story arc


By J. Chris Lawrence

Getting published is a tough business that isn’t for the timid or insecure. While Every Day Fiction’s openness to a variety of genres and daily publishing schedule leave a lot of room for well written stories to have their chance, quite a few still fall short due to common and fixable issues. Like any publication, there are certain steps writers can follow to increase their odds, and one of the keys to success is simply being prepared.

Here are my 5 tips for getting published by Every Day Fiction magazine.

Tip #1. Know Your Publication

Every publication is different, but all of them expect writers to read and respect their guidelines.

Like most flash markets, EDF takes a firm position on word count and is upfront about this. Even if your story is amazing, it will have to fit this very simple rule, yet countless submissions nevertheless find rejection for this misstep.

The importance of following rules can’t be stressed enough. Attempting to sidestep them reflects poorly on writers: it shows they either don’t respect the publication’s standards or lack professionalism.

Another leading cause for swift rejections is submitting a previously published story. This does include your own blog, even if it doesn’t have many followers.

The importance of following rules can’t be stressed enough. Attempting to sidestep them reflects poorly on writers: it shows they either don’t respect the publication’s standards or lack professionalism. But many of these issues can also be accidentally overlooked as well, so before submitting, give the guidelines a second read and stick to them. It might just save your story.

Tip #2. Break from tropes

People love to hate Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga.  Many die-hards scoff at her glittery vampires, but love it or hate it, it’s undeniably original, and while classic stories of traditional vampires can thrive (see Anne Rice, for example), the odds of them finding publication are lower than something editors have never seen before.

The key isn’t to avoid common themes, it’s to try to break from the mold and look at them in a different way. EDF is always open to creative takes on classic staples. In May, 2011, Rich Matrunick’s “The Pale Farmer” (http://www.everydayfiction.com/the-pale-farmer-by-rich-matrunick/) gave a chilling tale of a Vampire struggling to overcome his addiction to blood. For religious/end of the world content, Sarah L. Byrne’s “And Though Worms Destroy” (http://www.everydayfiction.com/and-though-worms-destroy-by-sarah-l-byrne/) broke new ground by showing a different side to the story. Likewise, Brock Adams explored one man’s struggle to return to normal life after a zombie apocalypse is contained in “The Former King of Fort Wal-Mart” (http://www.everydayfiction.com/the-former-king-of-fort-wal-mart-by-brock-adams/).

The key isn’t to avoid common themes, it’s to try to break from the mold and look at them in a different way.

When submitting to EDF, ask yourself what’s fresh about your material. If the story is strong enough, overused creature features can certainly still make it, but taking it that extra step into the unknown will make it stand out in a crowd.

Tip #3. Polish Your Prose

A strong story concept isn’t always enough; sometimes stirring works get rejected simply for prose alone. The good news is writing is a craft, and like all crafts, there are tricks of the trade that can help polish your work.

First, try getting a couple of beta readers to comment on your story. This only works if they are going to be honest and constructive (no, Mom doesn’t count). Often a different set of eyes can find plot holes, typos, or other errors that we writers tend to miss.

A fresh outlook helps us view our work beyond fresh-story blinders.

You can also try reading your story aloud or have someone else read it to you. This gives you a strong sense of how it sounds outside of your head, and more importantly, inside the reader’s.

Another rule of thumb is to simply give it time. Once the story is finished, put it away for a week or so. Let it settle, then go back and read it again. A fresh outlook helps us view our work beyond fresh-story blinders.

As a flash and web publication, EDF looks for prose that reads well for the screen and is appealing to its readership. It’s always best to keep your paragraphs sparse and clean, and while stylish prose is good, never lose sight of what’s most important–the story.

Tip #4. Themes and Arcs and Growth, Oh My

A theme is the underlying meaning or abstract concept behind your plot. This is what you are trying to say, the ultimate point of the story. Knowing this can help you stay on track. Yet, a theme is nothing without an arc–the basic structure of storytelling: the beginning, middle and end.

In flash, certain parts of the plot can and should be implied, but without a complete arc, you have a vignette at best. Most arcs thrive on the growth of a certain aspect, such as a character learning something or changing in some way. But all arcs have a very clear point of climax.

