Welcome to Flash Fiction Online’s new Patreon series: The Slushpile Do’s, Don’ts, & the Slushpile HORRORS.
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In this week’s episode of Slushpile Do’s, I talk about my personal favorite – writing a killer voice.
The bottom line is this. If your voice is strong enough, a slush reader or editor will fight for your story, even if it’s flawed.
Let me know in the comments what questions you have about the slushpile and I’ll do my best to answer them in the weeks to come.
Or check out the Slushpile Don’ts …
In this episode, Publisher Anna Yeatts talks about Bad Names, a major Slushpile Don’t. If we can’t pronounce it, keep them straight, or remember who’s who, you might as well hit that reject button yourself.
Flash is a unique and adaptable form that can be applied to almost any genre.
There are flash mysteries. Postcard flash might only be about travel—you are limited to the amount of space typically taken up by the back of a postcard. For example, flash foodies write very small about . . . FOOD.
I write flash memoir.
What I love most about flash memoir is the inconsequential. The ordinary. Again, by freeze-framing a moment we are capturing it, holding it, and then letting it go for others. Some of the best writing resonates with us because we have a similar memory or experience. Memoir is a way of validating what we think happened and also relating to others. In many ways, we all share the same human emotions that are expressed through memory. A Christmas fruitcake, laundry hanging on the line, feather beds. The essence of ordinary, though humble, reveals an extraordinary life.
Sometimes all it takes is a nudge to get the engine of memory to turn over. Once started memories, whether invited or not, continue to roll over us. What one needs to do is create a habit of acting upon these flashes by quickly jotting them down before they disappear. Using a process I call Write Right Now, a kind of carpe diem, I seize the moment and work on that memory flash to flesh it out on paper.
Often I begin with a memory, a flash, and find that it morphs, blurs into the realms of fiction, or vice versa. Today’s journals more than ever are open to hybrid writing, a mix of genre, fact and fiction.
Carlos Eire, an esteemed academic at Yale University, set out to write fiction based upon his boyhood growing up in Cuba before the Revolution. Before his life was shattered, Carlos ended up at age eleven in Miami, Florida all alone as part of Operation Peter Pan where thousands of Cuban children were airlifted unaccompanied by parents. When his editor read the manuscript, she asked him how much of it was autobiographical. He had to admit, all of it. Yet, by writing in a framework of fiction, he was able to trick himself into telling his story. The book Waiting for Snow in Havana won the National Book Award. For Nonfiction.
Or take the opposite approach: Mischa Berlinski, a young journalist in Thailand, set out to write a non-fiction account of the Lisu tribe. He was having a tough time selling his proposal. At the same time, he was having difficulty with the writing. The words weren’t jumping off the page. He decided to loosen up and write the story as fiction, inserting into his tale a character much like himself, actually naming the reporter/narrator of the tale Mischa Berlinski. He invented a plot of murder and intrigue that would use all his research. The result was Fieldwork, a National Book Award winner.
All this to say that whatever we write, micro or macro, is fodder for the creative process.
I encourage readers to build a portfolio of small flash memories which can eventually be expanded upon or become the foundation for a scene. Memories are the building blocks to most everything we write. We only need to begin.
In my new eBook Flash Memoir: Writing Prompts to Get You Flashing I offer over 90 pages of prompts and examples along with other resources to get the memoirist remembering. And, not just that, but writing.
Ernest Hemingway had a background in journalism. In Our Time contains small vignettes between longer stories such as “Big Two-Hearted River.” I’m not sure what he meant by doing this. Perhaps they were palate cleansers, you know like eating cheese or grapes between courses. As a foreign correspondent, he would eventually report on the Greco-Turkish population exchange, the Spanish Civil War, and, was embedded with the 22nd Infantry Regiment during World War II. He was present at D-Day and for the liberation of Paris. Quite a few of the inter-chapter pieces were vignettes of his war experiences written in the journalistic style without bias, comment, or the slightest hint of hindsight.
