Friday, March 21, 2008

Flash Fiction and the Reader

As many of you who follow these little articles that we write for you may know that I like to write about topics that come up in +The Horror Library+ workshop over at the Zoetrope Virtual Studios. Some of the topics are really not all that great, but others are. Take for instance, Erik Smetana's latest post on voice and style. One and the same or different? I teased Erik for taking my idea for this week's blog and we even thought about having a good old Rock, Paper, Scissors fight to decide who would get to write that piece. I relented. Erik throws a mean rock.

However, another topic sprung up just as quickly as the voice/style topic died down. It was based on a rejection thread and quickly turned to how to write effective flash fiction. A lot of thoughts were given throughout this discussion and I would like to include some of them hear. The most important one I will save for last.

So, here we go.

First things first, let's think about flash fiction. Most folks define it as a story under a thousand words—a complete story. This is a hard feat to accomplish but it can be done. As stated by one individual:

The hard thing about flash. . . is telling a complete story in so few words, managing to hook the reader and give them some sort of ending/resolution that sticks.

Pretty much the concept in a nutshell. Flash is writing complete stories in few words with a good hook and a resolution that works. That should also be the thought process behind writing stories other than flash fiction. Not a lot of readers today care much for the padded descriptions and the long drawn out sequences. Conservation of words has become a necessity in this day and age of attention challenged individuals or people who have just enough time to read about a thousand words and that is all.

Another gentleman put it quite nicely:

Set up. Lead In and Execution.

In flash fiction the set up has to be quick, almost instant. Without that immediate hook a lot of times the story falls flat. The lead in has to be effective, make sense and fit with the rest of the story. The execution has to be concise—no dilly-dallying or extra words. Just kind of tell it like it is.

Cullen Bunn gave a great example on one of his blog's, and as he puts it, with apologies to the Monster Squad.

Dear Army,
There are zombies.
Please come.
Dear kid,
We are zombies.
Signed, the Army.

Set up, lead in, execution in 15 words. Wow.

Another example of this I steal from my good friend, Molly Feese. She used the tree that Mr. Bunn set before us.

Dear God,
There are demons under my bed.
Please send angels.
Dear Kid,
We are the demons under your bed
The Angels

The letter format works quite well for pieces like this.

Hemingway probably wrote the most effective piece of flash or micro fiction in just six words:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Talk about set up, lead in and execution.

Onward we go. Another great point that was brought forward during this discussion is this:

Flash Fiction has always been an exercise in showing instead of telling, which a lot of people struggle with in long fiction, much less with less than 1K words.

How true of a statement is that? I know that I've often been told I am telling instead of showing, but when I write flash fiction I show more than tell. My longer works, I am sad to say, often tells the story without showing it. I hang my head in shame.

I have learned over the last couple of years that flash fiction can be great for learning how to lop off those extra words and write more concisely, thus showing more of your story than telling it. That makes it a true exercise of show versus tell.

The author then goes onto provide a link to a story he wrote titled 'Insect.' It's a great example of flash fiction so check this story out here:


Another golden nugget from this conversation:

In flash fiction, you're pared down to the most basic pieces of information...the main thread of writing necessary to constructs the story in the reader's mind. It's hard to do because as a writer, you have to discard the stuff that's really not important to the tale. . .

As you can see there is a common theme to flash fiction: Telling a quick story in as few words as possible and conveying it properly. Not an easy task.

There are a lot of venues out there for Flash Fiction. Some of them take only stories up to a thousand words, while others vary on word count. The Black Box e-anthology had a max word count of 120 words. Talk about your concise writing. I wrote four pieces for this anthology and my brain hurt when I was done. But, it was worth it—the fourth one got snatched up for Black Box and I learned a little more on writing micro fiction.

But wait, there's more. Did you catch what I wrote in that last paragraph? I wrote four stories for the Black Box e-anthology. I wrote them based on an editor's guidelines. The editor was really cool about taking more than one submission but keep this in mind: I wrote the stories for an editor. This leads me to what I think is the most important part of the discussion. It doesn't necessarily mean what is important for writing flash fiction but what is important for writing. PERIOD.

I've noticed that a lot of readers (especially horror readers), want to be wowed. That, in my opinion, is a fact. . . Here's the hardest thing about writing I think most writers have trouble with, though: giving readers what they want. Not other "writer-readers," but readers.

Horror writers are so worried about how to tell their story, I don't think many of them look at their work (or other's writer's work) as readers and say, "Now, if I was just a reader, would I like this? Does it have the impact I would be looking for in other people's work?" Maybe a lot of us don't even know how to view a story from a reader's POV anymore.

Readers are our intended audience, but are we writing for them? Well, we're supposed to be. And I know a lot of readers, have been in book clubs and I know that one thing that disappointed a reader more than anything was "seen this, been there, oh my God, this was a good idea, but I'm so tired of the 'meh'."

Chew on that for a minute while I go refresh my coffee.

Okay, I'm back. Now, to add to that last statement was this partial response from someone I really admire in this business of writing:

I think we absolutely have to think about our readers. Your point here is fantastic (and seldom discussed, I agree). But at the same time I think we need to step back and realize that writing is a means of communication. It's a two-way process. Even if it seems like we're just giving them something to consume and that the writer-reader relationships ends on the printed page (or the hypertexted screen).

Are we writing for the readers or are we writing for the writers? Or are we writing for editors? How about for ourselves? Are we building that relationship between writer and reader? Are we communicating what we really want them to know? In order for us to get anywhere in this business, we have to have readers who want to read what we write.

In this day and age, it is much easier to get published and the time between submitting a story and publication has been drastically reduced, thanks to the internet and e-mail. People in the genre (or in writing in general) who came before us and set the bar as high as it is didn't have it as easy as we do. And, often times we complain when our submission hasn't received a response in the month to three months the editors say the turn around time is.

We learn things about writing as we work at it and we get better at it, but what about the craft of story telling to your audience. My granddaddy was a great story teller. He could mesmerize you with a half an hour long tale or astound you in just thirty words, but either way, you would want to sit through the entire length of the story he was telling. Do we convey our stories in a way that our readers will stay hooked and enthralled in every word we write?

As writers we often lose touch with readers because we study the craft, the ins and outs, do's and don'ts of writing. Some of us have a hard time getting lost in stories and find ourselves critiquing novels while we read them.

My final quote from this thread is the following, which kind of hammers home the idea of writing and reading and partially why I think that us writers often don't reach the readers.

Becoming a writer and studying the tricks of the trade has absolutely ruined reading for me. I still love to read, of course, but I very rarely get lost in the illusion anymore because I recognize what the writer was trying to do in certain places. I notice plotting "plants" and "red Herrings" more now than I ever did.

There's good and bad to that, I guess. But a lot of books I might've loved ten years ago, are the same books I wouldn't be able to finish today.

Definitely my loss.

One friend of mine always puts it so nicely when she reviews a story: We were readers long before we became writers.

Now, to close up shop for today, I would like to go back to the flash fiction aspect of writing. Yes, it is hard to write especially stories under a thousand words, but it is a great practicing tool for learning to be more direct and concise in story telling. However, no matter how great some of us may become or have already become, we have to remember, we have an audience we are trying to reach. That is what is the most important. As I've often stated and I believe firmly:

The real horror for any writer is not having an audience to write for.

I'm AJ and I'm out.


Quotes used from this conversation are from the following folks: C.D. Allen, Molly Feese, Eric Stark, Erik Smetana, D.X. Williams, Petra Miller, Dan Naden and myself.

The Cullen Bunn excerpt was used as an example and in no way is meant to steal from him.


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