Originally posted on Eunoia Review:
Once, after the mouse exploded the cat’s eyeballs and fricasseed its tail on a spit in hell, cartoons moralized senselessly. Orco was wrong because he lied says He-Man. Look both ways before you cross says the marine toting an unmounted M60 machine gun. They wanted us clean.
So different from those hippies in the painted van who never went to school, changed clothes, or said boo about a parent, who chased that gigantic wraith throughout the castle thinking their dog could talk and Velma ordinary. She discovers the wraith inside. Little Mr. McGillicuddy on stilts would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you stoned kids and that dog in drag.
So different from the prehistoric illogic of engines. The foot-propelled cars and the cave men who drive them. There’s clearly a rumbly, motory noise—what’s it for? Air conditioning? A cop pulls them over. What do you think…
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Originally posted on The Citron Review:
There’s asphalt in the curtains. It silts the pillows of the couch Sid knows too well and powders the rug by the door he cannot get his wheels across. That screen door should be sifting summer, a baleen sieve of sun. But the federal stimulus has come round to Sid’s neighborhood. Now men must the road all day and have been for weeks. Since before the accident.
Asphalt brings company. Depression is a shy girl who waits by the stairs or lingers over the kitchen sink, Sid’s bath. She won’t come in and introduce herself. Sid’s not sure if he wants her to.
His crutches stand guard beside the couch. For the first time he notices their circular notches where the interior shaft locks into place. They look like phases of the moon on an almanac. Only these have height numbers next to each moon. His tell a lie that takes two inches away from him.
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Rocky appears near the middle of the novel. He’s a simple character, with bright (but seemingly emotionless) eyes, black hair, stubble, and an orange animal skin garment. Visually, he recalls a lobotomized Fred Flintstone. This resemblance is important. Rocky and Fred couldn’t me more dissimilar. Fred, a 1960s pop culture icon, inhabits a world that is nominally removed from the present but which is (comically) quite modern. In Fred’s world, the nuclear family, technology, and society are converted into caveman analogues. In Rocky’s world, by contrast, the comforts and constraints of modern society are utterly stripped away. As we see it, Rocky’s world is comically dissimilar to the present.
The Rocky comic strip stands apart stylistically from other episodes in Ice Haven. Throughout much (but not all) of the novel, Clowes makes use of a more realistic drawing style than appears in Rocky. In Rocky, Blue Bunny, and the second Leopold and Loeb strips, however, the drawing style shifts to feature stout, bright-eyed characters with childlike features, reminiscent of “funnies page” stock characters, as well as the Schultz-inflected children who populate the rest of Ice Haven. It’s also important that in the Rocky strip, the panels are small and regimented. This organization aids us in our transport: out of the lofty world of malaise to the primitive and primordial. A version of this shift appears elsewhere in the story; for instance, contrast the scenes of Random Wilder’s grandiose self-oration (8-9), his descent into distraction and self-doubt (54-55), and his clumsy, dejected suicide attempt (72-73).
In Rocky’s case, the simplistic drawing style transports us into a primeval world where human institutions have melted away, where humans are bound neither by society’s rules nor by concepts of “Good and Evil.”
Hence Rocky, nearing the (rather early) end of his life and inching towards an existential void, feels both compelled and free to transgress against (not yet established) moral conventions. He commits murder and rape in a matter of a few panels. Rocky attempts to satisfy a personal longing that leaves him feeling empty. When violence fails to fill the void, he sets out to explore instead, but soon becomes frustrated at his underwhelming surroundings (note how the only emotions besides blankness that Rocky demonstrates are anger at the inanimate things he encounters on his journey and finally exhaustion). Exhausted, Rocky decides to monumentalize himself. His hope is that the monument will survive and grow. Before he gets too far, though, his human limits force him to surrender and die in the small pit he’s prepared for himself.
In a sort of distilled microcosm, Rocky explores themes that weave throughout the book. Importantly, Rocky, like Leopold and Loeb, Random Wilder, etc. feels drawn to express himself through both violence and art—the difference being that the other “modern” characters are constrained by society’s rules in their exercise of the former.
