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. Mini-prose seems to be the better format for idea-stories.
  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. So...flash is a workable alternative to poetry for me.

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.