Things Not To Put In Your Cover Letter

I’m pretty good-natured, so none of the following have stopped me from reading your stories, but consider what an editor might think on reading the following statements in the email that accompanies your submission:

“I wrote this in 20 minutes after finding out about your zine.” While I appreciate the fact that you want to show your instant devotion, I’d rather find out that you had taken your time crafting a story instead of slapping one together.

“I wrote this while thinking about my best friend, Virginia.” While this bit of sentiment will be great in the interview after you sell the story, beforehand it just sets me up to think that it’s a sentimental diary entry more than a story. While I might be pleasantly surprised, and while FLash Fiction Online staff readers don’t see the cover letters, why take the chance of setting yourself up?

“I’ve had this one sitting around for a while. I hope you like it.” While it’s possible that you were just waiting for a professional flash-dedicated zine to sell to, or that you have other reasons for not submitting this story to anyone else, it seems likely that a story that you’ve had “sitting around for a while” hasn’t sold for a good reason. Unless you’re Orson Scott Card, I’m going to be a little skeptical. (Scott, do you have a flash story that’s been sitting around for a while?)

There are probably more, and I’ll add them as they come along. As it turns out, I didn’t buy any of the stories that accompanied these cover letters. That’s not because the cover letters were bad, though, so if you see yourself here don’t get upset. I’m commenting here to be helpful, not to be catty.

Good writing!
Jake

Flashes and Twist Endings?

Many authors write stories with twists. For a while, Law and Order even advertised the fact that there was a twist at the end of their episodes.

The problem with twist endings and flash is that they often don’t feel like twists: they feel like punch lines. And that makes the stories jokes, not stories.

It makes sense. In a longer story, you have a lot of space to build up people’s motivations, desires, personalities — characters, in other words. When there’s a twist, you’re seeing the twist as a change in a well-established character’s knowledge. In flash, none of the characters are as strongly developed, so the twist is often more of a change in the reader’s knowledge. And that’s just a punch line.

Sometimes the twist is even worse: the author withholds information from the reader even though the main character would definitely know it. Sometimes that happens in longer works, but I think the temptation is stronger in flash because it would have to be sustained for a shorter, and therefore seemingly more manageable, length of time. But it’s still a case of the author cheating the reader.

Writing a story develops trust between the author and the reader. Withholding information from the reader breaks that trust; making a joke of the story makes the reader take you a little bit less seriously. Unless you’re deliberately trying to not be taken seriously — and I’ll submit that most of the best humor is very seriously humorous — I’d avoid both.

Flash Fantasy & SF: Harder Than Other Genres?

I just stumbled across a year-old post by Steve Goble called “Swords and Flashery“. It hits on a topic I’ve been thinking about as I go through the submissions we’ve received over the last two months.

[After writing the first draft of a fantasy flash,] I read the [2000-word] piece and found nary an ounce of fat in it. It was the simplest kind of plot I could devise and still have a sense of drama to it. In short, there was just no way I could go back and jettison half of what I’d written.

“Come on, Steve,” you might say. “The very first submission to Flash Fiction Online was a drabble, only 100 words long. Surely we can write stories in fewer than 2,000 words!”

But the drabble I received needed absolutely no setup. Steve writes swords-and-sorcery stories. He needs lots of setup.

Science fiction and fantasy require at least one speculative element. You have to describe what the element is and show how it makes the world you’re creating different from the world we live in. If the speculative element is a person, you may need to show how this person’s history fits in with the rest of the fictional world; the rest of that fictional world then needs sufficient explanation to let it be the context for the fictional person. Objects can be the same way (think of all the history behind Gollum’s ring or the Gom Jabbar of the Bene Gesserit), as can political situations, planetary conditions, species of creature…

Well, you get the idea. If you’re making stuff up, and you want people to experience your invented world, you have to make it all fit. That’s tough to do in a thousand words.

One submission we received came from a professional author with many published stories. I’d love to get his name on my Web site. But the amount of information that came pouring off the page — just to set up the plot — was staggering. The plot itself had minimal room to move, and was therefore somewhat unsatisfying. I give him immense credit for trying to get everything into a thousand words, but I don’t think it’s possible for this particular story.

Does that mean that it’s impossible to write flash SF & fantasy? No, of course not. I’ve already published some of it, and I just agreed to buy a great little SF story by Jeff Soesbe (his first sale!) called “Apologies All Around” for the February issue. I’m acquiring the rights to a very funny SF story by Carl Frederick for our April issue. (As an aside, I’m really happy to have both someone as new as Jeff and someone as experienced as Carl on the site.) But it’s hard.