Write right now.
What’s in the news? Using a headline as a prompt, write a flash. This can be strictly memoir, or you can take any headline and place yourself there as a reporter and write fictionally what you see. Or, perhaps, a headline such as School Closures, affects you—write your flash as an opinion (op-ed) piece. An artist after 9/11 created a word collage based upon the weather report for that day memorable blue-sky day.
Jane Hertenstein is the author of over 90 published stories, a combination of fiction, creative non-fiction, and blurred genre both micro and macro. In addition, she has published a YA novel, Beyond Paradise and a non-fiction project, Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady, which garnered national reviews. Jane is the recipient of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Rosebud, Word Riot, Flashquake, Fiction Fix, Frostwriting, and several themed anthologies. She can also be found at http://memoirouswrite.blogspot.com/ where she gets 10,000 hits a month.
But today, I want to focus on some fundamental tips for writing flash fiction.
Cause it ain’t easy! For Flash Fiction Online, stories must be between 500 and 1000 words. Whew! Those are some tight restrictions, and that’s not a lot of space for your story. But as Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” (Hamlet).
You can sum-up flash fiction in that word, brevity. It’s critical to understand that flash is a unique medium, and it requires a different skillset than other storytelling formats.
Here are thirteen specific tricks (and a writing exercise) about how to write flash fiction (including insanely short stories).*
1.Take out all unnecessary words.
Practice on Twitter. I kid you not, and I speak from experience. Nothing shows you how to whittle down a sentence to the key elements better than Twitter. Pretend you only get one single solitary tweet to get the idea across. Can you do it?
Try this writing exercise and redo this sentence:
Pretend you only get one singlesolitary tweet to get the idea across convey your idea.
Pretend you only get one tweet to convey your idea.
Look, I just saved 3 words by editing that sentence. That’s GOLD in flash. It adds up, people!
2. You don’t need all those adjectives and adverbs.
Just use stronger nouns and verbs to do all the heavy lifting. For example, don’t say ‘walk leisurely’ when you can say ‘saunter’. Don’t say ‘small dog’ when you can say ‘Chihuahua’. Your specificity will build a better story with a smaller word count. The exception is for dialogue tags. You’re better off just using “said”, as other verbs related to speech tend to be distracting.
3. Pick a key emotion to color the story.
Readers love it when they feel something.
Caution: do not manipulate the reader with melodrama.
[melodrama: noun. a dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.]
You’ve gotta earn those feels! And try ending in a different emotional place than where you start.
4.Pick a strong image.
Give us a meaningful and memorable visual. You want a movie example? Indiana Jones shoots the fancy swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Honestly, one scene might be best. Otherwise, the world building and setting can take up too much word count. The key is choosing a small but powerful moment in a character’s life and placing your story there.
It’s the anti-epic story.
6. Speaking of characters, you don’t need more than one or two.
More than that and it gets dicey. Too much dialogue, too many interactions.
Twelve dancing princesses= suitable for a short story or novel.
One dancing princess= suitable for flash fiction.
Just say no to Character Clutter.
7. You’re better off using a 1st person or 3rd person limited points of view which stick tightly to the protagonist.
Pick just one point of view for a short story and utilize that throughout. Head hopping is particularly jarring in flash fiction. And avoid third omniscient, which also brings in too many points of view and character baggage for such a small space.
One character, one carry-on, no suitcases. Airplane metaphor, FTW!
8.Use a small idea.
Big ideas belong in BIG stories.
What’s the difference between a small idea and a big idea? The main difference is how you explore your concept. With a small idea, you keep it simple, and only probe one aspect with a very narrow, laser-type focus. Consider it tunnel vision. For a big idea, you get to dive into multiple aspects and complex bits in detail. Big ideas are more like a 360 degree panorama, there’s a lot happening. You know you have a big idea on your hands when it feels ripe with possibility, you’ll be reluctant to only spend that one moment in the world, and you’ll be imagining more themes, plots lines, and characters than I recommend here.
