Notions about flash fiction

Most professional writers agree that standard manuscript format means double line spacing, one-inch margins and Courier typeface (because each letter takes up the same space on a line).

The other standard that seems to be settling in is that maximum length for flash fiction is one thousand words.

If we use those two standards, we arrive at a manuscript length for flash fiction of four to five pages. Maybe six, if there are a lot of short paragraphs and plenty of white space.

You would think that any experienced writer could knock that out over a weekend and still have time for Sunday morning brunch. You would be wrong.

Working as a slush reader over the past four months for Every Day Fiction has shown me how many writers, who think they can write flash, just don’t have a clue.

Wading through the slush, we see bits and pieces of stories. Anecdotes. Aphorisms. But only one in ten is a complete story and one in twenty or thirty is a good complete story.

Yes, you say, but many of those submissions are from writers still learning the craft. Maybe, but the sad truth is that even experienced writers struggle with flash. Many experienced writers can’t write anything less than novel length.

Best-selling novelist James Michener is supposed to have said, “In six pages I can’t even say hello.” He has lots of company.

Since last June, I’ve written fifty pieces of flash fiction, about one a week. Some I’m still polishing. Some I have retired; I call them dead soldiers. Twenty four have been accepted for publication, most of which have appeared in print.

And here are some notions about flash I have developed over the past year; no hard and fast rules or standards, just notions that work for me:

  • Keep character count low; no more than three. The story feels crowded if there are more.
  • Don’t give any character a name or description unless you want readers to pay attention to the character. Readers have different expectations after being introduced to Millie Roberts, the red-head at the register, than for the check-out clerk. And it’s fewer words.
  • Make every word says just what you want it to say. I know you’ve heard this one before but you can’t hear it too many times. You have a thousand words and precision cuts to the heart of a thing with speed and clarity.
  • Slash most adjectives and ALL adverbs. Be ruthless. You can smother a noun in modifiers, cut the courage right out of it, and any verb that needs modifiers can be replaced by a stronger verb. Ran rapidly and scrambled mean the same thing and scrambled sounds exciting.
  • Write about our world. You must explain special rules for a fantasy world and that chews up word count. It can be done, Every Day Fiction has present some marvelous fantasy flash, but it’s difficult to pull off and should be set aside unless there is no other way to tell the tale.
  • Focus on small events. One man battling a nest of hornets he stumbles upon in his backyard is no less dramatic, has no less conflict, than a score of soldiers engaged in jungle combat.
  • Be aware of word count every second you write. People say, “I can always come back when I’m done and trim it down.” Maybe so, but many can’t. It’s easier to keep track of the ticking meter along the way.
  • For God’s sake, edit. Submitting a first draft is lazy. You can scrub the life out of a story, of course, but nothing is so brilliant that it can’t benefit from a bit of polish.

A dead soldier: on the nature of haunting

I have decided to declare Gossamer Yellow a dead soldier and publish it here at A Moving Line.

It hasn’t been everywhere but it has been read enough — and returned — to suggest to me that I either need to pull it or do a major rewrite. I’m pleased with it just the way it is and so I’m going to let it be.

The six or so editors who read it all said pretty much the same thing — it’s well-written but it starts too slow. One even went so far as to say, “absolutely nothing happens until the piece is half over.”

It’s difficult to be objective about your babies, but when that many people say the same thing, it’s probably true. And I have to consider that the same thing may be the case with Orbital Decay.

They are both reflective pieces that examine the nature of a shared life occurence.

In Orbital Decay, Frank is forced to face an insurmountable shortcoming, something that anyone with dreams and ambitions may face at some point in their life.

In Gossamer Yellow, Chelsea sees a ghost, a claim that many people have made, and she cannot convince others that her experience is real.   The story suggests that ghosts may not always be dead, at least not in the physical sense.

So I’m offering it to you to read. If you do, let me know what you think.

Another dead soldier

Orbital Decay is headed for the Old Story’s Home.

It made the rounds in 2008 without success and the rejections I received had a darker tone.

Orbital Decay is a story about an early suicide, told from the perspective of a middle-aged man. Not all it’s rejections offered comments, but those that did were unanimous.

“The writing is solid but what a bummer ending.”

Even so, I believe it’s a good story; so I’m posting it here.  Give it a read, if you like, and let me know what you think.

Old soldiers never die

I’ve decided to retire This Little Piggy.

It has made the rounds, this past year, and keeps coming back with one of those notes that say, “We are sorry to inform you –”

It has it’s own little story tagging along behind, though.

At is heart is one of my favorite jokes, but the idea for the story came to me when I discovered that E.B. White and George Orwell were contemporaries; both ardent essayists and sticklers for grammar.

I fancied the idea that at some time, somewhere, they met before Orwell’s death in 1950, and the conversation worked its way around to farms and pigs. And This Little Piggy was born.

Some of the rejections I received were amusing in their own right.

The folks at Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine “liked this joke the first time. And the second time too. And even the third. But –”

So, I’m going to pull it in, but I’m not going to toss it into the rag-bag. I still think it’s too good a story for that.