In a Nietzschean sense, Rocky is something of an ubermensch, in that he is free to write his own values onto the world rather than vice versa. Later characters aspire to the same status, but the results are hardly edifying and equally pointless. Rocky, Leo and Loeb, Blue Bunny, and Random Wilder inhabit very private, reflective worlds and perform acts with significance only to themselves, the result being that the “point” of their “art” or “work” is lost to outsiders.
The relationship between Rocky’s violent acts and his “monument” are important.” In the story, they’re shown to be expressions of the same soul-searching impulse. In Freudian terms, we might call this an allegory of desublimation, which refers to the conversion of a repressed, negative impulse into a more socially acceptable one. There is no such barrier between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” behavior in Rocky’s world, but it does exist in the subsequent realities and in the outer narratives–perhaps hilariously so.
Hence we find it ironic that Random Wilder kidnaps David Goldberg—a pointless act of violence—which ironically gives occasion to an unlikely proof of communication happening between Clowes’s comically isolated sufferers. Goldberg proves to have received Wilder’s poem by repeating it.
Rocky demonstrates, however, that absent human constructions, there is no real difference between the two impulses of self-monumentalization and community and no real way to satisfy either.
How did you personally get into comics?
Brannon: I came to comics early on, reading books off the convenience store spinner racks and eventually graduating to subscriptions and then discovering the few direct market retail outlets in central Mississippi. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t reading comics, but the series that made me a fan was probably the J.M. DeMatteis/Mike Zeck-era Captain America of the early 1980s.
Qiana: I read newspaper strips as a kid but I didn’t become genuinely interested in comics until I was an undergrad at Hampton University in Virginia. I dated a guy who earned extra money in college by airbrushing pictures on jeans and t-shirts (early 90s, remember those?) and he spent a lot of time in a nearby shop called Bender’s Books & Cards, flipping through the graphic design magazines for ideas. While he was busy, I browsed through the stacks of old paperbacks, sci-fi and fantasy collectibles, and occasionally peeked into the small room of porn and erotica in the back. But I ended up spending most of my time with the wall of comic books and back issues that filled half the store. At first I was self-conscious of the fact that I was often the only black girl there, but then again, I’ve always been considered a little odd – I was reading Toni Morrison and Anne Rice, watching “A Different World” and “Star Trek” – so I was anxious to figure out my relationship to this space and its stories, regardless of whether or not I always felt welcomed. (It’s no mistake, then, that one of the first series I started reading regularly was Spawn… or that I ended up marrying that guy.)
What is your favorite comic or graphic novel and why?
Brannon: Tough call here! I’d have to say that it’s still Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, a book that enthralled and perplexed me as an adolescent and that has continued to reveal new layers each time I’ve returned to it as an adult. My childhood sentimental favorite is Peter Gillis and Sal Buscema’s What If? #44, “What If Captain America Were Revived Today?”, which is the story I credit with sparking my dormant political consciousness. The final showdown is Captain America, Spider-Man, and a cadre of black radicals vs. the red-baiting 1950s Cap. Captain America wins by giving a speech, of course.
Qiana: Horror comics are my favorite with DC’s 1980s Swamp Thing (Moore, Bissette, Totleben, Veitch) and Love’s Bayou at the top of the list. I love the broody, ontological questioning of Swamp Thing and the trippy cast of villains – I still get a little choked up over “My Blue Heaven” (#56, 1987). Bayou is a series that takes full advantage of what the comics form can do in its incredible rendering of southern culture. I admire the risks that Love takes in the story’s inter-discursive mash-up of folklore and history, seeing in and through racial caricature and appropriation in ways that are both gruesome and gorgeous.
If you had to specify to non-academics what it is that comics can do that no other medium can, what you say to them?
