editor of Smashed Cat Magazine, stresses that in slipstream stories;

The weird is important, but it must make sense. Stay with me—if a writer puts together a story that isn’t coherent, readers won’t be able to get into it. Plant dragons that breathe methane and fly through space? Cool, but make sure it serves the story. Telling us about your plant dragons and then writing a bit of grandma’s apple pie recipe into the story for “weirdness” isn’t going to fly, most of the time.

Just as in any science fiction story, one might say, ‘The science is important, but it must make sense.”

How to Write Science Fiction Badly

As with any genre, the worst crime a writer can commit is to be boring. It’s especially true in science fiction. As E. S. Wynn points out;

“Fans of the genre look for…newness, novelty, voices and perspectives they’ve never heard before.”

The second-worst crime is to unwittingly use clichés that make readers groan. Luckily, this second crime is easily avoided by, as Linda Nagata suggested, reading widely in the genre.

Reading voraciously in your genre also helps you develop a deeper understand of what it means to write in that genre.

“There’s a common misconception,” says Nagata, “that hard science fiction (my specialty) is all about the technology, with little good characterization. That simply isn’t true…the story needs to be about people living in those story worlds and the challenges they face because of the technology around them.”

Without interesting characters facing fascinating challenges, stories in any sub-genre of science fiction flash will fail.

As for the how to end a science fiction flash piece, Mark Budman cautions against “moralizing, clichés, puns for the sake of puns or poorly-executed jokes.”

And with that, I’ll resist the temptation to end this on a pun and simply invite you back next month for the next in our series on Genre.

 ____________

Julie Duffy writes short fiction and is the host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay.org.

 

by Krystyna Fedosejevs

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What was it like for me to start writing flash fiction? Exciting because it was a challenge, something new to explore and learn about. Frightening. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Nor was I confident that I was capable to reach the goal of mastering it.

Flash fiction. I heard about the form in writers’ circles approximately four years ago. Didn’t give it much thought, put it aside. Decided to continue channelling my energy into poetry, short stories and creative nonfiction. Not that I was an excellent writer in any of those areas, for I was not. Rather, I felt I was in my comfort zone having had some success being published and winning contests. Starting something new back then was not a consideration.

In late March 2013, I stumbled upon a website dedicated to flash writing (Flash Fiction World). I became a member. The site was set up as a tutorial and exercise meeting place for writers. We posted our stories and engaged in constructive criticism of each other’s works. We could also submit stories for publication and if chosen by the editor, they were published. I was fortunate to partake in this educational, exhilarating experience. In autumn of 2013, I learnt that the site had closed down.

Also of benefit were the following sites for writing tips as well as lists of markets for one’s flash fiction: Flash Fiction Chronicles, Stories in your pocket: how to write flash fiction, Flash Fiction: What’s It All About, and Writing Flash Fiction.

How did I approach writing my first flash fiction? Naively. I look back and shudder at a few of my attempts. Imagine, I thought that a truncated traditional short story could be called flash fiction merely by downsizing the number of words! I learnt quickly to recognize the differences, primarily from the feedback I received from more knowledgeable writers. Also by reading other flash stories, especially by award-winning writers. Soon afterwards, with an energized zeal to improve, I produced stories with more favourable results, most of the time.

It’s not easy being a beginner no matter what field or interest one pursues. As writers we realize that we need to learn how to survive rejections or negative remarks. At times, I wondered if to go on making my writing available for public scrutiny or better to retreat and become a word-obsessed recluse. I chose to get my word out there. Let criticism bite me, depress me but then release me to become an even better writer. 

I have been writing flash fiction for more than a year now and realize I’m a long way from being looked upon as an excellent writer. However, I’ve made some headway.

Several of my ultra short works have been published. They can be found at:

Some of the sites I post at are:

Writing flash fiction is a challenge yet so much fun. Opportunities are endless. Six, twenty-five, fifty, one hundred word stories and variants and extensions of words, words, words …

There’s so much out there to discover, embrace and absorb. For one, I plan to look at magazine markets, an area I haven’t touched yet. More possibilities.

