strategy


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? ?

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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 Julie Duffy

JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300For those of us raised on the movies, it can be hard to know exactly how to define ‘Horror’ in short story form. Is it any story with a monster in it? Is a dark story with supernatural elements enough to count as Horror? Is Twilight Horror or Romance in disguise?

What Is Horror?

Horror, put simply, is “fiction intended to frighten or disturb the reader on some level,” says Shawn M. Garrett, editor of Pseudopod.

“On the surface, people enjoy the thrill related to being scared/threatened in circumstances which are obviously artificial, much like a roller-coaster … On a deeper level – people enjoy being able to explore dark thoughts, ideas and scenarios [to] reinforce previously held beliefs or…to question presumptions.”

“Horror is about fear and how people deal or sometimes don’t deal with it,” says Paul Popiel, a writer and editor with horror stories in two recent anthologies (Fantastic Futures 13 and Vampires Suck).

“Horror also is comfortable blending with every other genre, or taking over other kinds of stories and mimicking their elements while injecting fear into the whole.”

SubGenre Confusion

Speaking of ‘other kinds of stories’, Horror is another of those genres with a dizzying array of sub-genres: the classic ghost story, dark fantasy, the conte cruel, splatterpunk, bizarro, quiet horror, the weird tale, monster stories, psychological horror, some noir and dark literature…and more.

So does a writer need to know/understand them all? Our experts came firmly down on the side of ‘no’.

Shawn M. Garrett of Pseudopod, says, “while I think writers should have at least some fast and loose knowledge of the various ways things can be done in their genre of choice, they shouldn’t let a lack of an intensive knowledge of those approaches hinder them in writing.”

But it does help to “know what the reader expects out of the niche,” says Popeil. For example, splatterpunk readers expect graphic descriptions of violence, while fans of bizarro want their stories “to fall down a much weirder, and much deeper rabbit hole.”

While everyone agreed that writers should write the story they want to read, it can be useful to be knowledgeable about the genre if only to “know a little about where the sub-genre’s gone and what areas are over or under explored” (Popiel).

Garrett adds that being well-read in your genre includes knowing a bit about its history and the master writers who came before you.

“Having some idea of the major figures and what they wrote can help sharpen one’s focus as to what you do and do not want to achieve,”

It also keeps you from falling into a common trap: using overly-familiar tropes.

What Not To Write When Writing Horror

As with all well-established genres, there are some well-worn plot paths that the new writer should tread with caution. Strange Horizons’ Writers Guidelines page offers a useful list of the Stories We’ve Seen Too Often.

They go on to acknowledge that “horror stories are more often about mood or tone than about original plots”, but it’s worth treating these familiar tropes with caution. Instead, dig deeper, says Ben Phillips, a Pseudopod editor,

“If your entire plot and resolution can be summarized in a simple sentence like one of these at all, it probably wouldn’t hurt to complicate it.”

Another sign of an underdeveloped story, says writer Popiel, is “using the monster name as a way of describing the creature instead of showing the reader its powers, weaknesses, what it likes for dinner on the first Thursday of the month.”

Pet peeves for Garrett include, “over-explanation, poor pacing (rushing things when suspense would help, dragging out events for no good reason – especially when the story is merely attempting to just deploy a twist or a small idea), ambiguity used to cover writing weakness or lack of focus (or as an easy out).”

How To Horrify

But don’t despair! Our experts shared some tips for writing truly great horror, too.

Garrett says that on one level great Horror writing shares the hallmarks of all good genre fiction: “…concision, self-awareness of your goals and purpose-driven writing (what are you trying to achieve with the story?  How best to do that? How not to waste the reader’s time?)” adding that in Horror specifically, the writer needs to pay close attention to “…atmosphere, interesting (not necessarily likeable) characters, pacing, use of ambiguity, acheiving the ‘uncanny’.”

R. Tallis, author of the Gothic horror novel Forbidden, says, “I have a feeling that real horror requires incomprehension.”

There is a danger, he says, in the recent trend towards creating sympathy for the monsters. It robs the story of a true sense of horror “when we give our monsters an internal psychology.”

