elements of story


by Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

Slipstream is one of the newest and most indefinable sub-genres to gain notice in the science fiction universe. According to some literary observers, it has been there since the beginning,

Considering the uneasy reception of Bradbury’s work by purist critics of SF, The Martian Chronicles could be said to exemplify what today is referred to as slipstream…From the moment of its naming SF has always had its slipstream—a steady line of texts that failed to contain themselves within the envisioned borders of the genre. – Paveł Frelik

Flash Fiction Chronicles contacted E. S. Wynn, chief editor of Smashed Cat Magazine, to find out more about this intriguing sub-genre.

Flash Fiction Chronicles: How would you define slipstream as a genre?

2523121E. S. Wynn: When defining slipstream as a genre, it’s important to be vague. As soon as you try to tack down, pigeonhole, or apply rules to set the boundaries of slipstream, you kill all of the potential it has to really soar. Slipstream is anything and everything. It’s Dungeons and Dragons meets Dragnet. It’s angels and cyberpunks. It’s Kafka, Lovecraft, Asimov and Anne McCaffrey all rolled into one story. It’s cosmonauts and argonauts teaming up to battle Huguenots in Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. It has no bounds, it slips between the streams, and the weirder it is, the more your fans will (probably) love it.

FFC: What do readers come to this genre for?

ESW: Slipstream is fresh. It’s new, it’s the final frontier. It’s the place where other writers have never dared to go. That’s what makes it good. That’s what fans of the genre look for. Newness, novelty, voices and perspectives they’ve never heard before.

FFC: Complete this sentence: Slipstream is probably for you if you’re the kind of writer who likes to_____

ESW: Slipsteam is probably for you if you’re the kind of writer who likes to mix otherwise incongruous elements into a fruity cocktail drink as potent as a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

FFC: What are the most common pitfalls when writing slipstream?

ESW: One common pitfall is a writer’s inability to really make things weird. Having a skunk for a pet is not weird. Finding out that the young, buff, handsome CEO crush of your story likes to wear lingerie when he’s alone is not weird. People from other countries than yours are not weird. Talking dogs from alternate dimensions that lead people through libraries full of hairy books whose knowledge can only be smelled, not seen– that’s weird. The basic premise can be as mundane as Michener, but the story itself won’t be slipstream unless the imagery and the meat are all outside the conventions of multiple genres.

Also (it doesn’t happen often) but the story can’t be too weird. 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. The weird is important, but it must make sense.

FFC: What difference does it make when the story is 1000 words or fewer?

ESW: All the difference. Writers these days have to compete with the fast pace of television, video games and Youtube. Stories in the 300-500 word range are all that most people think they have time for these days. If you can’t streamline your stories into a box that size, you’ll still find readers, just fewer of them.

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E.S. Wynn is the author of over fifty books in print and the chief editor of seven online fiction journals, including Smashed Cat Magazine.

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

 

by Ethel Rohan

Ethel Rohan2013

There’s a rebellious element to flash fiction. The form writes against longer works. That rebelliousness, the writing against, and the challenge of starkness in flash fiction hold great appeal. In addition to high selectivity and compression, flash fiction is the art of omission. Greats like Grace Paley, Ernest Hemingway, and J.D. Salinger made excellent use of omission. Omission alludes to the bigger story and invites the reader into the work. Perhaps more than any other written form, flash fiction demands the reader’s participation and interaction, and thereby honors the reader’s mental and emotional intelligence.

Flash fiction is my bullshit detector. This form in particular, in its scantiness, holds up my weaknesses as a writer and demands I police those weaknesses if I wish the work to succeed. My first drafts are always overwrought and often sentimental and thus dishonest. Of all the forms, flash fiction most refuses to tolerate such amateurishness. Flash fiction demands I tell the best story I can with the most skill and the least amount of words and gimmicks possible. To that end, I am a forever student and forever striving.

Here’s something new and tiny and unpublished. Here’s me striving.

Circles

Barry keeps Mya’s mother awake at night. Mya’s father wants to break Barry’s nose and knee-crush his groin. He just hasn’t gotten around to it yet. Three times Mya and Barry have broken-up and gotten back together again. Mya’s mother asks her daughter, Why?

