Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why Novelists Should Write Flash

If asked to list the top three literary activities that have aided my growth as a novelist, they would be:
  1. an intense study of story structure 
  2. my written evaluation of stories, both published and unpublished 
  3. writing flash fiction 


Did #3 surprise you? It may seem counter-intuitive. By definition, a novel is long (60,000 to 120,000+ words) and flash fiction is short (usually 100 to 1,000 words). What could the long-winded novelist have to learn from writing flash?

The answer: everything.

You will learn to get to the point. Flash fiction must have a beginning, middle, and end, with a character arc involving a turning point, often using only four times as many words as I crammed into this sentence.

You will choose words wisely. Flash fiction is, in essence, a prose writer’s exercise in poetry. The yellow flowers scattered across the lawn will become buttercups or daffodils or dandelions—whichever contributes best. Instead of cranking out word count, you’ll spend your time deepening meaning with just the right words.

You’ll become more architect than bricklayer. The blathering novelist can unwittingly build a wall of words that discourages the reader from entering her story. Flash fiction tolerates no word dumps. A severely limited word count encourages you to prop up designed spaces in your story. You’ll learn to write between the lines, and invite the reader to fill in the rest. You’ll choose wide-shouldered words capable of carrying denotation and connotation and resonance, and carve away excess.

You'll gain an unrivaled education in story structure. Do you have an inciting incident that creates a character goal? Do you complicate that goal? Does the story have a climax that indicates indelible character change? You won’t lose track of these elements within hundreds of pages of drifting verbiage. There they’ll be, before you, all on one page. And when you return to the long form to apply your new skills, and all the right words come together so that each 100-word chunk contributes to the integrity of your story, you’ll have a fine novel.

Flash fiction can earn you publication credits. Check out Duotrope (in the search engine, under length, select “flash fiction”) for hundreds of markets that publish flash fiction!

As my favorite flash teacher, Randall Brown (founder and managing editor of Matter Press), says: “Flash is for the fearless.” Of course he also says, “Hear that POP! That’s the sizzle of your prose, your veins like wires.”

Are you man or woman enough to try? A 100-word story would fit neatly into a comment box. I’ll get us started. This story weighs in at 99 words. An expanded, almost leisurely 750-word version was previously published in Flash Me magazine.

Belated Promise 
by Kathryn Craft 

They’ve been together twenty years now. Raised two great kids, but never married. I’m old-fashioned and think it’s high time.

George’s family lived next door. I’ve bandaged his knees, written job referrals, fielded despair over affairs of the heart. He wipes sweaty palms against his suit.

“Nervous, son?”

“Silly at my age.”

“Love’ll do that to you.”

A molasses smile spills across his face. “Oh, yes.”

Steven enters my chambers and trips on the rug. We all laugh.

“Ready?”

Taking Thomas’s hand, he nods, eyes wet.

I'd better begin the ceremony. A teen and his pregnant girlfriend wait outside.

###


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, was published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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34 comments :

  1. Clever flash, Kathryn. Having started as a writer of short fiction, I love this sort of challenge. Long before it was called flash fiction, NPR ocassionally dared writers to attempt complete stories in 100 words. The story I wrote for them was this science fiction ultra-short, "Mint, Uncirculated" (reprinted in Requisite Variety: Collected Short Fiction by Lior Samson):

    No one saw.

    Eddie, cresting the dune, crabcake in one fist, change in the other, heard the doughy plop.

    Fleeing the collapsing ship, a woman with tangerine skin reached toward him. Unthinking, he offered the crabcake. It powdered into sparkling dust, swirling toward her hand, vanishing.

    She pointed. He opened his hand and icy flame washed the quarter, melting it into a coppery pool that frosted over with her likeness.

    In his mind, her words: for you.

    She ran, fading, leaving deep cobalt afterimages.

    The kids would never believe him. Not even Joey. But he knew he would never show them the coin.