Before submitting your story, give it another glance. Ask yourself, is the tension clear, and is the central conflict being resolved? Is the message being conveyed? Does anything significant happen or change in some way? These are, perhaps, the most important aspects of a story. Many submissions that are turned away from EDF lack some or all of these important building blocks of fiction, because without them, you don’t have a complete story.

Tip #5.  Watch Your Ending

Often, stories come through EDF’s slush that are very intriguing, but die quickly due to their final lines. The ending is paramount: it’s the final note where all threads converge. Still, while it’s necessary to get it right, it’s also easy to get it wrong.

A common issue I’ve seen is the rushed ending. Whether it’s because the piece simply isn’t meant for a flash venue or the writer hasn’t paced the story well enough to fit the confines, a rushed ending can kill a story. Keep in mind the cadence of your plot as you go, and make sure it comes to a smooth close.

Twist endings are always a pleasure, but they can be difficult to pull off. A good twist story should never mislead the reader or leave them feeling tricked. Instead, it should be littered with clues and foreshadowing, so after finishing the piece, the reader can look back at it and think, “How did I miss that?”

Keep in mind the cadence of your plot as you go, and make sure it comes to a smooth close.

When doing comedy, be wary of the punchline ending. These aren’t stories so much as extended jokes. Sure, good comedy can end in a punchline, but if the entire piece revolves around that single jest, it probably won’t make it into EDF, or most other publications for that matter.

Finally, never let your story cop out. Be very cautious of using deus ex machina to resolve conflicts. Ending a story as just being a dream, or bringing in outside elements with the sole value of resolving the plot will likely lead to rejection. This is also a kind of cheat and the reader will notice. Let the elements of your story resolve their own conflicts.

While nothing here can guarantee you an acceptance letter, following these basic tips can certainly improve the odds of your story finding a home in the annals of Every Day Fiction magazine.

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Born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, J. Chris Lawrence spent much of his life traveling and exploring the various cultural facets of American life. Most recently, he’s found himself in Georgia, where he spends his days reading slush for Every Day Fiction magazine, striving to improve his craft, and wrangling his sons, Michael and Ayden. You can find more of Chris’s fiction online at www.jchrislawrence.com.

Matthew Salessesby Matthew Salesses

Talking about a story of fewer than 1000, or 500, or 300 words, means by nature talking about restraint.

I am a firm believer in the idea that limits increase creativity rather than restrict it. Perhaps this is what attracts me to the very short form: flash fiction or prose poetry or sudden fiction or whatever you want to call it. When I am working on a flash project, I like to give myself restraints. I wrote my chapbook, Our Island of Epidemics, by trying to write in first-person plural, which I had never done before. The epidemics themselves were restrictions, as I fit the stories to the rules of diseases like unrequited love or unstoppably growing hearts or memory loss.

My new book is a novel in flash fiction, made up of 115 mini-chapters, called I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. I wrote it with the following restraints: each chapter could not be longer than a page, each chapter had to include an object chosen at random beforehand, and each sentence should try to include a “turn.” I kept these rules loosely. I considered a “turn” the point where a sentence reveals something new, or moves the story in a new direction, or flips something earlier in the sentence on its head.

For example, a sentence might begin with a man unsure whether the boy beside him is his biological son, and end with the man feeling sympathy for the boy’s understanding of the ocean. That is a turn in a very short story, to me. When I was working on the novel at length, I would write a chapter or two each day, giving myself objects from around the house to work with: a bed, a glove, a hairband, a book jacket, a dinosaur toy. Sometimes these objects made it into the final drafts, and sometimes not.

In one of my many attempts to make ends meet, I teach a flash fiction course in which I have students write a story a week based on prompts. I often tell them that one thing a story does not make, but two or three things a story can make—part of the movement of a very short story is the connection drawn between seemingly disparate objects or characters: a father, a boy, the ocean, dead starfish. If we connect dots that appear at odds, we’re moving the reader from one place or idea to another across a large metaphysical space: we’re creating or at least indicating that there is an arc, an underlying shape.

I read about a study once in which people were forced to look at a drawing that had been left unfinished; they wanted more than anything to complete it. As long as the reader can see that there is somewhere to go, he will fill in the missing path.