Brannon: There’s something very powerful about the way that a collection of panels on a single page of comics can jump back and forth across both miles and millennia and in doing so suggest a whole proliferation of connections and meanings beyond those contained in the traditional left-to-right, top-to-bottom way of reading that page. I think that ability, not coincidentally, is well suited to fostering questions about the contested nature of history, memory, and narrative that are central to a lot of the essays in Comics and the U.S. South.
Qiana: So earlier this year, I posed a question on the blog, Pencil Panel Page, about the benefits of approaching comics reading as an expansive, rather than immersive experience that speaks a bit to the comparative differences of the form. My speculations focused on the extent to which the interaction of visual and verbal elements in comics produce narratives that are outward-looking, that encourage us to participate in world building –including even “inner” worlds – while attending to the rhythms of plot and character development. The more I read and study comics, the more I believe this to be true. I think that getting lost in a comic book is altogether unlike what we typically associate with prose or film, and certainly you don’t need to be an academic to value this distinctiveness.
What is the story behind the genesis of your collection? How did you get together to work on it?
Qiana: Long before we began collaborating on Comics and the U.S. South, Brannon and I became friends through the bi-annual academic conference of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature. It wasn’t until I organized a comics studies panel at SSSL in 2008 that we realized how much our teaching and research have in common. Brannon was already working on the book Howard Chaykin: Conversations and had written about comics like Captain America, Black Panther, and Hellboy, while my interest in black folk culture and history motivated my own work on Stagger Lee and Nat Turner. The study of American comics is expanding in all sorts of fascinating, cross-disciplinary ways, but we felt that few scholars had paid close attention to how the South operated in comics and rarely looked beyond the clichés and caricatures of the region and its people to consider the full implications of these representations. Having studied southern literature and culture in other mediums, I think we were also excited to explore how the issues that are most prevalent in Southern Studies – such as a profoundly conflicted engagement with history, class and racial politics, and the idealized agrarian landscapes – would manifest through the comics form. In selecting contributions for the collection, we were especially pleased to see how well the depiction of the U.S. South intersected with questions about heroism and the limits of power that preoccupy superheroes, for instance, or informed the ways in which comics grapple with the economy of visual and verbal stereotypes.
What does a focus on comics contribute to the larger academic project of Southern studies?
Brannon: Southern studies has been undergoing an interesting evolution over the course of the last decade or so, growing less concerned with how and whether texts reflect an “authentic” depiction of the South or appropriately channel some sort of southern essence and growing more interested both in the uses to which the fantasy of “the South” is put in various political or cultural discourses and in how that fantasy shapes and constrains and enables the lives of individuals and communities inhabiting the geographical region historically identified as the South. Comics are a vein of tremendous, largely untapped potential for thinking through and gaining a new perspective on those issues, partly because the formal properties of comics that we mentioned above provide a different set of tools for artists to engage the South with, and partly because of the rich variety of ways that the South has traditionally been figured in comic strips and comic books of all genres. Any attempt to account, for instance, for the ways in which the South has been represented in US culture that doesn’t take into account strips like Li’l Abner and Pogo – popular and influential strips with wide mass appeal – is only going to be partial at best.
In the course of completing your edition, what surprised you most? What did you discover?
Qiana: When we first proposed the book’s section headings based on the abstracts, I figured that there would be at least one unit that highlighted racial issues. What surprised me the most as the completed essays began to come in was that so many of the critical discussions included complex, meaningful engagements with racial representation (even when the essays weren’t “about” race). And so while there is a section on “Emancipation and Civil Rights Resistance” that includes outstanding work by Conseula Francis on Nat Turner, Tim Caron on Incognegro, and Gary Richards on Stuck Rubber Baby, interested readers can also find a compelling interrogation of blackness in Pogo in Brian Cremins’ essay or in Brannon’s analysis of Captain America. My take on slavery and Swamp Thing appears alongside Joseph Michael Sommers’s essay about Hellboy’s trek into Appalachia and Nicholas Labarre’s analysis of Preacher. When it comes to comics studies, the most visible and popular black characters seem to come from urban superhero or jungle settings and so I am really impressed by how this collection pushes against that prevailing notion.
