Guest Post: Aaron Gansky, Stephen McLain & Heather Luby on Flash Fiction

This week, I welcome back my sometime collaborator, Aaron Gansky (WRITE TO BE HEARD) who has a great post along with  Stephen McLain and their guest, Heather Luby discussing flash fiction, one of my favorite forms. In fact, I just wrote the screenplay adaptation for The Green Bench, which The Citron Review was kind enough to publish a few years back. Welcome back, Aaron, and thank you!

Heather-LubyWelcome Heather Luby, managing editor of The Citron Review, to take a look at a very popular form of storytelling: Flash Fiction. Because the form is so short (less than a thousand words), authors must be careful to craft the story in a very exact manner. Aaron, Steve and Heather take a look at some ways for you to master flash fiction. These tips and tricks can even help you improve your craft in the writing of your novel. As always, you can listen above or download the episode here. Remember, you can always find Steve and me on FacebookTwitteriTunes, and Stitcher.

You’ll also notice that the book links below point you to Better World Books. For every book purchased on Better World Books, the company donates a book to someone in need. Great little program (and founded by Notre Dame grads – go Irish!) Now, on to the show notes:

Flash Fiction has several definitions, but the one we use at The Citron Review is a story of less than 1,000 words, which works out to be about three pages. While the form isn’t new, the popularity of it has risen dramatically with the proliferation of online journals. And because the form is so demanding, there are several things you should keep in mind as you write:

BEGINNINGS

  • When you set out to write, don’t think, “I’m going to write some flash fiction!” If you do, you’ll probably write a story that’s uninspired, or too brief, or not completely realized. Instead, simply write your story. When you are done, if it’s come out as flash fiction, that’s probably what it wants to be. If, instead, it comes out longer, you’ll probably want to keep it at that length. Let the story determine whether it’s flash fiction or not.
  • Respect the adage “late in, early out.” You don’t have time to give us long, complicated background information. Start in the middle. Your readers are smart enough to pick up the pieces and put them where they go. Also, resist the urge to over explain at the end. The most common advice I give is, “cut the last two lines.” Your sweet spot is usually earlier than you realize. (More on endings later).
  • Create immediacy. Hit hard and fast. The power of a flash story is in its brevity, in providing enough details to create an emotional resonance that will impact the reader. This, more than anything, is at the heart of flash fiction.
  • Flash fiction puts a premium on words. Love language. Love imagery. Often, these stories are a type of prose poetry. They carry the same attention to detail, use imagery as symbolism, and, most of all, create a lyrical voice to tell an emotionally resonant story. Often, what happens is not as important as the telling of the events. The moral, the theme, is little more than the emotional impact it carries. Make us feel.
  • Try to keep the number of characters down. Too many can clutter your story. We only need one or two. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but the best stories seldom have more than two characters.

ENDINGS

  • The ending should present a moment of closure. It shouldn’t be abrupt (as if the flash is an excerpt from a larger work). While most flash stories have open resolves, they often point toward a final outcome. The ending is inevitable, but the inevitable is not shown.
  • Because flash is so imagery-driven, poignant images can often serve as a resolve.
  • The goal is to find the “truth” not the “twist.” The ending should be inevitable, unavoidable, but can be surprising. Consider the advice, “a great ending is one you never saw coming, but once you’ve read it, it seems as if no other ending would make sense.” This is what Flannery O’Connor referred to as the unexpected but inevitable ending. Poe says the final line of a short story should be like a flashlight that, once read, will shed light on the rest of the story, and illuminate the reader’s understanding in a new way. It’s a tall order, sure, but so is writing great flash fiction.
  • Some of our favorite flash fiction selections come from a book called Flash Fiction Forward. Namely, Hannah Bottomy’s Currents, which is a story written in reverse order. Each paragraph begins with the words “before that.” Because we being with the end, the end (which is actually the beginning) becomes especially powerful, and hits like a fist of bricks.
  • A note on “backward stories” and “stories in the form of book indexes” and other gimmicks: Try to avoid them. If you set out to write a gimmicky story, you’ll likely fail. Instead, write the story as the story wants to be told. If, after you have written it, you decide it’s more emotionally resonant to tell backward, say, or in the form of a book index, then go for it. But let the unique telling serve the story, rather than the story serving the gimmick.
  • Another great flash story is Popular Mechanics by Raymond Carver, which you can find in his collection of short stories called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Though it features an nontraditional ending, it is a story that stays with you for the rest of your life.
  • Some outstanding examples from The Citron Review: Jon Pearson’s Invisible as God is a fantastic example of a lyrical story-telling, a kind of prose poem, that elevates imagery and detail into the realm of the emotionally resonant. Also, Alan Stewart Carl’s Remaining, which is a more traditional type of story, but one that is very well executed in terms of precise language and detail.

