elements of story


by Andreé Robinson-Neal

Andree-New

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 James Claffey

James_Claffey

Chispas de Fuego

In the fall of 2008, as Hurricane Gustav approached the gulf coast I wrote my first piece of flash fiction in the conference room of the Old President’s House at LSU in Baton Rouge. It was the same room that had been the Southern Review editor’s office when Walker Percy met with John Kennedy Toole’s mother and she handed him the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces. The editor that day, Jeanne Leiby, was teaching her first class, “Forms of Fiction,” in the MFA program, and I was taking my first class in the same program, so it seems a set of events were set in motion that day leading me to the present moment when flash fiction comprises the bulk of my writing work.

Jeanne is no longer with us, having died months before my graduation from the program, and I left Louisiana shortly thereafter. What I took with me from the South was a world of writers and books I’d not known previously. Jeanne introduced me to the works of Mark Richard and Ron Hansen, and to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and to the watchmaker’s precision in crafting what she termed “short short” fiction. So, the primary reason I write flash fiction is because of Jeanne Leiby.

I also write flash fiction because of my wife, Maureen, who brought me back to writing after years in the wilderness of teaching high schoolers in San Diego. She gave me books by Jean Toomer, Bhanu Kapil Rider, and Anne Waldman’s Marriage: A Sentence, and these writers and more, in a way, showed me that there was a path other than the traditional, plot-driven, large-marketplace, and it was this revelation that gave me permission to abandon the A-B-C type of material I’d been creating, and instead give rein to my imagination without the aforementioned fetters.

Part of why flash fiction appeals to me has to do with my hectic work and home life. Teaching high school English to struggling readers and writers is challenging and much of the time, draining. And raising a toddler brings a whole new meaning to what it means to be busy. I carve out short chunks of time to write something down, sometimes only fifteen or twenty minutes, so the short form suits the time I have to devote to writing. But beyond any time constraint—it’s the ability to create vivid works of imagination where syntax and diction can be fractured with abandon—I love the possibilities available to the short-form writer.

There’s a challenge to creating a piece of writing in such a short amount of words, and in the challenge I find a great satisfaction. My writing is fueled by memory and time and distance, and those three constructs lend themselves to a fragmentary sort of storytelling. I often compare my flash fiction to a kaleidoscope, where the disparate colors merge to form magical patterns and with a quick twist there’s a completely new image in front of the eyes.

I am also a magpie, fascinated by bright, shiny objects, my desk a cluttered space of sand dollars, miniature lighthouses, paperweights, Mass cards, found rocks and objects that many times serve as the inspiration for a piece of writing. These objects are fire starters for the creative process; bric-a-brac that provides that chispas de fuego that propels a narrative into motion. It is in these objects and the sparks of creative energy they give off that I discover the short, world-in-a-moment flash fiction stories that I love to create.

Too, the form of flash fiction can be quite cinematic, the images drawn, scenes so brief as to be almost movie-traileresque. I’m hugely influenced by the movies of my youth and find myself re-watching Terence Davies’ movies, focusing on the musical soundtrack, the way the light hits a brick wall, the nod of a woman’s head as a man is about to kiss her. All of this opens the sluice gate of memory for me and in the rush of ideas that comes forth I find these fragments that I grasp and start writing about. Flash fiction, ultimately, is about finding your form, discovering the right angle with which to cut the diamond into facets, showing a world in a moment.

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Writer James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. He is fiction editor at Literary Orphans, and the author of the short fiction collection, Blood a Cold Blue. His work is forthcoming in the W.W. Norton Anthology, Flash Fiction International.

 

by Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

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 Mary-Jane Holmes

Mary-Jane Holmes

In 1696, Willem de Vlamingh, a skipper for the Dutch East India Co., was sent from his native Holland to Australia to look for survivors of a ship thought to have been wrecked on the continent’s west coast. Despite all his efforts, he never found the vessel or any of its crew but he did come across something else: the presence of black swans. Many strange and exotic species were being discovered in these uncharted territories at the time but this sighting was of particular importance, for up to this point in history it was thought that only white swans existed. So adamant was this belief that a popular proverb had circulated in Europe since the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote in 82 AD: rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno (a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan). This term was used ironically, in the same way that today we talk of pigs flying or pink elephants. The black swan was a metaphor for all that could not exist, until of course, due to an intrepid sailor, the impossible became possible. Once this happened the term’s meaning transformed: the black swan became a symbol of the improbable.

Nice story, you think, but what has this got to do with writing flash fiction? Well, quite a lot actually. The improbable, the random, the unexpected are what drive stories. If we followed a character who went about his or her daily business without a deflection of any kind, we wouldn’t muster much narrative tension or impetus, but when we lift that character out of certainty, introduce a glitch, a challenge to the status quo, then we assert enough pressure on them to reveal something insightful to the reader.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, explores this idea by looking at how society deals with seemingly random happenings and suggests ways to make our world black-swan-robust; in other words a society where we reduce the impact of events such as the market crash of 1987, and exploit the positive ones such as the internet.

Taleb defines the phenomena as something that:

  1. is a surprise to the observer,
  2. has an impact on their life,
  3. but with hindsight could have been expected.