I give my students prompts each week that often involve leaving much of the story out: write a list that reveals a character, write a story composed entirely of facts, write a scene with a MacGuffin—an object that is never revealed to the reader. The second prompt, the story made of facts, gets especially interesting results. The example story I give was published in NANO Fiction: “On Stammering,” in which the narrator states a number of facts about stammering that slowly expose his personal relation to those facts. The students who stick closely to the prompt learn the most from it: writing only one type of sentence makes them think harder about how to create a story between the lines. I save this prompt for a certain point in the course, when I think that they are ready for that struggle.

Talking about a story of fewer than 1000, or 500, or 300 words, means by nature talking about restraint. Restraint must be exercised in the diction, the imagery, the characterization, the plot. Everything needs to work on multiple levels. Everything needs to be important. This is usually why students resist the restraints, at first. They think they need more freedom, more tools, in order to be precise. But it is the scene in a movie where the spy is locked up that we learn what kind of hero he is. Is he a planner; is he an improviser; is he a traitor? We must have at hand more than a simple trick to get us out; the best escape is more than an escape, it’s an adaptation. You only have one leg and there is a wide sea to swim across and no food except endless fish? That is when you find your story has always been a mermaid.

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Matthew Salesses is a staff/faculty assistant at Harvard Kennedy School of Government working for the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy and a widely published young author. He also writes a column for the new online magazine The Good Men Project about being a new father. His novel, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying is divided into small, easily digestible bits of flash fiction.


by Erin Entrada Kelly

Years ago I wrote a short story that received a resounding chorus of identical feedback from editors. The feedback went something like this: ‘Great story, but there’s no resolution’ and/or ‘This is great—but where’s the rest?’ I sat down with the story again, poised with a rewrite pen, and racked my brain for some kind of ending. After a while, I put it in a drawer and let it be. I couldn’t figure out an ending because there was no clear resolution. Life is unresolved sometimes, I thought. Life doesn’t tie itself up in pretty little bows.

It took me a while to appreciate that one of the reasons people enjoy literature—flash or otherwise—is because it allows us to escape out of our own unresolved, un-bow-tied situations. We want something better for the characters we acquaint ourselves with; we want something to change for them, or at least for the story, and we’ll take these changes for better or worse. It doesn’t have to be happily-ever-after, but it has to be something.

That’s it, really. That’s what makes an ending. Something needs to change. The situation, the person(s), the emotional quotient of the character(s). Things won’t always end well for the characters we write, but we know that it’s ended when something about the story becomes something else. As readers, we want to experience someone else’s experience, and that means going through all the peaks and valleys. The valleys aren’t as interesting without the peaks and vice versa. Just as in real life. If life were a plateau, how would we know how it feels to walk uphill or slide downhill?

So how do you know when you’ve reached the end? How do you know if the ending works? You walk the path of your story. When you reach the end, you turn around and stare back at the beginning. If you see a flat horizon, then you need to keep walking.

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Erin Entrada Kelly is staff editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her fiction has been published widely in places like Keyhole Magazine, Monkeybicycle and the Kyoto Journal. She was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer National Fiction Prize and the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. Her debut novel is forthcoming from HarperCollins’ Greenwillow Books. She currently works at Swarthmore College and is represented by the Jenks Agency. Read more at www.erinentradakelly.com. Find her on Twitter here.

Lucinda Kempeby Lucinda Kempe

Writing comes naturally to me—I have been a diarist since age thirteen—writing succinctly has not. About a decade ago, I wrote a 160,000-word draft of a memoir that consisted of a dense, expositional narrative juxtaposed against over-long passages of dialogue. I abandoned it. What I had written only a masochist with a machete could or would slog through.

Honestly, I did not know how to write differently. However, by focusing on the short form, the conventions of writing flash, I have become a better writer of the long and have refined my skills to shape memoir moments into “story.”

About three years ago, I received an invitation to the Flash Factory, an office at Zoetrope.com, an online writers’ site. I had no idea what flash fiction was, but I jumped into the weekly prompts. I had a lot to learn and unlearn. My first flashes were arc-less non-stories, or moments/ mini scenes. Scenes I could do. I have a theatrical background. Literally and figuratively. What I did not know was how to write a compressed piece of prose with an arc where something happens, that something is resolved, and changes.