Brannon: I was a little surprised and very pleased to see how well the essays all spoke to each other once they started to come in. There’s always a danger with a book like this that you’ll end up with a lot of essays talking past each other, but the four sections of the book really fell together pretty organically. I was also thoroughly impressed with a couple of cases in which contributors shed new light on books that I had not thought much of and would not necessarily have believed were as complex and rewarding of close analysis as they ultimately turned out to be. Tim Caron’s discussion of Incognegro in the context of the history of caricature in comics gave me a new appreciation for that book, and Andy Hoefer’s careful reading of Josh Neufeld’s transformation of the photographic record of Hurricane Katrina persuaded me that A.D. is a much more sophisticated work than I’d initially thought.
What do you see as the future of comics studies? Where would you like to see the field going?
Qiana: I see the future of comics studies in the exciting array of academic perspectives that are beginning to demand greater attention in the field. Interdisciplinarity is more than a buzzword in comics studies – it reflects the increasingly rigorous practices of a number of academic specializations (not just literature!) that offer insight into what comics can do. I think about collection such as Linguistics and the Study of Comics edited by Frank Bramlett, and The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach, edited by Roy Cook and Aaron Meskin. I am encouraged by studies such as Do the Gods Wear Capes: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes by Ben Saunders, or the way Jared Gardner explores the relationship between cinema and comics in Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First Century Storytelling. And Comics and the U.S. South is not the only collection that attends to region in the study of comics; there are also publications such as Comics and the City edited by Jorn Ahrens and Arno Meteling, while James Bucky Carter and Derek Parker Royal are working on Comics and the American Southwest and Borderland.
Brannon: I concur with everything Qiana just said, and I’d also add that I’m excited to see how comics studies helps rewrite the history of the medium as more and more work from the past comes back into print or becomes accessible digitally – what’s it going to mean to critics who write about the development of the superhero to have Miracleman easily available to write about and teach, for instance? What other works from past eras are going to resurface to challenge our assumptions about the medium’s evolution? It’s an exciting time to be working in an exciting field.
Writers are a generous bunch. Given the success of the first post, I’ve decided to collect a few more gems of advice from some of the best writers of flash I know. Ring in the New Year by resolving to follow their lead…
You have written something that when read aloud spreads over brown, brittle patches of empty lots until a Kelly green lawn of verse starts up with the bagpipes, popcorn, and the smell of a wood burning stove, frames you in a recliner with a quilt, a cat, and an IPA. In any language, you are all ghostly lanterns, a mariachi band, and exotic kinds of fruit.
The editor whispers in your ear, send, send, send. You read the well-oiled guidelines of a magazine that flames the smell of garlic sizzling and a newly shampooed head.
This is it. You have read forty poems and stories in your pajamas, unaware of time’s swell and dormancy. You have ransacked the archives of this exquisite magazine. The secret heat encapsulates you in toasted English muffins with melted gorgonzola and pine nuts. You are in love.
You search for the perfect font to rock these editors into open-mouthed astonishment that gum or tic-tacs would be sucked into.
You wait and wait and wait.
One day an email appears. It’s sent by the magazine. You tap the keys on your knees.
That Braccadoccia font that you used didn’t rock them. You read the words ‘unfortunately’ ‘regretfully’ and ‘unable to publish…’ over and over again.
You don’t get dressed for a few days, watch the weather channel, read L. Ron Hubbard. You think of punk band names like ‘Combusting Editors With Herpes’ or ‘Eat my ink, bitch.’
After a week you reread the magazine, study the rejection letter with a magnifying glass. Looks like it’s in Times New Roman, 12 pt., not 14. Not even Bold. Wimply and faded, but if that’s what they want, then you will yield to conformity. You find your story in the pile ready to be burned and pull it out. You read the story out loud. Some jagged edges. Something amiss. A few words misspelled and fifteen adverbs on the first page. Okay. You get the coffee brewing, take a deep breath and open up Steven King’s book, On Writing again.