What can you do to make it work? I’m thinking out loud here, but it seems to me that you can (not must, just can) do some of these things:

(a) Make the world you’re writing about very similar to the one you’re in. The less you have to explain, the more words you can devote to plot. Since literary fiction is, generally speaking, in “our world”, there’s very little explaining to do. Literary writers have the advantage over sci fi writers here.

(b) Use dialogue sparingly — and with precision. If you read “The Materialist” from this issue, you’ll see only two brief bits of dialogue: 48 words out of a thousand. Note, though: the spoken words that made it into the story are gems. The “higher goal in mind”–”cancer research?”–”Rhodium!” exchange brilliantly and succinctly characterizes Dr. Albrecht in a way that 500 words of description couldn’t.

(c) Avoid things like the plague if they’re not part of the narrative thread. I recently participated in a flash challenge at Hatrack River. I wrote my flash between midnight and 2:30 AM the day it was due. Reading it the next day, I realized that I had included bits of history of the device that the story revolved around — history that didn’t need to be there. Excise those 150 words, and suddenly I have more space to talk about the stuff that matters: character, plot, and setting. While this theoretically isn’t purely a sci-fi-or-fantasy problem, the submissions of the last month show me that many sf writers seem to want to go down that path more than literary writers. Even if you’re an engineer, you don’t need to explain the engineering.

I’m sure there’s more. What do you think?

Web Site Statistics

In case you’re interested, you can see how many visitors we have

On Romance and Horror

…not that I’m intimating that they’re closely related or anything. ;)

This post is for writers rather than readers.

Over the past six weeks we’ve received about 300 submissions. Thanks to everyone who has given us a try, and I’d like to offer my encouragement even to those whose stories I’ve rejected. It looks like we’re going to accept something like five or six stories, so the competition is stiff (and not always in predictable ways).

I’d like to mention something briefly that might help you make it through the slush pile, especially if you’re writing in one of these two genres.

If you write romance, you face a stiff challenge. Basic boy-meets-girl just isn’t compelling; there has to be something besides the romance to make a romance worthwhile. In When Harry Met Sally, there was an awful lot of story going on around the Harry-and-Sally romance.

It’s tough to pack both romance and something else into 1000 words, but that’s what you need, or else it’s just… well, sorry, but corny.

In the same way, horror needs more than just something evil happening. I’ve read quite a few submissions that set up a scene and then have an evil person / devil / creature do something evil, followed by the death or survival of a character (usually the protagonist). But if there’s no point to the scene except to have the evil thing happen — if it doesn’t involve a psychological thrill — then it devolves into titillation.

For instance, in Robert Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, the interest didn’t come from the serial killer that Clarisse was chasing so much as from Clarisse’s interactions with Hannibal Lector, and the psychological drama that came from the necessity of interacting with such a repulsive man. In Stephen King’s Christine, the psychological drama was self-imposed: it came from the choices the protagonist had to make in relation to his car, his girl, power, popularity, and, in essence, good and evil.

Good flash is hard to write. Maybe horror and romance are harder than other genres for flash. I’d love to read your attempts to write it, but consider what I’ve said above if you want to stand out from the crowd.

Good writing!

Geek Giving

It’s a new year. We’ve made resolutions to do more, do more with less, do less, give of ourselves more, and give ourselves less. It can be hard to find innovative ways to contribute to the community with busy schedules and limited financial resources.

While Flash Fiction Online publishes a variety of genres, many of us come from a speculative fiction background or are geeky-like. Now, don’t go wagging your head at that. You might think you don’t know your left click from your left foot, but you used some type of technology device to get here today. Embrace your inner geek and let’s do the technology two-step for a bit.

For us geek-like folk, it can be hard to find a satisfying way to give back. It’s important to me to do more than fling money at the nearest good cause. I’d also like to find ways to connect with others who share my interests.

What struck me about both of the programs below is the importance of communication – specifically the written word via the web (hmm, sound familiar?) To be successful, these programs have to grab both the imaginations and the time of potential volunteers.

Volunteer Computing:
You can help scientists around the world by allowing your computer to work on itsy bitsy parts of their massive problems at times when you aren’t using it. Talk about embracing your inner geek – you can participate in projects as diverse as the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, climate prediction, or protein folding research. With many more projects coming on-line in the near future, there’s something for every style of geek.

