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Language « Flash Fiction Chronicles

Language


by Jeff Switt

JeffImage

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? ?

____________

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 Gay Degani

There is no exact price one can put on words when we consider what words teach us, how they inspire us, where they take us, but writers selecting those words must always weigh their value—how much bang for the buck does each word give—before sending them off as a story, especially a piece of flash fiction. Words are precious in any work of fiction. They are the stuff that create mood, reveal character, offer tension, but in flash, each word must be absolutely worth the space it uses.  If it does not serve a very specific function, then it must be reconsidered for one that does.

If you read my previous essay about questioning the text, you know that one of the ways to learn craft is to spend time with the texts of admired authors to learn how they do what they do, how they manage to convey a whole personality, a setting, a complication in so few words.  How do they do it? Let me provide some examples.

From Sherrie Flick’s “Secrets(New Flash Fiction Review), her second paragraph:

High up in the hayloft, Robbie looked down on the pile of fresh hay. The sweet smells; stark blue skies ringing outside the barn door. Dust sparkled in the air around him–and his brothers romped all around. Hand-me-downs, crew cuts, hard-soled shoes. (43 words)

What do you know about this piece?  My suppositions are

hayloft = a barn, a farm, out in the country, rural

sparkled = summer or Saturday, at least a break. Could be winter but since there is no word used to provide a sense of cold weather…

brothers = family, at least two brothers, maybe more

romped = young, fun-loving, teasing

hand-me-downs = poor or at least middle-class

crewcuts = perhaps in the past, 40s 50s even 60s, unlikely current

hard-soled shoes = these boys work on the farm; this is probably just a break

Sherrie Flick In this paragraph, the author provides the reader with an anchor, a visual setting, a sense of the characters: a rural place where the air is pure, where poor farm boys roughhouse in a loft during a break in their chores. With the title Secrets and the first paragraph, which uses precise language to set up the rambunctious spirit of boys, “Robbie jumped out of the hayloft and hit his head,” Sherrie Flick sets up tension and foreboding. What happens in this 238-word story comes to the reader as a movie would with a specific situation, actions taken, a moment of revelation. The impact of the story comes from the opening, from the exact nature of information given. The reader does not have to wonder who, what, when, where, why, and how.  This evidence is there, not necessarily to be understood in an absolute sense, but rather tethered to a reality that can be “seen” and “felt” by the reader. Every word counts.

 

Here’s another example from Barry Basden’s story, “We Continue to Evolve ” (Fwriction Review) The first line:

“Since the drought, turkey vultures have begun riding afternoon thermals into town, gliding in on their enormous wings to survey heatstruck pets in parched backyards.”(25 words)

What are the suppositions?  What does “the drought” tell the reader?  Bad times! Vultures! But what does the word “turkey” add to this piece?  Why use it if words are so precious? For me, “vultures” alone hypes the piece, tipping it toward melodrama or horror, while “turkey” mellows the concept out just enough to put in a sense of gritty everyday reality.

After writing the above paragraph, I looked up the difference between “Vulture” and “Turkey Vulture” to help me understand why this might be.  According to the Audubon Society, there are “black vultures” and “turkey vultures,” turkey vultures being the more common. On some level, I think I understood this, and why I felt in reading the first line, I would be getting reality rather than melodrama. What else does this first sentence tell us? With the specific use of “turkey” and the specificity of “thermals,” I feel a confidence that this writer knows things, and I trust him.  He is choosing his words with great care.  I want to keep reading.

Then there is the image of birds of prey with “enormous wings” hunting for “heat-struck pets.” Again the author has worked a bit of magic.  It is the pets who are in danger—do they have any chance of survival? The stakes are presented for the story and they feel high, yet still grounded in reality. Then we are given wasps “there to fuss and worry the dove.” We don’t know yet exactly what this story is going to mean in the end, but now we have a dove in contrast to the turkey vultures circling.  The tension is ratcheted up because now we must worry not only about the pets, but this lovely dove.

We have a lyric opening to a story, high stakes proposed, as well as being engaged by tension created by the subliminal question, “What does this mean?” The next line, “It’s mostly quiet now,” brings pause to the story, before understands with the next line, that “Melissa left.” Ahhh, we meet the “dove.” There are two people in the story, the woman who has left and the man who is left behind:

“I’m sitting near the shrinking pool, skimmer pole across my lap, cooler at my feet, looking for snakes and frogs among the floating dead leaves.”

This carefully constructed sentence parallels the opening sentence, but now there is this man “looking for snakes and frogs” rather than turkey vultures seeking “heat-struck pets in parched backyards.”  Now a correlation comes into play. Although the birds are preying on the creatures below to pick their bones, the man is lying in wait “to save” the creatures who “bob up to gulp the fiery air.”  And this comes together in the last line, “Help me find a way to lure her back from the coast.” The careful placement of the word “lure” in this sentence brings with it a certain amount of discomfort. Wince by Barry Basden This word, every word, plays its part in this piece, suggesting not just a man whose wife has left him, but a man with a net, a man who believes he has the answer, a man presented to us in a way that suggests this is not a simple story.  There are complications here. We do not know the right or wrong of her leaving and therefore, we are left with something more thought-provoking, something that lingers. Ambiguity occurs at the end of these stories, but only at the end.

