Process


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 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 Mark Budman

Mark Budman

In a quote often misattributed to Mark Twain, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal said, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” As applied to flash fiction writers, the masters of compressed work, that probably means we have too much time on our hands. Our letters/stories are short (but not necessarily sweet) and to the point. We don’t mince words. We are looking for redundancies, imperfections and dead waste that get in the way, and cut them off like a surgeon or a sculptor.

I didn’t know that when I started to write flash. I foolishly thought that a shorter fiction requires less time. Don’t you need to hit fewer keys on the keyboard to write short? And most people are always short on time.

It was too late when I realized my mistake. I already fell in love with the genre. I loved it so much that I just had to start my own magazine of flash fiction, Vestal Review. We didn’t have an overabundance of magazines specializing in flash at the time. In fact, to my knowledge, we had none back in 2000.

It seems to me that a cliché is the number one enemy of a writer. We must say something that hasn’t been said before, and do it in a new way. While conventional writers can afford to go on and on, we, the flash fiction writers, have to know that we must stop before any of our colleagues do.

Dorothy Parker once said: “Katharine Hepburn delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.” While limited in the number of words, we still can’t be like Katharine Hepburn in Dorothy’s Parker interpretation. We still should strive for our gamut of emotions to run at least from A to Y. Let the writers of the longer works work on their Zees.

Actually, to me, limitations are enhancing creativity rather than constraining it. The mind finds ingenious solutions that the writers of longer fiction might overlook. Flash writers are the enemies of fat. While fat could taste delicious to some, lean muscles are more effective.

To me, flash fiction is both a stepping stone to great longer works and an exciting genre on its own.

Read this story for the example of consecutive halving of the number of words in each part. The plot stays the same, but the effect changes dramatically.

This is a great illustration of what flash fiction is about. Word and sentence compression is a lean, muscular and energetic writing device. That’s why I write this way.

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Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in such magazines as Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney’s, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou’wester, Turnrow, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, Short Fiction(UK), and elsewhere. He is the publisher of a flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel, My Life at First Try. was published by Counterpoint Press to wide critical acclaim. He co-edited flash fiction anthologies from Ooligan Press and Persea Books/Norton. He is at work on his novel about Lenin running for the president of the United States. Read more at his website http://markbudman.net.

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

 Sarah AkhtarThere’s a lot of disdain these days for traditional publishing. Unknown writers look at the odds, and then at the alternatives, and are increasingly tempted to self-publish.

There are plenty of springy-looking platforms to leap off of. Anyone willing to invest a little money and a lot of time can start marketing their own work.

Should you bite that apple?

What’s so great about brick and mortar publishers, anyway?

Web-based publishers have cut overhead to the bone and many of them are marvelous. They’ve created a reader’s paradise. Even the cheapest paperbacks are largely unaffordable to people on limited budgets. But an e-book can be less expensive than a cup of coffee from the corner deli.

And web-based writers’ groups help fledgling authors build supportive audiences and markets for their work. You can be in the midst of a thriving artistic community no matter where you live.

But one of the fruits of a healthy community is a sort of self-censorship. It’s not dishonesty, but rather the desire not to wound. If we all said everything we thought, with absolute truth, all the time, life would become unbearable.

And writers’ circles or critique groups tend to form around people of similar levels of achievement. Everyone’s growing together. And everyone hopes for success, for themselves and their colleagues. There’s a powerful fellowship of encouragement.

This Eden needs a serpent.

I have never joyfully welcomed the email saying “there’s a slight problem with your story.” Seriously. Would I have sent it in if I thought it wasn’t ready?

It took me well over a year to skip the mental hyper-ventilating and get straight to revising, whenever a rewrite request arrived. I can still feel my head lowering mutinously as I read any criticism of my work.

But most of the editors I’ve worked with have helped me strengthen my own voice. Sometimes I don’t accede to every single suggestion, but I have never declined to revise a story, when requested.

That was a mistake in only one instance, but I knew at the time I was going for publication rather than the purity of my artistic vision, so to speak. So I take full responsibility for that.