Paul Popiel values writers who “build an atmosphere of terror or dread. Keep the reader guessing as to what’s going to happen.”

He also encourages writers to use “old monsters in new ways…building cool new creatures that I wish I’d thought of.”

The Challenge of Flash Fiction Horror

Writing flash fiction is a challenge in any genre, but it presents a particular difficulty for Horror writers.

“Horror stories depend on a ramping up of tension to the scare,” says Popeil. “… If you only have a thousand words then it’s all about picking the right details to bring things to life.”

“Honestly, I’m still on the fence about flash fiction,” says Pseudopod’s editor Garrett. “At its best, a good flash story should be hard and compact like a jewel, shining with purpose and function.  At its worst, it may be costume jewelry—it looks exactly the same on the surface but is cheap, disposable and lackluster.”

He confesses he’s worried that flash fiction can tempt writers to be lazy and uncritical in their own writing (“it can be justified as undeveloped because ‘hey, it was a flash and I didn’t have the space’”).

A valid concern, especially in the atmospheric world of Horror.

To help, Garrett shared his notes on the introduction to Irving Howe’s Short Shorts, which describes four types of story structures that work well for flash fiction. Garrett suggests that the third and fourth (“Snap-Shot” stoires and “Fable-like”) might work best for Horror.

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One of the strengths of the Horror genre is its ability to absorb and play with the tropes of every other genre while examining the human condition. So if you’re a writer who likes a challenge, and you’re willing to dig deep, why not try your hand at Horror?

There’s nothing to be scared of!

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Julie Duffy is a writer of short fiction and host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay May.

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.

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  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 Townsend Walker

Townsend WalkerThe wind ponies of my mind take me to places I’ve never been. They race across plains of thought heedless of what they’ve never seen.

And a process begins, a thought, often an opening line, a search for a next line, a following line. A character may appear, or not. Keep writing. A location or event fully described, when that, then a person will appear to populate it, move around in it.

Flash is an experiment. What comes of it?

Capture an emotion—Charlie’s Life, MuDJoB

Charlie was a mean lad. Charlie was a mad lad. Charlie was rad bad. Charlie clubbed his cousin, then his aunt.

“Jail or Army, lad?”

Charlie got to go war. Charlie got to kill and maim.

Charlie got a medal. Charlie was a hero. Charlie was the man. Charlie was the man. Charlie got to come home.

Charlie got a wife, don’t know why. Charlie clubbed again, don’t know who.

This is not a life.

Charlie?

Develop a Plot—The Gun Wasn’t Hers, Flash Frontier

She hadn’t wanted it, but there it was, on the seat beside her. For your protection, they’d said.

She was driving I-90: Seattle to Chicago, beat-up Beetle. Running a package out for this guy she knew. A delicate instrument,—didn’t trust UPS. The pay was good and she was between gigs. Lots of empty country out there, they’d said. True. Miles of nothing but dirt and sky flying by.

Out past Billings, a rock hit the windshield. Shattered it. She jerked at the wheel, nearly drove off the road. Where the hell did that come from? She slowed the car to a stop and sat til her breathing got down to near normal. The sun caught hold of the edges of exploded glass, turning her windshield into a web of rainbow colors.

In the rearview, she saw something move—back alongside the road, by the loose rocks. Her stomach lurched. Grabbing the gun, she found the safety, clicked it off, willed her legs out of the car, onto the pavement. She walked down the road, scanning the horizon, hair whipping around her eyes.

But it wasn’t there anymore. It was behind her.

Play with dialogue—Overheard, Apocrypha and Abstractions

Probably wasn’t anything could be done about it.

You did everything you could.

When was it? A month ago we talked to him.

Given the circumstances, inevitable.

With what he was mixed up in.

Bound to happen, sooner or later.

Che sera, sera.

But to end up there.

I don’t know what else I could have done.

Did you hear about that thing a couple days earlier?

Why on earth would anyone . . .?

You know, it’s really been hard on Sally.

But she’s been a trooper though it all.

