Month: January 2008

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?