You start to rework the withered dialogue, delete the lady with the gun in her purse, get rid of a few tags like ‘he exclaimed’ and ‘she shrieked,’ and that one line about the handsome man in a red scarf with high cheekbones and lips like cherry pits.
You put it in your drawer for a few days and go back to the IRS returns. When it’s a Thursday and Mercury is in retrograde, you read it aloud again. It gives you a nice jolt in that special place. You get back to business and send it to another magazine that you’ve been reading. You never spent any time on the IRS returns. That just sounded good or pathetic or both.
You wait and you wait and you wait.
You start biting your cuticles, write nasty letters to purveyors of joyous spirits letting them know that the pork and beans you’ve been buying by the case for years have knocked the happy out of your holidays. You let them know that you’re writing your letter from the toilet, unable to extricate yourself without deep regret.
All borders are dissolved when you see the name of the magazine on your list of emails between ‘Christian Singles Mingle.com and ‘Jacquie Lawson e-cards’. You hesitate, bite one more cuticle. Your finger is ready to hit the button, but your mind is bleeding out prayers from childhood that defy slumped posture.
You tap it. Stare at the words. There are many blanks, but you absorb, ‘accept’ ‘publish’ ‘thank you.’ Holy shit, they said YES!
* * * *
Write and read and write and read and write and read and enjoy the process! That is all we have. That is the cake! The rest is dripping wax. Keep writing and don’t get discouraged. The odds are better than getting slammed by a brick of snow off of a tall building in April that knocks you to your knees, humiliating you in front of crowds of people or smacked on the head by some homeless guy with his bag while waiting at an ATM. Random. Subjective. And yet, not.
Meg Tuite’s writing has appeared in numerous journals. She is author of two short story collections, Bound By Blue (2013) Sententia Books and Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, and three chapbooks. The latest is Her Skin is a Costume (2013) Red Bird Chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging (2014) written with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale. She teaches at the Santa Fe Community College, lives in Santa Fe with her husband and menagerie of pets. Her blog: http://megtuite.com
First Publication: “Thirty-Nine Years of Carrie Wallace.” This was a few years ago. Twelve, at least. I came to flash fiction by accident. In college, I had written short stories, and still do, and still love both forms. I published a few stories, and received a tiny bit of notice from agents, and they always wanted a novel. So, I tried. Three times. Three whiffs. And then I quit for a couple of years, and somehow life kept moving. I joined an online writing community (Zoetrope) and there were all these interesting, talented, writers there, and many of them were writing in this fairly new flash fiction form. I just fell into it. You could finish a story in a day, and then tweak until it felt OK.
Sad truth: I am incredibly lazy and deal badly with rejection. Almost all of my flash stories that have been published were taken by editors getting in touch with me, and asking if they could take a story, and I was always happy to do this. In time, sent more things out blind, and of course the rejection rate went up, but…it doesnʼt matter. I teach creative writing now, and I tell my students two things: find a way to write every day, and donʼt be afraid of rejection because itʼs going to happen. Also, read, read, read. Read poetry, graphic novels, novellas, flash-fiction (I rarely read novels because thereʼs only so much time) and notice how writers deal with things such as time, movement, description (please, no more, He stared into her hazel-colored, almond-shaped, eyes), and ways to punch up dialogue. Finally, keep a notepad with you, always. You can make notes on your phone, and I do, but a notepad/book allows you write anywhere, and, for me, almost everything Iʼve written that i still enjoy begins with a hand-written draft.Read. Donʼt send out to journals, online or print, unless youʼve read the journal first. There are so many wonderful things to read. Some of the Big Name Literary Magazines have online (only) stories. Of course, many people aim for print publication only, but in truth MANY more people will see your work online. Hobart, American Fiction Review, Barrelhouse, even Atlantic. Online only, I guess the ones I praise the most are the ones I know the most: Smokelong Quarterly, FRiGG, and Wigleaf. Writers I admire deeply have published books of flash fiction at Rose Petal Press. I published a novella with Fast Forward Press and a collection of flash fiction with Matter Press, and everyone was lovely and great. Again, for early writers (and you can be sixty and be an early writer) read the various journals. Buy books of flash fiction, and notice where the stories were published. If you donʼt like what they publish, the odds are itʼs a bad fit, and thatʼs fine: write your stories and make them hurt beautifully, and then send them out to the world…and donʼt be afraid. In time, someone will read your story and go, oh, this is exactly what we need, and there you are.