LAST WORDS

  • Be sure to submit regularly. The process of submission (and the subsequent rejections and acceptances) will tell you much about what you’re doing right and wrong. Never be afraid to put your work out in the world. It’s the only way to see if your story’s wings are strong enough to fly.
  • Love language. Read a lot of poetry.
  • Invest in Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction by Rose Metal Press. It’s full of incredible tips and tricks from all the experts.

Please leave your comments below. You can e-mail Aaron & Steve at firstsinfictionpodcast@gmail.com.

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on the road

Am on a refreshment break, so the regular post will be a few days late. In the meantime, here’s Aaron Gansky on creating atmosphere for a quick blast of craft and then agent Sarah LaPolla on the myth of the perfect agent for a longer blast of the business of writing, including what questions to ask before you query.

I will only add that sometimes when the going gets rough you have to dig in and work harder, but now and then, it’s great to get away and gain perspective. In any case, consider the alternative of leaning into pain to learn what it is trying to tell you rather than avoiding. It is through pain that we learn and change.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Seventh Rule for Writing Fiction

We’re almost there – here’s #7 of 8 rules for writing fiction by Mr. Vonnegut as delivered by guest blogger Aaron Gansky.

by adgansky

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. –Kurt Vonnegut

Pneumonia, maybe, and a host of other things. Would we call this literary promiscuity? Perhaps, and the same risks apply. Vonnegut is not alone in his call for monogamous literature. Stephen King, in his book On Writing discusses a similar idea. He mentions that every writer has an ideal reader, and should hold that ideal reader in their mind as they’re writing. For King, his wife is his ideal reader.

We’ve heard the adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” The same holds true for fiction. If you write to please all of the people, more often than not, you will fail to please anyone (most notably and sadly, yourself). Your story will lose itself in trying to be something that it’s not, that it shouldn’t be. It will get lost in itself, so to speak, and perhaps never see the light of day.

Your ideal reader may be the same for all your books, or they may change. For example, if you’re writing a western, you’ll likely have one reader in mind, maybe your father with whom you grew up watching Bonanza. Maybe, after the western, you try your hand at a fantasy, and your ideal reader is now your first girlfriend, who swore she wanted to save up her money to have plastic surgery on her ears to make them pointed like an elf’s. Maybe you write a horror, and you think of your best friend with whom you spent every Halloween for the last twenty years. Then again, you may be lucky enough to have, as King does, a wife that fulfills multiple roles and, regardless of the genre, serves as an ideal reader.

Either way, understanding who  your ideal reader is can help shape the path of the novel—what would they most like to see next? What would surprise them here? How would they feel about this particular scene?

Knowing your reader (singular) can also help you finish your book. Two often we get caught up in trying to add something for everyone, which is both futile and frustrating. Somewhere, about a hundred pages in or so, you’ll realize that your novel lacks a clear direction. There are too many threads to make a quilt. Instead, you’re working with enough threads to make several bed sets.

Streamline and focus. Your reader will thank you.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Sixth Rule for Writing Fiction

Well, this is embarrassing – I lost track of the days, but better late than never. #6! Thanks, Aaron. Now let’s all go make life difficult for our characters.

Also, a hearty shoutout to friend and mentor Cheryl Strayed: Her memoir Wild hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list!!

Now here’s Aaron:

by adgansky

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they’re made of. –Kurt Vonnegut

No one likes to betray a friend, but we sometimes feel that way when we make bad things happen to our characters. But then, maybe you don’t feel that way. maybe it’s easy for you to throw obstacles at your protagonist because you don’t care much for them. Ideally, though, you will feel a little bit bad when you, as I did recently, have a Sasquatch jump out of a forest and beat your favorite character near to death (it’s a fantasy–work with me here). I may have cried a little. I do that sometimes.