Flash taught me how to hone dramatic moments. In Something About Your Mother below—a “memoir flash” based on a true event—I compressed a long scene into a dramatic moment where a cruel child tells a terrible lie to another child, leaving in only the most relevant words, details, and dialogue. In memoir, the writer uses fictional devices to create “story” based on personal memory versus pure fictionalization. Ditto “memoir flash.” What could have been a fifteen-hundred-word chapter is now less than five hundred words.

In the story, I introduce the protagonist Lucinda playing a game. Immediately, the antagonist, Cam, arrives and interrupts her play with a lie. This happens within a few short sentences. Upset about the lie, Lucinda runs home to her grandmother and the two of them go onto Chestnut Street to learn if the lie is true. When Mama rides up on her bike, the effect of the lie on Lucinda and Mamoo allows the reader to see the three familial relationships and reveals a universal truth about the cruelty of children.

Did the actual event happen in such a compressed period? Of course not. Things like dinner, baths and or phone calls interrupt real time events. However, what flash has taught me is that fewer words said well are better than many words meandering around with no end in sight.

I have become a better writer of memoir because of the skills I’ve learned from writing flash fiction: to strive to make every word count. I even do a bit of fiction on the side, which is great. It gives me a break from myself!

The 440-word flash below originated from a prompt—to write something about your mother.

Something about Your Mother

Busting ass backwards out of the Lime’s driveway, I laughed.  “See if you can catch me.” I raced to the corner of Chestnut and Second.

“Hey, Lucinda!”

I looked at the short, blond-headed girl two years older than my twelve who blocked my escape path with her expensive French bike.

“Hi, Camille.”

Her eyes scanned my Tomboy-scraped and bruised knees. I scratched my arm irritated by a sting and stared at my neighbor, Cam Mercy. Her younger brother Phinizy was my friend. Phin, I liked.

“Lucindah,” she said, playing with the pronunciation. “Or do you prefer Kemp-e?”

“Whatever.”

“Ya’ll have funny names.”

With a mother named Jay, a brother named Phinizy, and an uncle named Walker, well, what could I say? Bait her? No. I waited.

“There’s something I have to tell you about your mother,” she said, smiling in a way that didn’t look happy. “She’s been in an accident…on her bike. A car hit her. I think she’s dead.”

I looked at her bright white sneakers.

“Did you hear what I said?”

I heard loud. I flew around the corner, pushed open my front gate, and tore up the three front steps. Pounding on the door, I screamed.  “Mamoo, Mamoo!”

My grandmother opened the door.

“Mama? Where’s Mama, Mamoo?”

Mamoo looked startled.

“Camille Mercy said Mama was killed by a car.”

Mamoo’s eyes got big as raccoons. She grabbed the top of her sweater with her little hummingbird-sized hands. “What? No. She went to Zara’s….” She walked past me, down the steps, past the gate and out onto Chestnut Street. I followed behind her.

“To Zara’s for cigs, on her bike,” she muttered, turning to me, her face ashen as an elderly gnome. I came and stood beside her and together we looked towards Jackson Avenue. I could see Cam, in her yard cattycorner from our house, watching us.

Mama, I thought, no, no. Mama who took me to the bars. Mama who brought strange men home. Mama who told me daddy was crazy. Mama who I hated to love. Mama who I loved to hate, please don’t go. I squeezed Mamoo’s hand so hard she gasped.

We stood staring down the street when a figure on a three-speed Raleigh appeared in the distance. A figure wearing Bermuda shorts and a Greek captain’s hat rode up and stopped the bike right in front of Mamoo and me.

“Poots! Mother! Why how delightful to have a welcoming committee!”

I smiled bigger than I had in years. I looked across the street into the Mercy’s yard. Cam had dissolved into a puff of smoke, her bike tossed on its side.

 [The Dirty Debutantes’ Daughter]

My journey from long-winded expositional narrator to flasher reminds me of the A.A. Milne story, In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle, where Pooh and Piglet get lost taking the long way around a short bush.

