George Bailey, won’t you please come home?

900+ channels and I couldn’t find one damn station playing It’s a Wonderful Life today.

Oh, sure, A Christmas Story (it’s a wonder Ralphie hasn’t shot his eye out yet) and tons of Bill Murray sarcasm in Scrooged and Elf, that silly Will Ferrell claptrap, but no George Bailey and Bedford Falls and the good old savings & loan. No rose petals, either.

The film’s a Christmas staple, for God’s sake. What’s the world coming to?

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.

Let me ask you this

I first was paid to write in June 1967, when I was hired to work as a reporter by Jim Davis, city editor of The Daily Reporter, a six-day-a-week newspaper in Dover, Ohio.

I was 20 years old, with two years of college behind me and without any experience.  Why Jim offered me the job remains a mystery to me to this day.

Maybe it was because he figured I would work cheap. Maybe it was out of pity. Or perhaps he had been given a first chance, too, by someone else years before. I like the last suggestion. My grandfather always taught patience. He used to say that it was everybody’s first day some day.

In the months that followed June 1967, it became an even bigger mystery to me why Jim didn’t fire me; he never seemed satisfied with what I wrote. But I took his criticisms to heart. It drove me crazy, trying to make the man happy; it also taught me to write tight, fast and clean.

One of the lessons Jim passed on to me was the five questions a reporter had to ask to write a complete story. Who, what, where, when and how.

“When you get good at the basics,” Jim said. “You can start asking why.”

Someone may be saying about now, “Aw, that’s journalism.”

No; that’s story-telling. And it works just as well with fiction as it does non-fiction.

Think about it.

Who, what, where, when and how. Colonel Mustard did it (killed Mr. Bode) in the Library (last night) with the candlestick. That’s a complete story. Maybe not a very complex or interesting tale, but a story, nonetheless.

Let me suggest an even tighter story. Joe died today at home of cancer. A complete story in only seven words. But, you may ask, where’s the story arc? Where’s the character development? Where’s the conflict? Where is the situational resolution?

Most of it is implied. It’s only seven words, afterall. From there, you use modifiers to expand it. Adjectives and adverbs and subordinate clauses and carefully crafted turns of language.

Not just Joe, but Joe Arnold, the 62-year-old merchant marine captain, who passed on quietly in his small, one-bedroom apartment in downtown Seattle, after battling lung cancer, heroically, for seventeen agonizing months.

All of it is detail and how much detail you add determines whether you produce flash fiction or a trilogy of novels. You need to do this with care, of course.  Too much detail can smother a story.  And even if you get it just right, all of that detail only expands the breadth of the story, not its depth.

To develop depth, let’s think of that simple, seven-word statement as the seed story from which a complex and emotionally satisfying tale can grow. And the tool that you must use to cultivate depth is that word Jim Davis told me I could use when I got “good at the basics”.


I believe that asking “Why?” is the single most important question a writer can employ. Why did Joe contract cancer? Why did he live alone in a small apartment? Why was his death so protracted? The answers are what keep a reader reading because they produce emotional resonance.

And once you begin asking that little question, you will have to decide when to turn off the flow of information that follows, because with each answer, more “Whys?” occur – and your story grows deeper and deeper, more emotionally complex and all of those issues that I mentioned earlier – story arc and character development and conflict – become more and more clear.

The result is a story that encourages the reader (and the writer, I suggest) to laugh and cry and grow angry or hopeful, for that is what all readers want – to be moved, to be transported outside themselves for a time and allowed to look into the mind and the heart of another.

So there it is – my philosophy of writing. For flash, for short stories, for novels; whatever. Start simple, add detail a bit at a time and keep asking “Why?”

It’s what Jim Davis was trying to teach me, all those years ago. And I like to believe that he would be pleased to see that I finally figured it out.

Kindling the flame

My friend Gay tipped me off to an article in The Wall Street Journal today.  How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write takes a look at the Kindle, Amazon’s new electronic “book”.

It’s an interesting read.

I’ve been considering buying a Kindle since last summer but haven’t done so — so far.  The only real reason I haven’t is purely financial, and has nothing to do with the cost of the device.

If I lose one book, I don’t have to rebuild my entire library. If I lose my Kindle, I would.  That’s not because I have any special feeling for those books, though.

I have talked to people who tell me that they collect books because they love the way those pages feel and smell and look.  I buy books because of the stories they contain.  I rarely read non-fiction and when I do, it is almost always about story-telling.

That’s what I love — stories.

I am an addict.  And I see Kindle as a way to get my regular fix without having to tote eight million pounds of paper and ink around behind me, like some sort of Jacob Marley.

Now if Amazon just comes up with some way to protect my library on-line; I’m willing to pay some reasonable fee for that.  I hate packing books and lugging them around, every time I move.

Maybe they already have; I should Google it, huh?

Dealing with rejection

It is intriguing how a string of acceptances, even from smaller markets, can soften the impact of a single rejection, even from a major publication.

I received snail mail yesterday from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, an envelope I have been waiting to get for 14 weeks.  Of course, I had been hoping that they would say they were buying Deadman’s Drop.  Instead, they said no thank you.

Eighteen months ago, that rejection would have been devastating, would have had me wondering if I should just pack up the word processor and give up trying to become a professional writer.  Today, it’s just frustrating.

Since last June, I have had 25 stories published, or accepted for publication, all at small press markets.  The only rejections I have received in six months have been from publications that pay professional rates.

It’s a tough egg to crack; I realize that.  Deadman’s Drop is a good story, I am certain it will be accepted when I send it off to a smaller publication.   But I wanted to see it in Ellery Queen.

Oh, well.  Time to get it ready to back out in the mail.

What the frak?

This has nothing to do with writing, but this question begs to be asked, so let me rant for just a moment. What substance were the suits at The SciFi Channel ingesting when they made the decision to change the name of the network to SyFy?

Uh huh; I swear. That’s what they plan to do on July 7, which now will join December 7 as a day that will live in infamy.

Dave Howe, President, SCI FI, made that pronouncement in a news release this past Monday. He said, “By changing the name to Syfy, which remains phonetically identical, the new brand broadens perceptions and embraces a wider and more diverse range of imagination-based entertainment including fantasy, paranormal, reality, mystery, action and adventure, as well as science fiction.”

He went on: “Syfy — unlike the generic entertainment category “sci-fi” — firmly establishes a uniquely ownable trademark that is portable across all non-linear digital platforms and beyond, from Hulu to iTunes. Syfy also creates an umbrella brand name that can extend into new adjacent businesses under the Syfy Ventures banner, such as Syfy Games, Syfy Films and Syfy Kids.”

Of course, they already have Syfy Wrestling, so how about Syfy Home Shopping and Syfy Elevator Music?

And before you tell me that I should have more respect, that this is the network that gave us science-fiction geeks a show as fraking great as Battlestar Galactica, let me remind you that even a blind squirrel stumbling across an acorn once in awhile.

We now return you to regular programming.