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


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.


by Jim Harrington


Recently, I lurked behind a couple of discussions about using dialect. This topic comes up often, usually after a story containing phonetically spelled dialect has been published or submitted to a critique group. Perhaps something like:

Ah dinnae ahsk fer mae dinnah tae be tan minuts laht, nae did I, mae wicket lahssie. [1]

Do you know what’s going on and the speaker’s nationality? I didn’t include this information—on purpose. Writing dialect phonetically, even when an accurate representation of the language, often confounds readers. I’ve encountered stories written in this manner. The last couple I gave up on. I had to spend so much time interpreting the text that I lost track of the story. I probably would have continued reading if the above was written:

The Scotsman stomped into the room and smacked his claymore onto the table. “I did not ask for my dinner to be ten minutes late, now did I, my wicked lassie.” [1]

The fact the speaker is a Scotsman is enough to place an accent in my mind.

I had my heating system checked to make sure it was ready for the upcoming winter. The technician finished his checkup and let me know he “just needed to get the paperwork wrote up,” and he’d be done.

I’m sure a picture formed in your mind once you knew the person was a furnace repairman. We’ve all had them in our homes at some time. And you heard a particular voice with the use of the word wrote, instead of written.

As another example, I submitted an all-dialog story in which the character used the phrase “real good.” The editor questioned this, saying correctly, it should read “really good.” True. Except I live in North Carolina and I hear “r-e-a-l good” used all the time on local newscasts. The editor relented.

I often wonder what a reader who is unfamiliar with speech patterns of the southeastern United States thinks when reading:

“Sho’ ’nuff smo time leff fo you to git on downtown fo’ ‘nother pan dat pie.” [4]

Maybe one of our readers from a foreign country can let us know.

As I mentioned, I live in the southeast, and I find this dialect tough to plow through. Often, as with the example of the Scotsman above, the writer only needs to set the context to direct the reader’s mind to the correct speech pattern. Other times, occasional misused words scattered throughout the story suffice. But if the reader has no personal context for such language, does any of this matter? Even if they do, is a reader from Great Britain going to “see” and “hear” the same repairman as someone from Idaho?

The advice I’ve read most often about using dialect is “less is more.” Instead of using phonetic spelling for an entire story, sprinkle reminders throughout a piece. These may include common foreign words like merci or nyet, or less common ones if the meaning can be determined by the context or interpreted by another character.

When deciding how to indicate to the reader that a character is speaking in a dialect, the author may want to keep Steve Almond’s Hippocratic Oath of Writing in mind—Never Confuse the Reader. [3]


[1]Weiland, KM, Most Common Writing Mistakes: The Do’s and Don’ts of Dialect
[2] an article from the Accelerated Fundamentals of Fiction Writing at Writers Online Workshop
[3] Almond Steve, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey
[4] Clemm, Brian, How To Give Your Character an Authentic Dialect
[5] Prunkl, Arlene, Dialogue in fiction: Part 1—How to Write Authentic Dialects and Foreign Accents


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


by Jim Harrington


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 feel differently now. Feel free to agree, or disagree, or add your own take on the quote and what I said. Here’s today’s article.


Fugedaboudit (first published 2/15/10)

Forget symbolism, forget literary theory, put aside your desire to be anthologized. Tell the most authentic story you can, with as much attention and sensitivity to life as you can muster. — Randall Silvis Write to Connect With Readers. [The Writer, January 2010]

It’s all about the story.

Beginning writers, and those somewhat beyond the beginning stage, struggle to find their writing voice. Sometimes the struggle is such that the writer stops writing. In other cases, writers attempt to copy voices from novels and short stories they like. My guess is this doesn’t work out very well. Understanding how a writer writes and being inside the writer’s head when he does are two separate things.

I don’t remember struggling with voice. I probably did. It’s always been about the story with me. If a piece failed, it wasn’t because of the voice. No, it was because I wasn’t invested enough in what happened to the character to be able to write the tale.

I like today’s quote. Why? Because it tells it like it is. Forget about similes and metaphors. Forget about writing “fancy” prose. Forget about getting published and being famous. Just write the story. If the writing is good and true to the characters, the rest will take care of itself.


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


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