For me, this rule, like the greatest two-handed broadsword, is double-edged. On one edge, we need to create (or, as some might say, build or discover, depending on your personal writing philosophy) characters that we love, that we hate to hurt. If we’re not doing this–if we as their creator don’t have an intense emotional connection to them, how much less will the reader care?–we’re letting our readership down. Our characters’ pain should, at least in some small part, become our pain.

The second side we need to allow our characters to experience these misfortunes. If we don’t, we’ll never really know them. How do they react when faced with Sasquatch in a dimly lit forest and the break of day? How do they cope when their loved one dies? How do their bodies mend after a car crash? How do they recover psychologically after a messy divorce? After being betrayed by their best friend? What does this do to them?

This is not to say that the characters life must be one tragedy after another, a veritable helicopter rotary blade of horrors. Your character should overcome, should be rewarded for their efforts. Just understand, that, once they do, something else must threaten them, or their families, or their fortunes, or whatever it is that they care most about.

Wallace Stevens says that, “Death is mother of beauty.” This may suggest that we only appreciate beauty because we know it is temporary, we know that there is an ever-abiding threat. If beauty persisted indefinitely, we would not call it beauty. We would not even notice it to begin with.

Make something beautiful by introducing something that threatens it. Take something your character feels is permanent, and then threaten it. Then, and only then, can you see what your character is truly made of.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fifth Rule for Writing Fiction

Thanks to Aaron for another guest post while I’m on the road in Morocco.

By adgansky

5. Start as close to the end as possible. –Kurt Vonnegut

endLast week, I had a student approach me to ask my opinion on something they were working on. The story opened inside a hospital with the birth of a child. I liked the idea immediately, and anticipated some sort of tragic transpiring—mom’s life would be in danger, or baby’s. Or maybe baby would have a tale. Or maybe there was no dad. Or maybe dad was off to war. What an amazing opportunity for conflict.

Unfortunately, nothing so tragic happened. It was a standard birth, with no complications. And while the protagonist (baby) would eventually lead a revolution (I think) and save a world, and while their birth was significant in that regard, the birth itself felt as if it were included because the student didn’t know where else to begin. He’s in very good company.

The story goes, as I recall, that F. Scott Fitzgerald read an early version of The Sun Also Rises. He praised the novel as a whole, but took a few issues with the first two chapters. He gently encouraged Hemmingway to revise them. Hemmingway, in spectacular diva fashion, tore the first two chapters out completely. Turns out, that wasn’t such a bad idea.

There seems to be within us, especially as we begin writing, a desire—a compulsion, really—to tell “the whole story.” And we want to start at the beginning so that our readers can know every detail of characters’ lives. The problem is, readers seldom care. What they care about is conflict. And the closer you begin to the end, the more conflict exists, the more readers are immersed in your world.

To do this, it may help to have a rough outline of where you want to go with your story. Find out where you want your characters to end up, then start as close to that point as possible. Some writers actually choose to begin the story a few minutes from the end, then flash back and show everything that happened to lead up to that point (think Thelma and Louise). While that’s an interesting tactic, we can’t use it every time. Sometimes it’s just better to do the Hemmingway bit—write the book, then rip out the first two chapters. Usually, what you’ll find, is that the rest of the story does an excellent job revealing whatever back story is necessary in a more natural way. Besides, doing this well allows you to create a sense of mystery.

But of course there are always exceptions to the rules. Fantasy and Science Fiction, generally speaking, would be the exception. Most readers of these genres understand that they’re in for the long haul. They also expect that most stories in these genre take a certain shape (usually the undertaking of a quest that sets the protagonist on a journey across an unfamiliar world or worlds).

This is a rule that has a lot more play room than some of the others. Which strategy is right for you? Regardless of genre, stories need conflict immediately. Check your novel for which conflict you establish on page one. The second step is to read. A lot. What are the masters doing? How are they doing it? Can you do something similar? It might benefit you to make a list of your favorite books and writers and go back and analyze the opening of each of their beginnings. How close to the end do they begin? What does that tell you about your writing.

For what it’s worth, I actually went back and deleted the first two paragraphs of this post. No lie.

Happy starting.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fourth Rule for Writing Fiction

We’re halfway through Vonnegut’s 8 Rules of Writing. We will get to the last four in a couple of weeks – this blog will be on hiatus until after July 4th. Keep writing and please check out Aaron’s blog.