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

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  2. I love to write flash fiction with my cp partners at yaff. Once a month, we choose a picture/song/etc. to write a story around. It's very freeing and we end up with some potential novel ideas as well.

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  3. Larry, Thanks so much for sharing your piece! It's magical. I have no doubt that some of these images will linger with me today. I love the tangerine skin and cobalt afterimages—they really pop.

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  4. Traci: I wonder if you've experienced the same thing I have—once you start writing flash, it's not enough to simply write a vignette in those story prompt sessions. It's got to have a beginning, middle, and end or else I can't stop writing!

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  5. Kathryn-- Thanks for the great post. I have found myself hooked on Five Sentence Fiction which is a challenge from Lillie McFerrin (you can find her at http://lilliemcferrin.blogspot.com/ ) to write a five sentence story based on a single word prompt. It is fun, addictive and, as you point out, beneficial. Thanks!

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  6. Andy: Five sentences—you truly need veins like wires to plug into that! But what a fun change of pace from rambling through the lengths of a novel. I can see why it would be addicting—thanks for the link.

    Thanks for stopping by—and congratulations on your versatile blogger award (I clicked through)!

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  7. Great post, Kathryn! I'm always giving my writers different exercises so that they gain a new perspective, and you hit the proverbial nail on the head as to why writing Flash is beneficial! Thanks for the post!

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  8. I write one of these each week on my blog ... didn't know it had name ... but then, I'm pretty much out of the loop on just about everything on the Internet ... my wife says I'm pretty much 'out of it', period.

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  9. Thanks for your comment, Susan.

    And Christopher: you should choose one and paste it here!

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  10. Okay, I'll give it a shot - I've been meaning to write more flash:
    Feral
    He plunged his arms into the stench of the burrow, attempted a soothing croon while stifling his gag reflex. He touched hair, and it bucked and snarled, scrabbling to retreat. Teeth grazed his forearm as he grasped a slender limb, and the snarls dissolved into panicky yips.
    In the way of wild creatures, it knew the family of coyotes had been slaughtered.
    He pulled it out by a leg and an arm, and the child hid its eyes with its hands, like his own toddling daughter after a too-firm "no," only so much more afraid.
    "I'm sorry," he said.

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  11. Ooh, roseaponi—thanks for sharing this! Intriguing. Could be an opening to a longer piece, though. I want more!

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  12. Thanks :) The hardest part about flash is knowing when to stop ;)

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  13. I did flash fiction a long, long time ago. Was it three years ago?

    Perhaps I should write a few of them at some time or another, in order to get that writing energy ignited again. It can provide more productivity on the site 750 Words.

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  14. Roseaponi: So true!

    Chihuahua Zero: When you said "a long, long time ago" I was thinking 20 years, lol! (Does that mean I'm getting old?) I think you're exactly right—flash fiction can reignite your writing energy!

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  15. Love the story and the post, Kathryn. This line really resonated with me when I read it: "Instead of cranking out word count, you’ll spend your time deepening meaning with just the right words."

    Good writing is cranking out words, great writing is finding that one word, that one phrase, that lifts the work out of the ordinary.

    I have never tried flash fiction, but I can see the benefits.

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  16. Enjoyed the other stories shared in the comments, too. Gives me more of an idea of what flash fiction is all about. And you are right, Kathryn, about it being like poetry. It helps to keep the work focused and concise.

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  17. Glad we (the commenters and me!) could provide an intro, Maryann!

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  18. Great exercise and I couldn't agree more about the value of flash. It has helped me immensely...I love it. Now I wonder if I can write enough for a book. LOL!

    SUNSHINE
    [flash fiction - 100 words]

    “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy…c’mon kids, sing along. Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry.” Dee’s voice carried out the open window as they headed home. In the back seat her kids rolled their eyes, turned up the volume on their headsets and went back to their video games.