These three criteria mirror closely the ingredients that a story moves through—conflict (surprise), deflection (impact) and resolution. The last condition is particularly interesting; this idea that the event was predictable. From the relative privilege of retrospection, we can work out the reason why wars start, why empires collapse, why economies crash. Often, the mark of a successful story is how, when looking back over the series of actions and choices the character has undergone, the outcome feels inevitable. With hindsight we say ‘of course!’ rather than ‘where did that come from’?

Whereas in the real world we strive to reduce the impact of negative black swan events, as writers we want to harness their power. Of course, this is flash and whatever surprise we present the observer/character, it has to be kept to scale so here’s an exercise[1] in Black Swan generation:

Start with a character immersed in their daily routine and have them find a physical object which threatens their status quo either physically or emotionally. Keep the setting small—a room, the car, the garden shed, a cupboard. The object should create a strong reaction in the character, strong enough to change the course of their trajectory within the scene you have placed them in and act as a conduit to reveal something meaningful to both the protagonist and the reader. For example, a woman racked with remorse for an affair she had years ago, finds an earring in her husband’s sock drawer. And of course the outcome needs to fit within the whole; however slight or subtle, every twist and turn of the action must support the ending.

This idea of randomness and uncertainty can help in the creative process of writing itself. Much of the art of storytelling involves making connections between details that don’t seem to have any link. It is the tension created in this process that causes the reader to think “I must know how this is resolved.” If you are struggling for inspiration, try developing a story combining a character from one of your story ideas with a predicament or setting from another. This may be enough to produce that single and interesting rare action that will push your character and story deeper. If you are at a loss for a seed idea, use a plot generator site (there are a variety of them on the web) for the same reason.

And remember that creativity thrives on the impossible. What you might think is difficult to achieve today will no-doubt become possible in the future and that includes producing a crafted and original work of flash fiction. So persist and you too may create your own positive Black Swan.

[1] Adapted from Michelle Brook’s Rattlesnake In The Drawer writing exercise.

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Since 2009, Mary-Jane Holmes has been chief editor of Fish Publishing Ireland, an organisation committed to supporting emerging writers. She is the director and co-ordinator of the Fish creative writing and mentoring programs including the longest running online flash fiction course in Europe dedicated solely to the genre. A passionate Flasher herself, her work has been published and anthologized in various places. Recently, she was shortlisted for the 2014 Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction and won the 2014 Dromineer Flash Fiction Prize.

 

By Gila Green

Gila Green

An abbreviated version of this post first appeared at WOW-Women on Writing.

I have great news for flash writers. There’s no reason why you cannot write character-driven flash fiction. You do have time to create a compelling character. The catch is that you can only create one really undeniably forceful character, so you need to do it well. Briefly, character-driven fiction is popular and fun to read and write. It focuses on the emotions and inner conflict of the protagonist vs. an action-packed plot that dominates the story. Really great writing contains both, but many writers need to strengthen one or the other.

Character-driven flash fiction is different from all other forms of character-driven fiction in two ways. The first is that your heroine can have only one compelling goal (hint: it’s usually a character’s need to go towards something or to go away from something).

This leads us to the second major difference: all of your compelling character’s qualities must be there to back up this need only.

For example, if the main goal of your seventeen-year-old heroine is to get herself thrown out of school, so that she can hop a bus to see her boyfriend, you must make sure she is interesting (read: we care if she achieves her goal or not), flawed (i.e., she cannot be totally justified in her desires) and that your entire focus is on her one defining moment. You don’t have time to explain why her boyfriend moved, why her mother forbids her to skip school, how they met or their future hopes.

You do have time to write about the moment her best friend pretends to faint, so that she can offer to get a nurse and slip off to the bus stop only to be met by her raging father/to see her handicapped boyfriend in the arms of another girl/to get hit by the bus/ choose the wrong bus and end up saving someone’s life/return to the classroom and confess that she cannot lie to her favorite teacher. I could go on, but you get the idea.

You’re wasting time describing her hair and eye color and favorite cake decorating hobby. You’re on the right track if you tell us that she’s never been able to pull off a prank (or the opposite, that she’s known as an untrustworthy prankster), or that she has a neatly packed suitcase of clothes hidden in the bushes by the bus stop (or you guessed it, the opposite, she plans on taking nothing but her favorite pen knife along for the ride).

Do you see the difference? In a novel or short story you’d have plenty of time for a physical description, but for character-driven flash, physical description is only important if it supports her main goal or her defining moment. If she’s so thin that she can slip out the window, or so heavy that the only way out of the room is the front door, then yes, put it in. Otherwise, delete it.

Most of all, if you are enjoying every minute of writing about this character, there is an excellent chance your readers will, too.

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Canadian Gila Green moved to Israel in 1994. Her novel King of the Class was released in April 2013 by NON Publishing, Vancouver. Her stories and articles appear in tens of literary magazines in the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, Israel, UK and Hong Kong. Her collection, White Zion, is a finalist for the Doris Bakwin Award and her work has been short-listed for WordSmitten’s TenTen Fiction Contest, the Walrus Literary Award, the Eric Hoffer Best New Writing Award and the Ha’aretz Short Fiction Award. She’s been teaching fiction on the WOW-Women on Writing site since 2009. Her next classes in Flash Fiction and Literary Devices begin January 12. Please visit: www.gilagreenwrites.com

 

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