Jeff Landon lives in Richmond, Virginia, and teaches at John Tyler Community College. His published work includes a Novella, Emily Avenue (Fast Forward Press) and a collection of flash fiction, Truck Dance (Matter Press) and stories at Crazyhorse, Mississippi Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Other Voices, Smokelong Quarterly, FRiGG, Wigleaf, 12 Stories, Barrelhouse and Hobart (online), and Phoebe.
My first flash publication, a piece called “Dog-Chest” in decomP, was actually my first-ever publication. I was studying poetry in an MFA program that encouraged cross-genre study, but flash fiction wasn’t originally a form I took seriously. Having first found my voice in formal poetry, I was well versed in compression, rhythm, and repetition—all components of really resonant flash pieces. But above all, I mean to say I was masterful at following rules, and flash fiction seemed to have none. There was no way to get it right, in the same way I could polish up a sonnet. For rule followers like me, the freedom of the form can be intimidating. But because of the brevity of the form, flash felt like a low-stakes, low-commitment way to take risks, to fail spectacularly and without consequence. Flash fiction became my sandbox—a safe space for play, for invention, for test-driving, for prototypes, for guinea pigs.
My advice to new writers is this: Play. Give yourselves permission to try something new, and spend time in a form that encourages experimentation and flexibility. The freedom to play helps unlock risk, and experimentation can imbue the writing with a sort of nervous energy that’s vital in a compressed form, but would be less affecting (not to mention nearly unsustainable) in a long-form piece. Don’t edit out all the weird, and keep the angles sharp, the edges jagged.
As for submitting, don’t submit to journals you don’t love. If you’re not gut-punched and winded by a piece you’ve read in the journal, don’t submit there. If you wouldn’t be excited to read the journal, that’s not the place for your work. Read like you’re starved for language, and do your research. Duotrope is, in my opinion, worth the fee (hat tip to Mary Miller, who introduced me to it years ago). Online magazines are one of contemporary publishing’s great blessings. Click around, get lost, but keep your eyes open for journals who keep the quality bar consistently high while making room for first timers, too. Read decomP, Word Riot, and Sundog Lit. Find a piece that makes you jealous, wish on a star, and send your work there.
Ashley Strosnider holds an MFA from the University of South Carolina. Her work appears in decomP, Word Riot, Fifth Wednesday, Paper Darts, Nashville Review, and Smokelong Quarterly, among others. Her reviews appear in The Review Review and Publishers Weekly. She serves on the editorial staff at Drunken Boat and currently lives in Charleston, SC, where she works as a copyeditor and advocate for the Oxford comma.
A Recipe for Satisfying Flash
My dad has mastered several of my Italian grandmother’s elaborate recipes, and last summer he cooked up some of her stuffed artichokes for lunch. The recipe goes something like this: whip up some breadcrumbs (from scratch, of course); beat a few artichokes upside down until the leaves open enough for stuffing; firmly pack each spiny leaf with crumbs; nestle them in a Dutch oven with a little water and some oil; simmer until the leaves pull out easily.
A bear to prepare, the dish is almost as much work to eat since the leaves themselves are inedible. To enjoy, you have to start at the bottom, peel off a leaf at a time, and scrape off the mixture of soft vegetable, breadcrumbs and sauce with your front teeth. The whole procedure takes at least thirty minutes, around the same time it takes to read a fifteen-page short story. The reward comes after the discarded leaves next to your plate reach mole-hill height, when you can cut open the soft green husk, spoon out the heart and remove the fuzzy choke from its center before eating that delicate, tender, flavorful jewel—the dish’s pièce de résistance.