By adgansky

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. –Kurt Vonnegut

I love the simplicity Vonnegut uses when asserting his rules, but sometimes I wonder if we need a little extra, especially for beginning writers. At first, this rule just makes perfect sense, but if we don’t spend the time contemplating the implications of it, we cheat ourselves and our readers. This rule is one of his most profound.

We understand that a story consists of a character struggling to achieve something, and an obstacle that stands in his or her way. We know that the action of the story is the forward movement to the accomplishment of the goal. We also know that we need to reveal who our character is, and why they’re so bent on accomplishing this goal. So we come up with an idea, find a character to fit the plot, and say “go.”

It’s a good starting point. But if you end here, you’ve cheated yourself, your reader, and your character.

How do you reveal character? There’s about 1300 blog posts that you can consult, and about as many published books that touch on the subject. But many of them parrot the same few things: Know their name, their history, and what they look like.

Again, a good starting point. But this is not the end. How does their history change their perception of the world around them? What details do they notice? Why are these details significant to them? How do these details affect them?

Here’s an exercise in character development that skirts the normal “your character has a scar…” set-up.

Describe the setting. Do it in such a way that the setting affects your character in some profound way. Resist the urge to throw a dead body in the room. Instead, let them be alone, and put them someplace that has some emotional connection for them. You don’t even need to say specifically what it is. Just let it be clear from the images they record in the narrative and the tone in which they describe them.

Here’s another exercise in character development: Put your character in action. They don’t need to be chasing down a bad guy, or even running from one. They could be locked in a killer tennis match, or maybe swimming from a boat to the shore to see their Savior. Maybe the stakes are higher and they’re smack in the middle of a war. Perhaps they’re dueling for the honor of their family—swords or pistols. Maybe they’re a thief and they’re sneaking into a heavily guarded area. Whatever it is, remember that they’re physically doing it.

For extra points, combine elements of the first exercise in the second.

Now, onward and upward for your characters. Crack the whip, and get them going.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fourth Rule for Writing Fiction

If you’re enjoying Aaron’s guest posts, check out his Workshop Wednesdays on his blog, Forging Fiction. You can submit or just observe. He will put submitted pages up anonymously, give a few pieces of constructive criticism, and encourage his followers to do so as well. What you get is unfiltered constructive feedback (closely monitored by Aaron). Check it out!

BTW, New Orleans is a great city – great people, great food – glad to be home in L.A. though.

By adgansky

Vonnegut as a kid

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. –Kurt Vonnegut

I love the simplicity Vonnegut uses when asserting his rules, but sometimes I wonder if we need a little extra, especially for beginning writers. At first, this rule just makes perfect sense, but if we don’t spend the time contemplating the implications of it, we cheat ourselves and our readers. This rule is one of his most profound.

We understand that a story consists of a character struggling to achieve something, and an obstacle that stands in his or her way. We know that the action of the story is the forward movement to the accomplishment of the goal. We also know that we need to reveal who our character is, and why they’re so bent on accomplishing this goal. So we come up with an idea, find a character to fit the plot, and say “go.”

It’s a good starting point. But if you end here, you’ve cheated yourself, your reader, and your character.

How do you reveal character? There’s about 1300 blog posts that you can consult, and about as many published books that touch on the subject. But many of them parrot the same few things: Know their name, their history, and what they look like.

Again, a good starting point. But this is not the end. How does their history change their perception of the world around them? What details do they notice? Why are these details significant to them? How do these details affect them?

Here’s an exercise in character development that skirts the normal “your character has a scar…” set-up.

Describe the setting. Do it in such a way that the setting affects your character in some profound way. Resist the urge to throw a dead body in the room. Instead, let them be alone, and put them someplace that has some emotional connection for them. You don’t even need to say specifically what it is. Just let it be clear from the images they record in the narrative and the tone in which they describe them.

Here’s another exercise in character development: Put your character in action. They don’t need to be chasing down a bad guy, or even running from one. They could be locked in a killer tennis match, or maybe swimming from a boat to the shore to see their Savior. Maybe the stakes are higher and they’re smack in the middle of a war. Perhaps they’re dueling for the honor of their family—swords or pistols. Maybe they’re a thief and they’re sneaking into a heavily guarded area. Whatever it is, remember that they’re physically doing it.

For extra points, combine elements of the first exercise in the second.

Now, onward and upward for your characters. Crack the whip, and get them going.