Mya’s father feels robbed of his wife’s left breast and her long luscious hair. Hair like a black velvet lap. He insists she always wear her wig and a loose top, especially in bed. He prefers the black top, with the deep V down her lean, tanned back. Her spine holds him together. He asks her to buy a blond wig too. Might as well go for a third, he decides. Red, he tells her. Might as well have some fun, he thinks. Mya’s mother promises herself that, if she survives, she will put herself first more.

Mya checks her arms and neck in the mirror, impressed by the new concealer. Barry waits outside Mya’s house. To Mya’s mother, sitting inside her living room and searching the TV, the car engine sounds like it’s trying to get away from Barry. Barry’s thick fingers drum the dashboard, sending up dust. What’s taking her so long? The moon hits him like a spotlight. He thinks about all those astronauts, Neil and Buzz and more, and how it must have just about killed them not to ever get back there.

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Ethel Rohan’s latest work is forthcoming from The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press, 2014); Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing by Your Favorite Authors (Penguin: Perigree, 2014); and Flash Fiction International Anthology (W.W. Norton, 2015). You can visit her at ethelrohan.com.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

My kind of horror story: a quiet progression towards doom. Nothing’s harder to write. One false note in the voice and the mood vanishes; built-up tension can’t be reclaimed. I haven’t seen it done better than in Lydia S Gray’s In Return (1/8/12).

Gray states the impossible right at the beginning of her story, which takes confidence and nerve. She doesn’t answer any of our questions but we can’t stop following, wondering and dreading right alongside the narrator.

I love when the writer respects the reader’s intelligence, knows that life doesn’t tie itself up in neat resolutions.

The story earned a respectable 3.7 stars after 57 votes; twenty readers commented, most of them finding In Return creepy and effective. A few found it flat, and some wanted more details. I think it’s considerably underrated.

The inexplicable is at the heart of horror fiction. Yet readers sometimes accept rampaging zombies and the inconveniences caused by monthly full moons without a quibble, but insist on being told the “why” of less gory but more atmospheric stories.

Remembering it this long after my first read, and revisiting it, my pleasure in Gray’s story hasn’t diminished. I think In Return is worthy of a place in any anthology of great ghost and horror tales–alongside masterworks by M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood.

Take a look for yourself–see if you agree.

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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.

by Susan Tepper

RStratten

Robin has been a writing coach for almost 25 years. Her first novel, On Air, was a finalist in the Indie Excellence Book Award. She is the author of Of Zen and Men and In His Genes, and co-author of Then She Ran. She also has two full-length collections of poetry and short fiction: Dealing with Men and Interference from an Unwitting Species. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she’s been published in Word Riot, 63 Channels, Antithesis Common, Poor Richard’s Almanac(k), Blink-Ink, and many others. Her short story, “Ma Writing,” was a finalist in The Lascaux Review flash fiction award, and appeared in their 2014 Anthology. In her spare time, Robin edits the Boston Literary Magazine. Learn more about Robin at http://www.robinstratton.com/

Susan Tepper: Your novel In His Genes opens in a most unique way. What underlying forces or personal drama drew you toward a medical-mystery as the book’s focal point?

Hiding in Plain Sight — the elusive Carina Dwarf Galaxy

Robin Stratton: It’s a bit of a long story… I have had a passion for genetics for years, and I read a book called Decoding Darkness by Dr. Rudy Tanzi – about the race to figure out what gene mutation causes early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

ST: A pretty heavy topic.

RS: Tanzi’s book, which I highly recommend, is also his story as a young researcher, and the story of a family stricken with the disease… the early onset type can begin in your late 30s… and if you’ve got the gene, not only are you absolutely going to get AD, but there is a 50% chance that you’ll pass it on to your children.

So I contacted Dr. Tanzi, and asked if we could work together on the movie of his book. He said yes! And so we did… I got most of the way through before the family who’d been featured in the book got cold feet. I think Rudy did, too. Anyway… so I had to let go of the project.

ST: Oh what a pity! I hate to see good work go down the drain.