I’m definitely in flash fiction mode.

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Krystyna Fedosejevs writes poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. One of her six word stories will be published in the Summer 2014 issue of From the Depths. A recent piece was published at 100 Word Stories. She delights neighbourhood cats with her singing in Alberta, Canada.

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

It’s like the pangs of afterbirth. There’s your lovely story, ready to send out, and you can’t for the life of you think what to call it.

Happened to me once. Put a working title on a flash piece so I could at least submit it. Revised the title when I did the rewrite, but knew it was still a dud. The right one finally came to me, literally in the nick of time, shortly before the due date, so to speak. And to my enormous relief, one commenter remarked that the title was perfect for the tale. If she’d known how I sweated that one. . .

I’ve looked in some strange places for titles. I loathe, fear and despise mathematics, but my offspring has a gift for it. Go figure. And it so bothers me, being locked out of that world he inhabits so naturally, that with the bounteous help of Wikipedia, I’ve named a number of my stories for mathematical or scientific concepts. Those titles sounded so elegant, while making me feel closer to my kid. And strangely, they expressed just what I wanted to say.

Without the intuitively perfect title, a story’s luster is a little dimmed. And a bad or mediocre title may keep readers away from a piece they might have truly enjoyed.

If you’re struggling to name your story, take a little break. I once had to leave something alone for a couple of months, until my main character’s voice called to me so clearly that the right title fell naturally into place. It was frustrating not to be able to submit something I believed in and had worked hard on, but part of growing into your craft is recognizing when you haven’t fully achieved your intent, and waiting until you do.

Resist the urge to slap something on your story because you’re facing a deadline or just want to mark it as completed. You don’t want any child you love to go out into the world ill-named.

____________

 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 and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

By Rohini Gupta

A previous version of this post appeared on Rohini’s blog.

Rohini Gupta

A friend asked a question: Why do you write?

I thought about it and I had no answer. Why do I write?  I have been writing all my life—but why?

It’s rarely easy. Writing itself is an effort of will, usually a balancing act, caught in the cracks between work and family commitments. You must take whatever moments you can, steal time to write, cutting out other pleasures in a desperate and sometimes secret attempt to squeeze a little more writing time from an almost empty tube.

You might drift into many professions because it just happened that the opportunity presented itself but not this one. Writing is a treadmill—if you are not running desperately in place to keep up you will get thrown right off it.

Money is not the reason either. It is not a profession which leads quickly to an obese bank account. Sometimes, as in poetry, it leads to no bank account at all. Poetry is notorious for it—poetry and money just don’t live in the same town.

Does that ever stop poets from writing? Of course not.

So what is it? Success?

Very few writers achieve success. In the days of traditional publishing, many writers never got published. In today’s age of self-publishing you can self-publish and then just disappear in the flood of other books.

A handful achieve fame and fortune. But that has never stopped anyone from writing.

So what is it? What keeps you going, year after year, alone, doubting yourself, struggling with the knives and daggers of rejection, wounded over and over and yet picking yourself up from the gutter again and again, reinventing yourself when all doors seem to be shut, losing yourself in another story while the old ones moulder unread.

It’s a minor miracle that anyone lasts in this field—but some do.

You grow two skins. One is tender, soft and sweet, with the poet’s fingertip sensitivity and the openness to the flow of words.

The other is tougher than rhinoceros hide—you need that when the rejections begin. Make no mistake, you will always need the rhinoceros hide—even success cannot insulate you.

So why go through all that and write?

Why?

You do not write for the externals, for the gains. It is something internal. The act of writing itself.

You don’t write for readers. Your readers are usually your writing friends and writing group members. Will you have millions of fans one day? You can hope but you cannot be sure. Even successful writers are not sure.

All books are not equal, even by the same writer. Writers say that a book from which they expected great success flopped and another, written in a spare thoughtless moment, somehow caught the reader’s imagination. Readers may love you or ignore you, but will that stop you writing?