Big idea= “A civil war breaks out among several noble houses for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms.” That’s A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. Can you imagine this as a satisfying flash fiction piece? Not me. The indicators that this is big: “civil war” “several noble families” “seven kingdoms.” George R.R. Martin couldn’t even keep his idea(s) to one large book, because he had so much he wanted to explore!
Small idea= “A sentient bee microbot faces its demise and that of its companion bots.” That’s “Death Comes for the Microbot” by Aimee Picchi. Check out her interview with FFO to see how she developed her story idea. What makes this one small? It jumps in right before the demise of the bots and ends right after. Do we need their origin story or the rest of the world after the bots are powered down for the last time? I don’t.
9.The same goes for a short story theme: you only have room for one.
Make it count, but don’t hit us over the head with it either.
A subtle theme is better than a hardcore one. Humans don’t respond well to stories that are more about a lesson than entertainment.
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10.Focus on one main conflict.
Skip the subplots.
JK Rowling is a master of subplots. So if this were a Harry Potter flash, it would be stripped of everything else but the main conflict of Harry vs. Voldemort. Harry wouldn’t be involved with Cho, Hermione wouldn’t campaign to free the House Elves, Ron wouldn’t play Quidditch, Fred and George wouldn’t quit school to open a joke shop, and a million other things just wouldn’t fit.
11. Start in the middle of the story, at the beginning of the conflict.
Avoid backstory or prologue. And it’s best if you do not use flashbacks or flash forwards either. They don’t work as well in such a small space.
12.Make sure you have a character arc.
There’s nothing more disappointing than a character who doesn’t grow/change/learn. Sure, it happens, but does it make a fulfilling experience? Not particularly.
13. Choose an effective title.
First impressions help (or count, or whatever)! Let your title do some of the work, but don’t give away the story resolution with it either.
Titles that are spoilers are straight up from the Dark Side.
I challenge you to write twenty different titles for your next story. It’s a great writing exercise and future story idea generator. Chances are, the first ten will be tired and boring, but you’ll be forced to work past those and explore your story’s theme in new ways. Hopefully, by #20, you have a keeper.
There you have it–my lucky thirteen flash fiction tips.
Of course, these aren’t hard and fast rules, and there are plenty of great exceptions out there. But I’m confident that if you follow these aspects and the idea of brevity, you’ll have an easier time crafting a great flash fiction or short story.
If you use this guide, come back and tell us how it went.
Are there any rules you disagree with or am I missing anything mission critical?
Don’t forget, writing in a new medium takes practice!
*Ok, for super insane flash stories, try reading some of the six word stories on Twitter. @sixwordstories
Glittership is open to flash fiction and short stories. Do you think there are differences to what makes each length of story successful?
Yes, but I find it difficult to articulate these differences in a way that doesn’t immediately sound fake to me. I think that flash fiction is most successful when it focuses very intently on one piece of the story, like a feeling, or a character, or an idea. As short stories get longer, they need to “do more” to be successful. But, that’s true of all fiction. The more words you use, the more you need to give me.
Of course, now I’m sitting here thinking about the ways in which flash fiction starts to approach poetry in some ways, in that each word becomes more and more important when the story gets shorter.
Then again, no matter what length you’re talking about, you shouldn’t have extraneous words just hanging out and doing nothing… heh.
Do you have a favourite piece of flash fiction? If so, what about it stands out?
I don’t have a favorite – and even worse, I have the traditional writer’s problem when it comes time to start listing favorite stories or books. Essentially, I just go blank, and it’s like I’ve never read anything at all.
You’ve worked as a slush reader for Shimmer in the past. Have you noticed any differences in how you evaluate stories now that you’re looking to create audio versions?