One further plus I discovered. Flashing in public is an addictive habit that is actually good for you.

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Lucinda Kempe is a writer and memoirist.  Flash Fiction Chronicles, Fictionaut, MudJob, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and The Short Humour Site have published Lucinda’s flash. Upcoming work will be at Metazen and Referential Magazine. Lucinda loves flashing and lives to do more of it publicly.

 

 

 

 

Kevin A Coutureby Kevin A. Couture

In addition to the 2012 Micro Award, Bruce Holland Rogers has won two Nebula Awards, the Bram Stoker Award, two World Fantasy Awards, and a Pushcart Prize. His work has been published in over two dozen languages including, improbably, Pashto and Klingon. Bruce is currently teaching at the Whidbey Writers Workshop Master of Fine Arts program and his short-short stories are available by email subscription at ShortShortShortStory. com.  Rogers lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Kevin A. Couture: First off, Bruce, congratulations on winning the 2012 Micro Award. Your excellent story, “Divestiture,” was immediately engaging, well-paced, and very genuine. This win marks your second Micro Award, the first being in 2008 with the inaugural competition. In those years, the submission count for the award has risen from 33 to 421, a substantial growth in interest for the form. How have the opportunities for your flash fiction changed in recent years?

Bruce Holland Rogers Bruce Holland Rogers: My first answer has to be not all that much has changed for me in recent years. I’ve been writing flash fiction for three decades now, and in some ways, I’ve always written it as a mix of traditional forms and experimental ones, realistic stories and fantasies, literary stories and genre fiction — mystery, SF, romance, horror, and the like. Since 2002, I’ve been running my email subscription service, sending three short-short stories each month to my paying subscribers, and I’ve always found markets for very short stories and translations. My subject matter and approaches may have altered some in recent years, but it’s sometimes hard to track that from the inside, as it were.

On the other hand, there is one thing that has changed significantly, and that’s the writer’s prospects for selling a collection of flash fiction. The large-scale market for story collections is as dead as it has been for the last twenty-five years – the Big Six publishing conglomerates can’t sell story collections in the numbers that make the effort worth their while.

However, e-books and print-on-demand publishing are changing the game. It’s possible for a writer to self-publish collections of short fiction, sell a few thousand copies, and make more money than the writer would have made from a similar book with the Big Six. Much of the stigma of self-publishing is going away as some very good fiction, well-edited, is coming direct from writers.

There are problems, still, of distributing print-on-demand books; the writer has to figure out how to make potential buyers aware of their work. And while the economics of doing it yourself are pretty good right now, I’m concerned that some big players like Amazon might capture such a dominant market share that they’ll start to put the screws to writers, trying to squeeze payment back down to the levels of indentured servitude. But for now, things are looking promising.

So for me, what has changed the most lately is that I’ve been getting back the rights to earlier books and preparing to launch old and new titles. That means I might be able to keep my house while continuing to write!

KC: The narrator and Oren in “Divestiture” have a wonderful connection to one another and their bond gives the story its impact. When did the idea for these two friends and their plastic-egg divesting first come to you?

BHR: I’ve been writing at least 36 stories a year for ten years now, and accurate accounts of story origins are harder and harder for me to put together. For this story, however, I owned some silver coins myself and was selling them on eBay. Some of them were so beautiful that they were hard to part with, and I do like the history of the designs. I was divesting, so the coins and the idea of reducing possessions was on my mind. Also, I had lots of those plastic Easter eggs, bought years ago with some idea in mind.

At about this time, my 105-year-old neighbor, Howard, had to move out of his home. Family came to help with the process of dividing and throwing away a lifetime of accumulation. That was on my mind too. Howard is not as frail as the old man in the story, but some of the details of that character are probably based on Howard’s physical limitations.

Somewhere along the way, the magic happened. I saw relationship in unrelated things.

I have to give a tip of my hat, too, to Kevin McIlvoy for the first sentence of the story. Kevin’s first novel, which I heard him read about thirty-five years ago, has a wonderful passage about a private game between two people. And the passage began with those words, “We do it like this.” What an invitation! What a wonderful strategy to begin revealing a private ritual! I hadn’t known that I was waiting to start my own story one day with those words, but when the idea for “Divestiture” was formed, that beginning returned to me as the perfect match.