Both authors have taken great care to give readers specific concrete details throughout so we as readers are anchored in the stories. They have both used words as if those words cost about $1000 each. Thank you, Barry Basden and Sherrie Flick for allowing me to use your excellent work as examples!

Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (University of Nebraska), the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume), and the forthcoming short story collection Whiskey, Etc. (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in Chatham University’s MFA program.

Barry Basden lives in the Texas hill country and edits Camroc Press Review. His latest flash collection is Wince.

____________________________________

  Gay Degani’s suspense novel What Came Before is available in trade paperback and e-book formats and blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her published work can be found.

by Erin Entrada Kelly

Erin Kelly

Choosing the right words to tell a story is an art, and the greatest artists make it seem effortless.

Let’s face it: If you want to learn how to build a boat, you have to study the shipbuilders. So let’s take a look at a successful piece of flash—Kenneth Gagnon’s Liar—and find out what made this story strong enough to win the highly competitive 2013 Best of the Net prize for fiction.

First, the opening paragraph:

I think things went south because I was a habitual liar, especially about the story of how we met. I have an active imagination. I considered it charming, and for a time – a long time – so did you.

Gagnon doesn’t waste any time. (You can’t waste time in flash, after all). He tells us right away that things went south and gives us boatloads of information about himself and his relationship, in only three sentences.

When I balanced Jonathan on my knee in the glow from the tyrannosaurus lamp, for instance, I told him I leapt four hundred feet in the air to catch you as you plummeted from the whitest, softest cloud. In light emanating from the mouth of the fiercest of all dinosaurs, he asked: Was mom an angel?

Absolutely. And unbelievably clumsy.

Again, a ton of information. They have a small child, Jonathan. And while the narrator might be a “habitual liar,” his lies aren’t of the evil variety. He’s likable, sympathetic. This is important, because it gives the rest of the story unique resonation.

As the 500-word story unfolds, we travel with the couple to a company Christmas party, where the narrator tells his wife’s boss the real story (or maybe-real-story—nod to the unreliable narrator) of how they met. This clever thread unites the playful-kid scene with the work-party scene.

The narrator then senses tension in the air and perceives that his wife is trading side-glances with one of her co-workers, “a Greek with eyebrows and hair so thick they looked painted.” His suspicions escalate on the ride home.

I regarded the headlight-lit, winding road, certain now we were bound for a shadowy, unexplored country. I pictured jaguars and deep green vines.

Metaphors are tricky. If you try too hard, they come off cheesy and overworked. If you use them too often, it’s gimmicky. And if you sacrifice them altogether, you rob yourself of an effective prose technique. Gagnon’s smart. He threads “shadowy, unexplored country” with a follow-up metaphor of “jaguars and deep green vines.” This adds a distinct layer of richness to Gagnon’s prose. It’s also interesting how he embeds the word “now.” Consider how it changes the context of his sentence when the word “now” is removed.

I regarded the headlight-lit, winding road, certain we were bound …

This is an example of how one word makes a world of difference, even if it’s not immediately apparent (remember: good writers make it look easy). The word “now” tells us that there is finality in the narrator’s thought process—that he had suspicions that were validated at that moment. Before that moment, he was uncertain. But he is certain now.

Gagnon continues with I was drunk at the helm, in which the word “drunk” could have double meaning. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but it works.

Then this perfectly placed, eloquent metaphor:

I saw in your eyes the cold ocean’s floor, and the Greek there, swimming ghostly amongst a hundred faceless others.

So, here is a man who is suspicious of his wife. But remember—we like him. When we’re introduced to the narrator, he is bouncing his son on his knee and telling him a whimsical story about his mother being an angel. At the company party, he makes jokes with the company COO and attempts to kid around with his wife. Imagine how different the story would be if our narrator were abusive, or an alcoholic, or a philanderer.

In 500 words, Gagnon has crafted an eloquent piece of fiction with a clear story arc and textured, three-dimensional characters. Not an easy task, but he makes it look effortless. That’s when you know it’s good.

Read Liar, by Kenneth Gagnon at Drunk Monkeys.

____________

Erin Entrada Kelly has published more than 30 short stories and essays in publications worldwide. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Kelly was a 2011 Martha’s Vineyard Writer in Residence and a finalist for the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. Her debut novel BLACKBIRD FLY will be released by HarperCollins/Greenwillow next month. She is also the author of HER NAME WAS FIDELA, a novella-length collection of flash fiction. Learn more at www.erinentradakelly.com.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarStill haunted by your high school English teacher? Elmore Leonard can help. Print out his Ten Rules for Good Writing and invoke as often as necessary.

I was already–uneasily–employing Nos. 3 (“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”) and 4 (“Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . . .”) in my own writing, and I was thrilled to have had my instincts validated by a master.