I quit reading for Shimmer last summer, but that was only because I felt like it was time for me to move on and work on my own editing projects. So far, the biggest change between how I read for Shimmer and how I read for GlitterShip is that with GlitterShip, I’m the boss. When I read for Shimmer, I was trying to pick stories that I thought might appeal to Elise, and was supposed to pass more stories up to her than we would ever buy so that she could choose between them. Now if I hold onto a story for a while, it’s just to see if how I feel about it changes.
I think that eventually I’ll be looking for different things in terms of how a story reads, but in my experience those differences are fairly slight. The two of my stories that tend to read the best have a lot of visual elements in them – scene breaks, poems, Kickstarter formatting. At the end of the day what I care about is whether or not I’ve chosen good stories, and then talented readers will take care of the rest.
Glittership’s focus is on LGBTQ characters and issues. Do you have any advice for non-LGBTQ authors who might be interested in submitting their work?
In general, I think that anyone who is writing about people from a marginalized perspective that they don’t share should be reading copious amounts of fiction written by authors who are marginalized in that way. So, read fiction by authors who are out as queer.
Other than that, just send me the story! If I like it, I’ll buy it. If I don’t, well, we all get rejections.
Anything else you’d like to say?
The first episode came out on April 2nd, so readers and listeners can check that out at our website (glittership.com). Additionally, issue #2, which will be out on April 9th is going to be a “flash medley” with three different stories between 700 and 1300 words, so lovers of flash fiction should definitely stop by on the 9th to check that out.
When it comes to writing, behaving badly is a giant no-no.
If you know me, you know that burning things is one of my fortes, mostly effigies of my mortal enemies who just so happen to be Pro-Wrestlers.
All of them.
Burning bridges, though, is a big no-no. Metaphorically speaking. You weirdo.
So what does that mean? It’s quite simple.
Professional Writing Tip #1: Don’t be a jerk.
Writing this article isn’t easy, because I feel that I am preaching to the choir here. I also believe that a vast majority of people are decent. Every once in a while though you get a jerk and if you’ve spent approximately five minutes on the internet you’ve no doubt had the urge to pour acid on your eyeballs and rinse them with salt. If not, hoo boy, you must be a saint or something.
However, in the age of email, Twitter, Facebook and Youporn (mostly Youporn), it’s easy to mess up and post something dismissive or downright hurtful about an editor or a publisher. If that happens, you can own up to it and apologize.
There are instances of this though where people go bananas.
Flash Fiction Online doesn’t have a huge problem with such behavior, but it’s noticeable. Here’s why you don’t behave like a jerk when submitting fiction.
Writing Tip #2: People will remember you
Let’s say you submit a story. It gets rejected. That’s no biggie. You can always submit again. If you format your manuscript properly and follow the submission guidelines each new submission is effectively a clean slate. Attack an editor or slush reader and you can bet that the staff will hear about it. Not only will the staff hear about it, but other editors will too.
The e-zine community is tight knit. Especially so in the SFF field. People contribute to each other’s venues, meet at conventions or workshops, talk over social media – the whole nine yards. Set a precedent by being a jerk and everyone is going to be leery of you.
Recently a submitter called a female team member of FFO (I won’t mention who), and I quote, “menopausal”. That person’s name is now burned into my brain. I wish that person good luck elsewhere with his fiction (no, I really don’t), but I am fairly certain (one hundred percent) that he is not welcome anymore at FFO.
Writing Tip #3: Redemption can be hard to gain
Let’s say I barge into your house and mess up your DVD collection (because I don’t play by the rules, man). You have every right in the world to show me to the door. Next morning, when the mushrooms and alcohol lose their effect, I come over and apologize.
You will be rightfully skeptical because the burden of proof will be on me.
It’s the same situation here. Building trust and displaying your professionalism takes a long time, but getting rid of a crappy reputation? That’s tough because it’s not up to you. It’s up to the people you have hurt. When your poor behavior hurts someone, forgiveness will be doled out at the hurt party’s discretion.