If a novel is a meal (artichoke plus spaghetti and crusty bread with a glass of chianti close to hand), and a story is the artichoke à la carte (a time investment for both preparer and consumer with a hard-won finish at once savory and dangerous), then a piece of flash fiction is that hidden heart rendered vulnerable, its exposed flesh concealing a sharp, surprising, and powerful center.
One of the many misconceptions I suffered from when I first started writing was equating length with value. The professor who taught my senior seminar in fiction had won a Pulitzer for a novel that I still believe contains all the truths of the known world. Reading it felt a magical act in and of itself. From innocuous origins—a child’s entrepreneurial beginnings in turn-of-the-century New York City—the novel swells until that child becomes a man who runs a hotel that eventually comes to mirror the expansive and expanding universe. I remember setting the book down after the last page in a kind of trance, and then running to his office to confess that I wasn’t the kind of person who could ever write a novel. It just wasn’t within the scope of my talents.
He was not one to laugh at students, but his white moustache twitched in a way I took to mean amusement. He leaned back in his squeaky chair, tucked chin to chest, and shrugged. “It has nothing to do with you,” I remember him saying. “You’ll do whatever the story requires.”
For a long time, I thought that meant I would build up to a novel as I amassed experience writing stories and reading. It wasn’t until I took a Forms of Fiction class during my MFA that I realized my college professor had actually meant to grant me a delicious freedom. He meant that each story had its own scope, its own perfect shape. He meant that sometimes a story is fully expressed in 500 words, and sometimes requires 50,000. He meant that each form was equal in value as long as the work bridged that calamitous gap between writer and reader, and moved the receiver from one emotional place to another. He meant length in and of itself was irrelevant.
In his 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story, Kurt Vonnegut advises young writers to “start as close to the end as possible.” Since flash fiction often skips a formal resolution in favor of letting the reader find resonance in implication, a modification of Vonnegut’s advice for flash writers might be: Start your story close to its heart. For me, the heart of a story is when a character makes an irreparable decision, or enters into an understanding that sets off a ripple effect in his or her world view. It’s the precise moment of change, a snag in the forward course of a life, a darkening, a lifting, a shift. Capturing these moments—whether they are seismic rifts or hairline fractures—is the job of the flash writer. Making sense of them, incorporating the new knowledge they herald, piecing back together the fractured universe, that is the job of the reader.
My first piece of flash was the result of an assignment to write an “impossible story” in which an orange consumes a girl on a high school basketball team. It appeared in NANO Fiction’s second issue back in 2007. That’s a great venue for writers of flash, both established and emerging, to target. Built into their mission is an imperative to “cultivate the genre of flash fiction by creating opportunities for emerging fiction writers to achieve national recognition….” I’ve also been lucky to have work in a few other venues that incorporate or exclusively focus on flash and make much of it available for free and forever on the web. River Styx, SmokeLong Quarterly, Fiction Southeast, and Sundog Lit, are just a few such places where I recommend flash writers send their best work.
When I first began to fall in love with flash, I was concerned about whether it “counted” set aside longer stories, novellas, and novels, but it didn’t take long to realize how silly a distinction that is. An equation beyond word count is necessary when it comes to memorable, moving works of fiction. Perhaps it’s as simple as this: Sometimes it takes a whole artichoke to satisfy your hunger, and sometimes all it takes is the heart.
Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared in Carve, Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Crab Orchard Review, Word Riot, and Monkeybicycle, among other journals. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Learn more at katiecortese.com.
