Saturday, November 30, 2019

Ten Points About Flash Fiction

A colleague recently asked me to tell him about flash fiction. His writing group's next meeting was going to be about flash and he wanted some background beforehand. "You're the only person I know who has published flash, so what can you tell me?"

Here's my answer:

  1. There are more flash markets than one might think. I've compiled a list of about 50 for myself, but that doesn't include genres I'm not interested in.
  2. Each market defines flash differently (or publishes a different kind of flash, if you prefer). Everyone agrees it's no more than 1500 words, but I've seen 42 words, 50 words, 100 words (which is called a Drabble and has to be exactly 100 words) 140 words (the old Twitter limit) 500 words, 1200 and 1500. Titles are not usually counted, but editors will reject long titles, especially for shorter forms of flash, if they think you're trying to sneak in extra words. On the other hand, a carefully chosen title can orient the reader, suggest an interpretation, and carry a lot of the significance of a flash piece, though of course, that's true of any story title.
  3. It's easier for an editor to take a risk on a new author if the story is 500 words than if it's 5,000. As a subscriber, if I don't like the ending of a 500-word story, I think, "Well, that was a dumb ending", shrug, and move on. No harm done. But if I've read through a 5,000-word story and think, "Well, that was dumb" I might not buy the next issue of that magazine. Why would an editor risk the space for 9,000 words if they can fit in two 4500-word stories—thereby doubling the number of authors in the magazine and on the cover, or eight flash fiction pieces and therefore 8 more sales to authors' mothers? Shorter is generally better if you're trying to break into a market.
  4. Flash doesn't pay a lot. I've seen the occasional contest for $1000, which would definitely be worth it, but we're never going to win that contest, so I don't think that counts. Most markets pay a flat rate of $5 or $25 or at most $50, but that's rare. A few markets claim to pay "professional rates", but they mean 8 cents a word, so at 50 words, that's only $4.00. Given that flash takes as much or more work than a longer short story, return on effort is low. Therefore, many flash markets (like many poetry markets) don't bother with token payments and are simply non-paying.
  5. For many authors, the primary motivation for writing flash is for the challenge of the format (like writing haiku).
  6. Some authors like writing flash because it inflates the number of publications to list in their bios. Again, good flash takes probably takes as long or longer to write as a regular short story, but it may be easier to collect acceptances (see #3, above).
  7. My motivation for writing flash—and why I recommend it to many of my clients—is to learn how to tighten my writing. I am frequently told that my style is too "flowery" or "verbose" and that I need to "tighten" it up. I was never clear what "tightening your writing up" meant until I started writing flash. Writing flash forces you to be more focused, to cut down to the essentials. It teaches you which words can be cut out without any loss of information, what can be implied without being stated, which details you don't need, and so on. I was then able to take those lessons back to my novel writing and really pare down my bloated manuscript to something readable.

    [I'm not, of course, suggesting that all authors need to "tighten up". I have to encourage some clients to expand their abbreviated manuscripts, fill in a little more color commentary, broaden their brush strokes. The point of undertaking flash as a writing exercise is simply to acquire and refine that skill for those who need to develop it and for when it needs to be applied. It's just one tool in the writer's toolbox. Action scenes can probably benefit from tight, staccato writing, but rich description may be in order for another scene in the same manuscript. Knowing how to successfully condense writing, as poets must, is just one of many useful writing skills.]

  8. Ploter vs. Pantser applies to flash, same as any writing. Some people need to outline to make sure their flash is an actual story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Others just start writing to see what comes out, which is fine, as long as you then go back to edit with "beginning, middle and end" as a checklist. Most flash markets complain that they get too many submissions that are just pieces of description or mood pieces or a chunk of dialog, and so on, with no actual story. Fitting the story into 140 words (or whatever) is the challenge. Reading successful flash where others have managed to crame a story into a drabble (or even shorter) is the best way of knowing it can be done, which is the first step in doing it yourself.
  9. Some story ideas are clever but cannot sustain 3000 words. If the idea is the story, then it needs to be flash. Trying to flesh out an idea with redundant characterization and action just makes for a weak story where those things are a distraction rather than a strength.
  10. Flash is prose poetry. Same density of words/thought. Same level of difficulty. Same mastery of language. But it doesn't have to rhyme and it doesn't have to have meter and it doesn't require metaphor or etc. I don't "get" poetry myself—I'm too literal-minded and dysgraphia is apparently associated with an inability to do meter. Mini-prose seems to be the better format for idea-stories.
  11. The truth is, I probably never would have considered writing flash if Karen Schauber hadn't reached out to me to write for her The Group of Seven Reimanged: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings. Karen helped edit my first flash story and got me hooked. I'm not sure I would have succeeded without her coaching. Watching her take out words from my draft to make room for new words where they were needed to clarify, or take out whole lines (subplots), etc. really taught me how this works. Finding a writers group that does flash (like Vancouver's Flash Fiction group) is likely very helpful to anyone setting out to write it.