Writing Tip #4: It’s easier to be nice
This might sound like a Sesame Street lesson, but hey, Sesame Street has salient points to make. Bile and anger aren’t good for your health; mental or physical. If you play your cards right you might even make new friends or connections.
I am not saying that you shouldn’t feel disappointed at getting rejected – if your story truly matters to you, of course, rejection is going to sting. The healthy thing to do is getting over it and getting it back into circulation – failing that onto the chopping block.
Writing Tip #5: Remember, always treat others like you want to be treated.
As writers, it’s our job to keep stories fresh and exciting.
Humans have been writing stories for thousands of years, so it’s inevitable that some story conventions get overused. yet many of us still struggle with ideas and wind up using clichés that ruin the experience for our readers (and therefore, get rejected by publishers or magazines to which you submit).
Here are some of the most used short story clichés and why authors should stop using them:
1. It was all a dream/game/hallucination.
Let’s start this list off with the one I hate the most. You can find this storytelling cliché everywhere: movies, TV, books, comics… It’s a cheap and underhanded way to make a reader fear for the protagonist without putting them in actual risk. The only way this would pay off is if the dream turns out to have very real repercussions (e.g. Ender’s Game).
2. Non-human point-of-view twists.
This is kinda related to the first story-writing cliché, except here the twist is in the narrative perspective. It’s not as cheap as the dream cliché, but you have to go the extra mile to ensure that the POV’s narration is:
accurate to the character – how can a dog understand English, for example
hidden from the reader – it is a twist, after all
compelling to read
I thought we had gotten past that in these modern times. This tells me more about you as a person than it does about the story.
4. Evil human race.
Yes, we get it. The human race has effed up the planet so badly that animals don’t want to live with us, aliens don’t want to meet us, and our own children think adults are monsters. But I don’t like stereotypes (as I mentioned), and stereotyping humans in your story as evil isn’t any better than stereotyping a race.
5. “Little did he know.”
Way to kill the tension in your story, buddy.
You just removed the drama and surprise from any conflicts your main character would encounter. This is a short story, not a daytime soap opera.
6. Trophy references.
I’ve enjoyed many stories that reference pop culture or anything related to the story’s theme, but there’s a difference between adding it in because it’s cool and showing off. Don’t let these references interfere with the story’s plot and the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
7. Happily ever after.
I’m not opposed to happy endings, but I am opposed to ones that aren’t justified. It’s never as simple as waving a magic wand, or scolding a villain into changing the error of his ways.
Make your protagonist earn that happy ending.
8. “In the beginning…”
There are novels that can pull this off, but you’re not writing a novel, are you? You’re writing a short story, which has a tight word count.
Drop us in the middle of the story, in media res, and don’t waste time reinventing the universe.
9. “Woe is me.”
Readers love stories where characters are put in emotional conflict, but you have to be careful not to turn your conflicted protagonist into a whiny protagonist. The former is compelling and dramatic, but the latter is annoying and melodramatic. This is especially true of short stories where the character spends most of the word limit moaning about his situation rather than actually doing anything about it.
10. The glorified joke.
Humor in fiction can be a very tricky thing. Not only is humor subjective, but a lot of authors fall into the trap of putting a joke in at the expense of the story. Even more make the bigger mistake of making the joke the entire point of the story. The story becomes a thousand-word setup for a single punchline—which usually falls flat.
11. Author’s revenge.
Many of us have been through unfair situations: an overbearing boss, a bad relationship, bullies, etc. And though we fantasize about getting payback, we (as functional human beings) rarely act on it.
Writing short stories about getting even may be therapeutic, but nobody else is going to want to read it.
12. Weather reports.
If you’ve read fantasy novels, you probably know what I’m talking about. Cue opening scene on a mountain range, the onset of a storm, or the blistering desert. It’s picturesque, it’s a good writing exercise, and it has no place in a short story.
Space is at a premium, and you have no time to be talking about how fine the grains of sand are.