KC: I thought you might have had some coins in your life in one way or another. They’re such tactile objects, very specific and beautiful. It was a wonderful choice for the story and because of your keen attention to detail, I could actually feel them in my hands as I read it. Can you speak to the importance of detail in flash fiction?

BHR: Detail is the essence of all effective writing. As many writing teachers have noted, you portray the universal through the specific. But detail has to be necessary and not extraneous.

I have lately enjoyed thinking about fiction in the context of Theory of Mind, a branch of cognitive psychology. We aren’t born understanding that the content of another person’s mind can be different from the contents of our own minds. A very young child believes that if she knows something, everyone knows it. Only when she develops theory of mind, when she understands that knowing varies according to experience, can she begin to practice deceit. Only with an intuitive grasp of theory of mind can we write strategically. If I want a reader to see the action of my story, what parts of the picture do I need to provide, and in what order?

One aspect of good writing is knowing the difference between details that the reader needs and details that the reader can supply. What are the colors of my characters’ eyes? That doesn’t matter to the story, so I don’t say. But the details of the silver coins matter because it is these details that make the coins little treasures of art and history. Those are the details needed for this story to be emotionally accurate, for me to manipulate the reader (with the reader’s assent) into seeing these coins as my characters see them.

KC: Good advice, Bruce. I know you have plenty of experience giving advice through the many columns you’ve written and via public speaking engagements. Can you choose the top five most important things to remember when writing flash fiction, for writers new to the form?

BHR: Ask me tomorrow and I will be able to give you a completely different top five! But, okay, here’s my version for today:

One, a story always has a shape, and readers are especially conscious of the shape when a story is very short. Does your story have a pleasing shape? If you aren’t sure what this means, consider whether your story has symmetry. Is there some similarity of beginning and end?

Two, every word in a short-short has to justify its presence. Can you take out a word without affecting the impact of the story? Then take it out. A story half as long gives twice the pleasure.

Three, Poe famously noted that a short story is a narrative of single effect. By the time you are working on a second draft, you should know what your single effect is. Clarity about the single effect will help you understand your story strategically: what haven’t you put in that you need? What can you take out because it doesn’t contribute to the effect?

Four, flash fiction is short. The reader who has started to read will almost certainly read to the end. You can do daring things with form that you wouldn’t do at greater length. Go for it! Just remember that you have to pay off the reader’s persistence by the end. If not, the reader may not read your next story.

Five, have fun. If you have fun writing a story, you haven’t guaranteed that the reader will have fun. But if you aren’t having fun, if you aren’t entertaining yourself, then you are too focused on the end result for your own good.

Six. Here’s a bonus, since the last one above will strike many as obvious. (Maybe they’re all obvious. A lot about writing is obvious, though no less difficult.) Try to write holy texts. Maybe not all the time, but every once in a while, try to write a story that will help the reader feel better about the difficulty of being human, of loving and losing, of delighting and dying.

KC: And finally, Bruce, what are you working on now? And where can readers find your latest work?

BHR: I’m trying to get funding for three writing projects in Japan, Finland, and Hungary. I’m hoping to get back soon to revising my novel, Steam, which is structurally modeled on Moby Dick and which sets out to demonstrate that steam locomotives, bipolar disorder, and the futures market are all the same thing. I’m working to prepare existing work for re-publication as e-books and print-on-demand books under my own imprint. And, of course, I am writing three new short-shorts a month.

If readers are interested in finding the very latest, before it appears in magazines, in anthologies, or on the web, they can do so by subscribing to ShortShortShort.com. It’s a pretty inexpensive way to be a patron of the arts at just $10 a year!

KC: Thanks Bruce. Congratulations again on winning The Micro Award and good luck with all these current projects. I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more about your successes going forward.

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Kevin A. Couture’s writing has appeared in a number of journals including Grain, The Fiddlehead, The Antigonish Review, The Dalhousie Review, Event, Prairie Fire and PRISM International. He is the recipient of the 2011 Micro Award for flash fiction and was one of the judges for 2012.

 

 

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