    A loud horn interrupted Dee’s chorus, the semi-truck swerved to avoid the stalled car in the road and headed straight at them. The kids were oblivious, even to Dee’s brief scream; they never knew what hit them.

    The sunshine was bright the day they were laid to rest.

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  19. @Kathryn Craft: As someone who can't even vote yet, three years is a long time. It's all relative.

    Thinking about it, I had wrote three or so flash fiction recently, but it was three years ago when I was posting a few on the Internet.

    Oh, how I was back then.

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  20. Donna,
    Thanks for sharing your poignant piece. My 21-year-old nephew was killed in a car crash in January, so I've been thinking about this very topic of late: what can we expect of life's journey? A few rays of sunshine, received and created. Thanks for the reminder.

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  21. Chihuahua Zero: Thanks for the added perspective! Wait until you have mine—did that happen 20 years ago, or 30, or such a "long, long time ago" I can't remember? It's really weird!

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  22. Always loved flash fiction and enjoyed your story.

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  23. Thanks for stopping by and reading, Marie!

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  24. Great piece, Kathryn. I've delved into flash fiction a little bit over the couple of years I've been a serious writer and I find I enjoy it. I could definitely stand some more practice, though. Thanks for the inspiration.

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  25. Brianna: Give it another go every now and again—you'll benefit in more ways than you realize! Thanks for reading.

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  26. Kathryn, so sorry to hear about your nephew. Young lives lost are the worse. My heart and thoughts go out to all his family.

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  27. I love this post. I have only attempted writing flash fiction a few times, but I enjoyed it when I did. I was just thinking the other night, "How do I even start with flash fiction?" but I really like the idea a commenter left about writing a story around a song. Love it!

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  28. (Thanks Donna, that's so kind of you.)

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  29. Candace: I once wrote a flash on the theme of a haiku I wrote. Without the haiku limitations, the flash felt downright roomy! :)

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  30. Here's something off the cuff:

    The bedroom is small and neatly furnished in dark woods. The décor is not to my taste, but it should serve my purposes well enough. A side-table for a lamp, a bed, a small armoire and a desk.

    The last is most important.

    I sit down and in doing so produce from my pockets a small piece of paper and a pen. The gloves make writing difficult, but it is only a few simple strokes. Most of what I do is a matter of simple strokes.

    The note reads: "It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it!" I doubt that the authorities will appreciate the humour, but such satisfaction is inherently private.

    I wait for the strangers to come home.

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  31. J.H.M.: Thanks for playing! I like how the gloves make writing difficult.

    Now, the challenge of flash: as you work on revising, think about the ways in which the side-table, the lamp, the bed, and the small armoire add to meaning in this piece, as you've given them precious word count.

    And I'm not sure I get it: he writes the note and then sits in the room awaiting the return home of the strangers?

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  32. Great summary, Kathryn. As the editor of a magazine that only publishes flash, we get a lot of similar questions ("Why write flash??") and we tell the writers very similar things.

    If you know anyone who's just starting to write flash, we'd love to welcome them into our free online workshop, where we give feedback for pieces <150 words every Wednesday night!

    Best luck writing more flash!

    Amanda (http://hootreview.com/)

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  33. Thanks for this info, Amanda. Sounds like a great opportunity.

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  34. I couldn't get it under 100 words. It's 135 words. :(

    I was nineteen the first time I was diagnosed. The first time someone gave me a label. It was depression at that time, nothing serious. Lots of people had it. I didn't know it then but that episode was just a sneak preview, a foreshadowing of what was to come.

    Fast forward seven years.

    I'm in the hospital now. The doctors are discussing my condition.

    "I believe you are Bipolar. But we can not rule out schizophrenia. You are also clearly depressed, and quite anxious. We will have to medicate you for these conditions. Cover all bases. You know."

    I nod my head yes, but inside I'm screaming no. I don't want these labels. I don't want these drugs. Where can I find someone who can heal me? Who can repair what I've done?

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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