To be a competent writer you must understand the rules of grammar and apply them appropriately. No matter how brilliant you are, you’ll be a bit hampered in life if you can’t write a decent business letter or error-free resume.

But great, compelling writers use language to capture essential truths; to paint vivid pictures; to thrust us into worlds we’ve never known existed and make us believe in them; to get inside the heads of anything that can even remotely be regarded as sentient and make us feel what motivates them.

The writing of young children is often remarkably effective because it’s unconstrained by rules. When you don’t know you “can’t” do something, your creativity soars.

But those rules aren’t intended to beat all the life out of your expression. They’re just an armature from which you build outward.

Part of becoming a fine writer is learning when to ignore good advice and follow your instincts. It’s dreadfully frustrating, because there’s such a very fine line, sometimes, between awkward misuse of language and the stunning power of authentic feeling.

Just keep writing til you get it right.

____________

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 James Claffey

James Claffey2

Growing up in an Irish home, poetry was always in the air. An aunt recited, “Maisie, Maisie, give me your answer do,” and my mother crooned, “Up the airy mountain, / Down the rushy glen…” and at school it was Padraig Colum’s “The Drover,” and, “To Meath of the pastures, / From wet hills by the sea, / Through Leitrim and Longford, / Go my cattle and me…” Even now, decades later, working on my own books and stories; the musical language of home and childhood and poetry infiltrates everything I write.

My wife is a poet, a painter, a writer, and one of the most creative souls I’ve ever met. From her I discovered the secret to writing—an unerring ability to write with not a care at all for the thoughts of editors, or other gatekeepers. Her poetry astonished me when I first met her: “Upon searching for a body, she will find herself.” She showed me that words can be fractured things, awkwardly spliced and stitched together. Not that my own exposure to Hopkins’ sprung rhythm didn’t alert me to some fierce capsizing of language, words like hoven chunks of glacier floating in some frozen sea. Still, her bookshelves made mine look extraordinarily pedestrian.

Not any more. My shelves contain Ben Lerner, Andrei Codrescu, Marthe Reed, Kathy Wagner, Ariane Reines, Martha Rosler, Kate Eichorn, and Kenneth Goldsmith, amongst others. Now, I read madness on pages of gritty creative writing as the hummingbirds zip about the bush outside my office window. All these words from obscure and known names have allowed me to dispense with standard writing form in my flash fiction. Mostly, I write surreal pieces that are more prose poem than traditional narrative. I weave pieces of eight and found flicker feathers into words, tapestries of trapped moments from dog walks on nearby hills, or by the coastline with the Channel Islands in the mist.

How this poetic influence improves my flash fiction is unclear. I’m guessing the way poets chisel away the unnecessary words, always searching for the most precise and perfect turn of phrase, is influential when it comes to writing short fiction. I go over and over any new writing searching for repetitiveness, for over-use of certain phrases, for redundancies in the writing. Having read so much poetry, I am aware of the importance of shape and form to a piece of writing. Many of the flash fiction pieces I write fit into a certain form; some being one long sentence, unpunctuated, and others being prose bookended in a particular way by a turn of phrase, or a particular image. Reading poetry and seeing how some poets use the white space provides inspiration to me when I sit down to a new project and have a desire to create something fresh on the page. Even how the physical shape of the piece looks is influenced by my consumption of poetry. Though, when I’m asked to describe my writing, I steer clear of saying it’s poetry.

Of course, “You’re a poet,” my wife frequently says to me. I balk, though not so much anymore. In a way, my being Irish stops me from claiming my truth. Growing up in Dublin—around the corner, literally, from James Joyce’s birthplace, and up the road from George Russell’s house, where WB Yeats used to visit on occasion—it takes some temerity to claim I’m a writer. We are all storytellers, and some of us write those stories down, and even fewer of us get to publish those stories, and fewer still enter the lexicon as the aforementioned poets have, so I have a hard time putting labels on my writing, and on my writing self. And every time I look up from my writing desk I am confronted by a wonderful hand-made concertina-like poem by Ambar Past in Chiapas, MX. I find deep inspiration in the beauty of her poem, Dedicatorias, and seeing it, pushes me on to write deeper and deeper from the heart, to find the poetry in everyday life and insert it into my flash fiction.

So, when I sit down to write, the words and the rhythm and the musicality are important to me. I want to know there’s some sort of a “poetic” flow to what I write, even in my most traditional fiction. I find direction in the old, remembered words of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” My desire is that my writing contains some form of the unheard, an aspect that the reader can’t put a finger on, but that is there, an undercurrent of sorts, and that current is the one that harkens back to the poetry of childhood and my mother’s voice delivering poem after poem from memory.

I carried on that tradition with my daughter, Maisie, when she was in the womb. Each night I’d quote William Allingham’s The Fairies, to her, and even today, nearing her third birthday, I can recite the poem and her little voice joins in with the words she heard before her birth. Strange thing is, I’ve never recited the poem to her post-birth. And that’s probably why poetry is so important to me as a writer, in that it informs and colors every aspect of my life, whether it’s as a father, a teacher, or a writer.

____________

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.

 

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