13. Pop culture knock-offs.
Do you have sparkly vampires in your story?
Plucky, bespectacled young wizards?
How about short, hairy Canadians with claws for hands?
It’s probably not for us, then. Influences are one thing, poorly-disguised fan fiction is another.
It’s perfectly fine to have a central theme in your story, and try to express a worthwhile message. But beating your reader over the head with environmental activism, or religious conservatism, or any other sort of overt preaching does not make good fiction.
15. Artist with artist troubles.
I’m a writer. I get how agonizing the creative process is, and I don’t want to read about someone else going through the same thing. Only Neil Gaiman ever pulled this story off successfully, and he had trapped his muse in a dungeon in his basement.
Keep in mind there are always exceptions.
The reasons these have become clichés is because they’ve been done so many times and so poorly that now they’re just… lame.
But if you can put your own unique spin on it, in a way that’s new, fresh, and—above all—justified, then go ahead! Just be aware that there’s a much higher bar that you have to overcome.
I’ve been reading a lot of slush this past month. Mountains of it, really. So much slush that I have imprints of the little yes/no/maybe buttons burned indelibly into the inside of my eyelids so I can see them staring back at me even in my sleep.
That’s a whole lot of slush.
But the biggest problem for a slush reader is that so very much of it is the same. Well not really. The setting changes a bit. This one is set in a car. That one is on a far away planet. There’s a cute setup about a mystical creature under a bed. But more times than not they all come back to the same thing.
A white, middle class, educated protagonist. Heterosexual. Generally male. Sometimes we get an educated, middle class, heterosexual white female. Usually she’s fairly angst-ridden and she’s looking for love. Or she’s bitter about love. Or she has a cat.
We get an awful lot of cat stories. You submitters sure do love your cats. And I’m glad you love your cats…. *sigh* But that’s beside the point.
So I’m challenging you to throw some other flavors into the slush. Send us some rocky road. Some pistachio chip with sprinkles. Avocado with bacon chips and a dash of honey drizzle on top.
The world’s too big and diverse and wonderful. Not that vanilla isn’t wonderful. I’m about as vanilla as they come. But vanilla is so much tastier with a zesty side of Latin transgender astronaut. Or a QUILTBAG family battling to stay together after the alien apocalypse.
Send us every age, sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, and creed you’ve got. Send characters with disabilities and physical limitations that make us reexamine our stereotypical expectations. To the LGBTQ community, Flash Fiction Online is your ally in a search for equality. This is an open invitation. We don’t publish erotica or gore. But we do love characters and story plots that push the boundaries and make us think.
Now, a caution. You can send the best flavor ever conceived, but if it’s not well written as a story, it’s still not getting through slush. If it’s dripping all over the sides of the cone and puddling on my good shoes, that literary Harlem deliciousness isn’t getting a yes. Craftsmanship is everything. Hone your skills. Make your characters sing. Because slush needs them.
Flash Fiction Online alumni (authors who published previously at FFO) may add news of their publications at other venues for 2012 to the list below. Post your news in a comment to this post or contact the editor. Your comment won’t be posted; the news be added to this post.
Bruce Holland Rogers is well known to FFO fans; he wrote a monthly flash fiction column, published by Flash Fiction Online, for a couple of years. Among his writing awards are a Pushcart, two Nebulas, Bram Stoker and others. He’s one of a few to try to make a living of short fiction.
Now he’s starting a short-short (flash) publishing project via KickStarter. If you aren’t familiar with Kickstarter.com, it’s just cool, is what it is. It is a crowd funding group that favors creative projects, including all the arts, technology and others. The ‘crowd’ is a growing group of people who chip in a little bit or a lot for some project that appeals to them, just to be part of something cool. There are small, non-equity rewards, but that’s not the point.
Take a look at Bruce Holland Rogers’ 49: a square of stories for hip people. Don’t be left behind; he’s almost halfway home.