Your mastery of craft is constantly growing. I’m pretty confident in my own gifts, now, but even so, it startles me to see how a beginning story from a couple of months ago, say, will seem awfully lacking today. I’ll need to rework those first few paragraphs before I can go any further.

When you self-publish, you have few brakes on that giddy road towards becoming a fine author. There’s an enticing tidbit that people like to munch on—the lists of successful authors showing how many times clueless agents and publishers turned them down, before they signed their first book contract.

Yes, it is true that genius is not always recognized in a timely way by the minions born to serve it. It’s true that very fine writers are rejected every day, and that self-publishing can be a midwife to works that truly deserve to see the light of day.

It can also make a name for you that you might wish you could escape, later. Maybe you’ve got great potential now but you’re not quite there yet. Maybe in a year or two or five, undaunted by rejection, you’ll have found that remarkable voice you always knew was inside.

Or maybe you published before you should have, and you had a brief exciting moment of seeing your stuff offered on Amazon, with wonderful reviews by everyone you know, and you never got any better than you were at that moment.

Don’t just believe the people who like you, and care about you, and want you to succeed. Think about why some of those people who’d love to have discovered the next new great talent are saying you’re not ready yet.

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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 Cameron Filas

Cameron_Filas

If you’re like many writers, revision can be an enjoyable yet tedious process. The worst part is that sometimes even after countless revisions, nail biting, and hair pulling, your finished product gets rejected.

This often isn’t something you can control. Maybe it wasn’t a good fit for that publication. Perhaps the editor was just in a bad mood after spilling their coffee in their lap. Or, maybe you overlooked some things in the revision process that cost you the acceptance.

Many editors are usually forgiving if your work has a few grammar or spelling mistakes. We’re human after all. There are more damning things however, which are in your control to correct before submitting your writing.

So what is the solution? It’s simple, and probably something you’ve got on your desk right now: sticky notes!

How can a thin, probably colorful piece of paper with some adhesive on one end help you? Use it to become your own critic and workshop buddy.

Here’s what you do: take a pad of sticky notes and grab a pen; then, taking care to write legibly, jot down some bullet point questions for yourself. These should be things that perhaps you’ve received feedback about in rejection letters, or know are vital to any good piece. Here are some examples:

  • All five senses?
  • Good dialogue?
  • Main character growth/development?
  • Clear beginning, middle, end?
  • Holes in story?
  • Is there a twist?
  • Does it flow?
  • Did I read it aloud?

These questions should be geared specifically towards you. Be honest about your weaknesses and flaws as a writer, we all have some. Some other great reminders include: “Wait a day!”—if you’re one of those people that doesn’t give yourself a breather before revising a new piece—and, of course, the pivotal “So what? Who cares?”—which most editors will ask themselves after having read your work.

Does your story matter? Is it a linear plot with cut-and-paste characters that don’t serve a purpose? By writing the tough questions down for yourself now, you have a much better chance at making sure your work is as complete and satisfactory for potential readers as possible.

Once you have made your personalized sticky note (or several if you have big handwriting or lots of questions), slap that sucker somewhere you will see it every time you write and revise. You can tape it flat against your desk, so you’re forced to look at it as you type, or you can stick it to your desk lamp and use it as needed.

You don’t even have to use sticky notes if you don’t want to! Feel free to type yourself a note on the computer, tattoo it onto your arm, or frame and hang it over your printer. The important thing here is that you are honest about which reminders you need to improve your writing. Revision isn’t always fun, but you can make the process much more rewarding by challenging yourself with the hard questions that editors will ask of your work.

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Cameron Filas is an avid reader and novice author of short fiction and other various work. Though he has enjoyed writing from a very young age, he has only recently begun a serious pursuit of the craft. Cameron lives in Mesa, AZ, with his girlfriend, a dog, and a demon cat who he is pretty sure is plotting to kill him. You can visit his corner of the web at cameronfilas.wordpress.com.

 

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