Did the police have to give out so much detail?

Hey, over by the pillar, is that her? Black hat.

These days . . . .

What do you think happens next?

There’ll be questions.

They talked to you yet?

Blonde in the blue dress by the window?

Another one?

By the way, who found him?

They’re not saying.

Think this will change anything?

Nah.

You see anything to drink around here?

 

Open a larger story—A Bottle in the Alley, Blink Ink

A broken bottle, jagged edges refract street light, emerald stripes on a gray lump, on patent leather boots. The figure in boots, now in white orthopedic shoes, walks into a Park Avenue apartment.

“Good morning Miss Chaney. A good night?” the doorman says.

“Profitable, very profitable.”

Strange, for a nurse to put it that way.

A small complete story—Swan Lake, Slice

The mountain of dirty crusted snow was turning to slush. Pedestrians huddled next to buildings to avoid being splashed by careening cars. A bus rumbled to its stop, five feet from the curb, five feet filled with Arctic ice melt. The door opened. A short man in a long, seen-better-days coat peered out, small blue eyes blinking. He moved cat-like to the bottom step. Passers-by saw his turmoil–the near certainty of an ice bath, the slim chance of safety on the sidewalk. He hesitated. Was he going to try? He peered across the chasm, bent his knees, rose on his toes, gracefully arced in a grand jeté, and finished with a delicate landing. The muffled beat of mittens greeted his performance. He bowed deeply. His audience moved on, carrying that balletic movement with them. That touch of theatrical surprise that softens the soul.

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Townsend Walker is a writer living in San Francisco. During a career in finance he published books on foreign exchange, derivatives, and portfolio management. His short fiction has been published in over sixty literary journals and included in seven anthologies. A novella, La Ronde, will be published by Truth Serum Press in Fall 2015. Awards: first place in the SLO NightWriters contest, second place in Our Stories contest, two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series, Hollywood. Educated at Stanford (creative writing and economics), NYU (economics and anthropology) and Georgetown (economics and political science). Website: www.townsendwalker.com.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

There was a little dust-up recently in the comments section of an online flash site when a fair number of readers weren’t impressed by a particular story. Many of them found it shallow, lacking in a fully-developed plot and with unengaging characters.

The author’s defense? It was just a little piece of fun he’d barely spent two hours total on, including the rewrite. Supporting argument? Hey–it got published, didn’t it?

On his own blog, the author posted the positive comments (and positive parts of largely negative comments too), and wrote a minor rant against the idiots who couldn’t appreciate his worth.

The moral of this story: Don’t be shocked when at least someone in the crowd wonders where the Emperor’s skivvies are.

Authors: Do you maintain, even in your head, “A” and “B” and “C” lists to guide you in submitting your work? Do you consider non- or low-paying sites fallbacks when you want to meet your own quotas but don’t have anything “really good” to submit?

Don’t do it.

Bad enough in the olden days of print magazines, where it might have been a little harder to keep track of everything a prolific author wrote. Praise for the good stuff tended to drown out any grumbles about the bad; once someone had a bit of a reputation, he could sell almost anything somewhere.

But now, with the internet, we can easily find almost everything you’ve had published. And “we” might be not only the general public, but that agent you’re dying to impress or the publisher with the power to offer a lucrative contract.

Everyone understands the chronology of a writer’s growth. They’re not going to hold your early works against you, if you’ve gotten much better since then. But what about those half-hearted stories that happened to suit a particular site’s needs at the time—for whatever reason—but don’t really showcase your worth?

Can you really say—not to those faceless critics in the horde of the great unwashed, on whom you heap your authorial scorn—but to publishers and editors and agents who’ve done a casual internet search and decide, based on something that wasn’t your favorite, that you might not have the stamina to be their pick—”well, I really didn’t give a damn about that one, but they took it anyway?”

If you are a “real writer,” you won’t have contempt for any segment of your audience. Five acceptances, or fifty, or five hundred—you haven’t earned the right to take readers for granted.

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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, Perihelion SF Magazine, 365tomorrows and Flash Fiction Online.)

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