But your book In His Genes is also a love story. Did you find it difficult placing genetics into the context of a love story? Or, are genetics also about love? Or is it the other way around?

RS: This is the perfect question for this book, Susan! I think romance and love are essential in any novel about human dynamics, which is the topic I prefer, and so there was no question that there would be a romance. Cassandra (Cassie) is very much like me (all my female leads are) and so when I crafted her love interest, I described the man I would be in love with— scientific, kind, warm, great conversationalist, and passionate.

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ST: The title is great, though I must admit I kept thinking jeans…

RS: I really wanted a blockbuster title, and I had a lot of trouble… there were these three things going on: the science of the story, the romance, and the supernatural theme. I wanted a title that would reflect all those things. When I hit up In His Genes I felt that it was reminiscent of that old book, In His Steps— it directly referred to genes, and it had that nifty sexual innuendo. 

ST:  I wasn’t going to bring up the supernatural theme, don’t want to give too much away… but since you already gave us a whiff…  did you know at the outset you would bring the supernatural into the book?

RS: My boyfriend is a UFO freak and buys into everything alien, and when we started going out, he wanted me to write a book about an alien titled “My Boyfriend Wasn’t From Here.” I am not a big alien believer, but thought it would be interesting to have a character that leaves people thinking, Is he… or isn’t he…. ? For a little while that was the working title, until my writing partners begged me to change it. My boyfriend had to settle for a short poem I wrote with that title that was published in my chapbook Dealing with Men. So, yes, I began with those two intersecting/contrasting themes: rigid scientific testing of data vs. faith without evidence of any kind.

ST: That’s a very cool contrast of themes in a book since they are (traditionally) diametrically opposed. I was captivated by this character you introduced, Palmer, but also leery of him. I am leery by nature. I wasn’t born that way, but over time… I think one tends to grow leery and time-worn. Too many struggles and let downs and you just start to see things differently.

Do you feel your protagonist Cassie becomes leery or time-worn as the book moves along?

RS: I think the whole point is that she starts out by being leery. Cynical, I guess is the word I’d use. To me, she’s a reflection of people today who are cautious about allowing mystery and beauty… what if you’re wrong about something? You’ll feel so let down! Best to just doubt everything.

ST: It is a tough world out there in a lot of ways. Trust can be difficult. It’s sad.

RS: Yes, and that’s typical of a particular scene when her car won’t start, and this guy Palmer (who she just met) comes outside of the bar to see if he can get it going. All she can think about is how she always complains that no one wants to help and yet when someone does… it all becomes suspicious! So her character arc had to involve learning to trust— without using scientific data which is the nucleus of her work life and her thought patterns.   

ST: This book, with its unusual and compelling focus on science, also manages to be character driven. I found Cassie an endearing character. She is flawed like all of us, yet she allows us into that dark space that most people (in real life) work hard at covering up. Do you, as her creator, identify with her?

RS: Cassie is a woman who hasn’t been able to find The One, and is mystified at the ease with which all her friends have accomplished this romantic feat. Like so many single women, she got ditched by her friends when they got married. I think of her as very strong and independent. She’s smart and knows what she wants. Her dedication in the lab and her passion for genetics would have happened even if she weren’t madly in love with her boss.

ST: Ah… her boss. A strange fellow in many regards, because he feels so ‘perfect’… (may I have his number please.) And speaking of please, she goes out of her way to please his every whim, or so it seems.

RS: I think that Cassie was raised to think of others first, the way I was, but I don’t think she goes overboard. She’s not suffering in silence about anything; I think she acts out of love. I sandwiched her between an older sibling and a younger sibling so that age wouldn’t be an “excuse” for her station in life, ie, no money, as compared with her “successful” brother and sister. I wanted to touch on the idea that success doesn’t have to mean money or a great marriage and kids. It can be about personal fulfillment. In fact, it should be about personal fulfillment. (But money and a great marriage are nice, too!)

ST: Not too many people would argue that point, Robin. No spoiler alert here: I just want to say I found the characters and plot fascinating. This book really held me. As we all want to be held.

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 Susan-Tepper200wSusan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2014, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com

by Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

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.

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

 

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