    You can read two examples of my flash fiction free online in Active Voice and at Drabble.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Editing Graduate Students

An excellent article by a respected academic editor, Mary Rykov, in University Affairs on university perceptions of editors and editing, and why it's generally completely wrong-headed. The Dog Ate My Homework Syndrome and other Tales From an Academic Editor

The one point I would add to her excellent list of points at the conclusion of the essay is the statistic that 50% of those starting a thesis or dissertation fail to complete because they have not been taught how to manage the writing process. Professors make the (understandable) mistake of assuming that writing skills = literacy, when literacy is merely a necessary but not sufficient factor. Being able to write a brilliant term paper does not give one the skills necessary to undertake a sustained writing project, such as a thesis or dissertation. Coaching in how to handle sustained writing would see 85% of that current 50% incomplete rate graduate successfully. It is appalling to me that while students are given at least one and usually multiple courses on research methods, almost no one provides courses in thesis /dissertation writing. Howard Becker identified the problem in the early 1960s, but almost no one has paid any attention, with the result that 50% (in some disciplines, closer to 65%) never finish, even after paying tuition and foregoing income etc and working themselves into nervous wrecks for up to 9 years. A 50% failure rate is obviously a structural, systemic problem (either terrible recruitment screening or a failure to give students the tools they need to succeed) but universities have simply shrugged this off as having 'high standards' Baloney. And this isn't about second language or learning disabilities or any of that--it's because universities train people how to write first draft term papers, not how to rewrite their way through multiple drafts of a thesis.

If you're interested in this topic at all, I have a 32-page Guide to Thesis Writing Strategies that describes the problem in detail.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

H. G. Wells on Editing

Australia Makes Editing Student Work Illegal

I've just read that Australia has passed a law with fines of $250,000 and/or two years in jail for anyone editing a student paper. This makes my brain hurt.

I completely understand that one wants to stop rich students from hiring someone to write their papers for them, and I understand that there is a thin line between 'editing' and 'rewriting'. But the law banning editing is stunningly stupid for several reasons:

First, it's not going to slow cheaters at all. It just means they have to outsource their papers to paper factories outside of Australia--you can't fine or jail a guy in India or Philippines, so how is banning local editors addressing the problem?

Second, besides being unenforceable, the law is fundamentally discriminatory. The ability to write academically is a learned skill, but some students are disadvantaged by speaking a different dialect even if 'native speakers'. Undergraduates from impoverished, ethnic minority, immigrant, etc household are clearly discriminated against by the demand that students write in a certain style with which they have not been raised.

Third, the fiction that students are taught these skills in undergraduate courses is rubbish. I do have colleagues who spend time developing their students' writing skills, but these individuals are few and far between. The vast majority of the professoriate have little training in pedagogy let alone in the subtle and difficult skill of teaching writing. Although some take some interest in learning how to teach their particular discipline, most have little interest and take no responsibility for teaching writing, not even the writing skills specific to their discipline. When I challenge these individuals they inevitably say, "The students should have those skills when they show up in my class, it's not my job to teach them how to write." For the flaw in the argument that these skills are a pre-requisite for which the professorate has no responsibility, see #2 above.

Fourth, since few professors are prepared by training or motivation to teach writing skills, how exactly are students supposed to learn them? If it is proposed that helping students learn how to write by editing their papers with them be made illegal, what you are really saying is that it is illegal to help students from the working classes, ethnic minorities, and so on, succeed. Whatever the initial intent (which may have been to stop cheating) the actual impact of such legislation is the suppression of social mobility.

Fifth, as a former prof and now editor, I do a lot of thesis rescue work. Supervisors approach me to help their students with the writing process, saying that their student's research is fine, but they are struggling with the writing process. When I was a prof, they would bring me on as a committee member to help the students learn how to write, like other committee members contributed their expertise in methodology or stats or whatever. Now that I'm retired, they send the students to me as an editor, trusting me not to write the paper for the student, but rather to tutor them on how to do it. I'm very good at teaching graduate students how to manage the writing process, whereas their supervisors often are not. Why should it be illegal to delegate a task the supervisor does not want to do, and is not trained for, to another professional who is trained and is prepared to do it? Ideally, such instructors should be provided by the university, but generally, they are not. I would, therefore, argue that any legislation regulating editing has to allow for tutoring, and specify the permission process/documentation to ensure this doesn't devolve into cheating. The Editors Association of Canada, for example, has a set of guidelines for the ethical editing of student texts that clearly sets out the limits of what can be done and the process for obtaining instructor/advisor permission and transparency.

Sixth,(in North America, at least, though I assume it's the same in Australia) roughly 50% of graduate students fail out of their thesis and dissertations programs—in some programs, it's as high as 75% of thesis-route students. That figure has remained stable since the 1950s. If people failed out in their first two semesters, then fine, the program wasn't for them. But 85% of these failures come after 8 and 9 semesters--i.e., as the student sits down to do their thesis. Withdrawing after sometimes 7 or 8 years of paying tuition, of foregone earnings, of investing their self-image in academe, such failures are personally traumatic and an economic drain on the system. So--either the professoriate is spectacularly bad at recruitment and selection of grad students, or there is a systematic failure to teach students how to successfully manage the thesis-writing process. Making it ILLEGAL to help students learn the skills that would allow them to complete their masters or dissertation is either insane or part of a deliberate policy of labour market manipulation and subsidizing university costs. I always prefer to assume incompetence rather than conspiracy, but the fact that legislators and university administrators continue to ignore 40 years of research on this topic does make me wonder.

More and more Canadian universities are adopting anti-editing policies. Most have based their policies on the Editor Canada guidelines, but others are more restrictive. I hope the trend doesn't continue so far as provincial legislation. Such laws are unenforceable and would only have the effect of maintaining or increasing the suppression of able members of discriminated against populations, particularly the working class.

(My paper on thesis writing strategies which--based on the work of Howard Becker--explains why 50% of graduate students fail, is here: The appendix lays out the research on failure rates.)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Common Errors #22: Mistakes When Submitting to a Publisher: Cover Letters and Synopses

Great interview with Sandra Kasturi, Co-Publisher, ChiZine Publications, on Jim Harrington's excellent Six Questions for..." blog. I particularly loved the discussion of cover letters and synopses (answer to question #3) which is the clearest statement of the typical errors people make and the clearest direction for how to do them properly I have yet read.