So why do you write?

You write to write.

Something magical happens when you write and especially when you write poetry or fiction. You connect to the creative part of you, what you might call the Muse.

It opens a universe. It takes you out of yourself. It fills you with magic quite unknown in this prosaic, unimaginative world. For that magnificence what will you not do?  Everything else is dwarfed by those starry moments.

So perhaps, that is the answer to why you write.

You write for companionship—your own.

You write to meet yourself at the deepest and most profound level. The ancients called it ‘yoga’—union with yourself.

You write because without words to express it, the world is brittle and prickly and almost unlivable.

You write to survive and you write to become.

Most of all, you write because it gives you wings.

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Rohini Gupta is a writer living by the sea in Mumbai with a houseful of dogs and cats while working on short stories, poetry and a book.

 

by Len Kuntz

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Even though a plethora of flash fiction exists today, I’ll admit to not having heard of the term until four years ago.

I was a little stunned by the discovery of this new-found form, the way you might be to all of a sudden learn that there’s an extra room in your house, a room filled with delicious treasures.

Browsing internet sites around 2010, I saw that talents such as Kim Chinquee, xTx, Kathy Fish and Meg Pokrass were turning out tight pieces of writing as short as 300 words—writing that was not poetry, though it often had a similar lyrical quality. Some of the pieces were even fully formed, containing a narrative arc and plot, while others sizzled instead, like Molotov cocktails left tossed in the air, leaving the reader to decipher whatever decimation might occur.

The sudden rise of flash fiction’s popularity is, in a way, akin to that of Twitter—both of them seemingly rising up out of the blue while quickly securing a place in our consciousness, should we choose to take an interest.

And much like Twitter—or Flash Chat for that matter—flash fiction is about brevity; about the ability to say something noteworthy or meaningful in a very confined space.

I don’t know if flash fiction’s appeal is, as many have said, a result of our shortening attention spans, but whatever the reasons, I’m happy to see how vital the form has become.

The allure of flash, for me, is that it mirrors many of the writing adages I’d been taught years ago:

  • start in the middle of the action;
  • make every word count;
  • hit the reader between the eyes;
  • murder your darlings;
  • deliver a unique, singular voice.

Along with these challenges, I love the notion of getting in and getting out, the idea of swiftly painting a picture that is clear enough to let a reader know what’s happening, yet one that also allows readers to fill in the blanks vis-à-vis their own imagination.

I’m far from an expert on the art form, yet I do think the best flash writing gives readers pause after they’ve finished a piece: it stops them from going onto the next because something shocking or wholly unexpected has just happened, or perhaps the writing was simply so taut and sonically rendered that there’s no other choice than to let it simmer, almost soul-like inside you.

Of course there are all types of flash fiction and just as many kinds of motivation for writing it.

I most like being able to take scraps of memory or biography, or maybe just a lovely-sounding line, wrap it in fraud, and then pepper gunpowder throughout the piece. The title of Kevin Samsell’s flash and story collection, “Creamy Bullets,” is a good description of the type of writing I hope to create: creamy bullets. Bullets that bite, while also having the tendency to simultaneously soothe.

While reading novels, we live with the characters for weeks and years, getting to know their idiosyncrasies and foibles. Novels transport us and often occur over great time spans. Reading a novel requires an investment. It demands patience and diligence.

Flash fiction is usually the opposite of all these things. Flash is a shotgun blast, or even a single piece of shotgun shrapnel plucked from within the greater blast. It’s immediate and jarring. The investment necessary is simply a few minutes.

We are lucky today, to see the proliferation of both styles of writing; having our cake and eating it, too.

To the novelists, I say, Bravo! Keep at it. We need you.

To the flash writers, I say, Keep dropping those bombs. Write on. We need you more than you might know.

____________

Len Kuntz is the author of The Dark Sunshine available from Connotation Press and at editor at the online literary magazine Metazen. You can also find him at lenkuntz.blogspot.com.

 

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