The most widespread platform for these distributed volunteer computing projects is the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. You download software from the BOINC site and choose projects to get involved with. Because life has no meaning unless you are competing, you earn points for the calculations your computer performs. In true geek fashion, you only win bragging rights, but hey – those are worth something. In a great Chicago Tribune article about volunteer computing, one reporter describes the communication challenge faced by these programs so well I’ll just quote it:

“This is democratic computing, so it’s based on the goodwill of a bunch of people from all walks of life, all backgrounds,” Wandelt [U. of I. physics professor and director of Cosmology@home] said. “If as a researcher you cannot communicate what’s interesting about your problem to the general public, this sort of thing probably isn’t for you.”

One Laptop Per Child:
This project is also known as the XO laptop, and previously known as the $100 laptop. Due to a mustard stain on the original design spec, it’s now the $200 laptop. Headlined by current and former Smart Folk from the MIT Media Lab, the program has lofty goals.

The premise of One Laptop Per Child, beside the obviousness of the name, is that computers are powerful learning tools. When scaled and built for children, computers can be a leveler; reducing or eliminating disparities in income, socio-economic status, geographic location and hundreds of other challenges faced by children in developing nations today.

The laptop is packed with features – standard computer fare like writing and painting programs, and innovative applications like an acoustic tape measure that can factor in the current air temperature to accurately calculate the speed of sound (getting these figures wrong by a few significant digits really honks off the true geek), and a journal program that records each activity a child does on their computer.

In addition, children can click to see the source code for any activity. They can tinker with it. If they make a mistake, they can revert to the original. As the program states in their Mission:

“We want the child to interact with the laptop on as deep a level as he or she desires. Children program the machine, not the other way around.”

This embraces a new way of thinking about children and technology, and in my view ends some of this silly business of assuming that a child can’t comprehend (or doesn’t need to) the inner workings of a computer, particularly not a child in the developing nation. Why not? Everyone could benefit from a more intimate view of technology, even you people who shook your head at the beginning of this and said you don’t know diddly or squat.

As the OPLC folks say here:

“Starting from the premise that we want to make use of what people already know in order to make connections to new knowledge, our approach focuses on thinking, expressing, and communicating with technology. The laptop is a “thing to think with”; we hope to make the primary activity of the children one of creative expression, in whatever form that might take.”

A thing to think with. Wow. They had me with think.

In the fall of 2007 the OLPC project offered the $200 laptops for sale to the general public for $400 through the Give 1 Get 1 program. You bought one computer, and another was donated to a child in the XO deployment areas. Full disclosure – my family bought two. (That’s my 6 year-old working on his in the photo.)

One of the goals of the G1G1 program was to create a user base in the US and Canada that would act as a virtual support network for the recipients of the laptops in developing nations.

The online communities for the XO project are growing at a rapid clip. Opportunities to volunteer exist in supporting the deployment (communications, tech support, help desk, logistics, translation), writing manuals, developing software for the XO, supporting the teachers who will be using them in the classroom, and countless others.

This program has caught the imagination of people in the US and around the world. And I can see why — children empowered with technology from their earliest years in education. To loosely paraphrase one of my favorite authors: Just think of the thinks they can think.

Karen Smith aka KayTi

Semi-retired from technology consulting and educational software design/development while the wee folk are wee. Reading, writing, and blogging in my spare time between carpools and playdates. Flash Fiction Online slush reader. Coupon clipper. Vegetarian eater. Global warming worrier. Lifelong learner.

Digital Publishing and the Kindle

Perhaps you’ve been on an archeological dig and haven’t heard about the Amazon Kindle (or the Sony Reader, for that matter). I’m not here to sell you one (although if you want to buy one, please feel free to use our affiliate links). But I do get a kick out of having a Flash Fiction Online original available for download. It only costs a dollar (I can’t make it cheaper, and since I won’t have any advertising opportunities on the Kindle it makes sense to charge something), and it has the same text and illustration by R.W. Ware as the original. Neat, huh?

R.W. Ware on the Preditors & Editors Art Poll

If you’ve read the past two issues of Flash Fiction Online, you’ve seen the artwork that accompanies each story. It has been relevant and tastefully done in different media to match each story. It’s mature, sensitive, appropriate art through-and-through.

That excellence has been achieved through the toil of our art director and resident artist, Rich Ware.

Now other people are giving him the credit he deserves. Over on Andrew Burt’s Preditors & Editors Poll, someone nominated R.W. Ware in the “Artist Publishing in 2007″ category. As I write this, Rich is #6 — a testament to his skill and thoughtful craft work.

If you agree, click here, scroll down to R.W. Ware, and cast your vote.

Thanks!