I’d love to link to my first publication (though, honest, the term ‘Flash’ and the whole word count thing is jaw pain to me at this stage [kudos eg to PANK for not having categories]), but it’s no longer out there. It was at a place called The Independent Mind and was called “There Goes The Ground Beneath Their Feet,” I think, but it was back in the last century and is a bit of a blur. Long story. They had a cool logo and did great indy album reviews. It was around the time Princess Di died. Don’t ask me when. There were other pieces in other places close after, including:
- Wandering Army
- The Edward Society
- Cautionary Tale
- Shore Magazine
- Journal of ModernPost
… none of which exist anymore. The internet was young, and people were trying things, some of which lasted, some of which didn’t. I was psyched to be published at Juked, which is still going strong, gotta love Juked, and of course the mighty Eyeshot. And P’boz (the amazing Shauna MacKenna), Opium and McSweeney’s. If I was starting out today, those are still the places I’d sub to. And Word Riot, those guys kick ass, ahem. Plus Hobart, Publishing Genius, NANO, PANK, Dogzplot, Wigleaf, and Smokelong (where I’ve submitted a score of stories and never been accepted, but hey I’ll keep on keeping on). And sure there are dozens of other great places. I love Failbetter but have never submitted there, for example. Guernica.
But, you know, just look at the list of places that went down for whatever reason. Life. For me it underlines the transigence of what we do. Dust. So ask yourself Why bother? to begin with. Who will care? Then I’d say to young writers:
Don’t get too attached to what this or that editor thinks, or to this or that aesthetic — write for yourself, if you can; write like you don’t care if it will ever be published. Get down deep. And read a whole lot more than you’ll ever, ever write. Then sure, submit, and get that acceptance — and move on.
Kevin O’Cuinn is the fiction editor at Word Riot. He was raised in Ireland but now lives in Frankfurt, Germany, where he teaches English and tries to keep his nose clean. Links to his work around The Web can be found at Kevsville.
A writer friend of mine, Kate Thornton, told me she had a story, “Veterans,” pubbed at EDF and sent me the link. This was back in 2007. I read it, loved it, and thought, wow, all that goodness – and surprise – in a thousand words? I wanted to try it. At the time, I had only two publication credits to my name, both in print, both around 4000 words and I kept thinking I’d be dead by the time I had ten things out there for people to read if I kept doing what I was doing. My first on-line publication was flash and my first attempt to write flash. Called “One Question,” it was published at Every Day Fiction in December of 2007.
Sometimes you have to shift what you are looking at, see what else is in your vista. As writers we begin to understand that readers love surprise in the stories, but don’t always see that we need surprise too. We can’t keep staring at the same mountain and expect something new and bold to float across the horizon. Changing a goal (long stories to short, poetry to prose, fiction to memoir), trying a different technique (prompts, contests, deconstruction a story you admire), doing something – anything – you wouldn’t normally do touches something inside you. Lights you up.
For me, flash “lit me up.”
Venues! Where to send your stuff? With EDF, I was playing the numbers. They publish a new story every day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. The odds are in my favor. They offer comments as to what they like and don’t like. Actual suggestions from the other side. I get feedback! I can learn. All this suited me perfectly when I was “new.” The wonderful thing I found out once I got going, is that there are many many fabulous venues out there, and you never know really who will love your stuff. That’s the important part, finding the right place for this story or that story, for your aesthetic, and always looking for journals that will make you grow. A few that have been terrific to me are EDF, Smokelong Quarterly, Pure Slush, Atticus Review, Night Train, well, I could go on and on. It’s up to each writer to find the perfect fit.
Gay Degani has published on-line and in print including her short collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, a staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at Words in Place. She’s had three stories nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. Her novel, What Came Before, will be available in early 2014.
Winner winner chicken dinner! If you’re anything like me, you might see publication as a kind of lottery. As the barkers at carnivals say, “You gotta play to win now. Step right up. Step right up.” Of course, in this flash publication game, it is certainly NOT the case that every dart that pops a balloon results in that dog-house sized teddy bear hanging from the rafters like a bloated plushy angel. No. The lottery we play has odds stacked against us.
I know a writer, for example, who has two highly acclaimed novels-in-stories with one of the “big” publishers. She was ecstatic the other day when I saw her because one lottery game she’d been playing for the past twenty-five years finally paid off–she’d gotten a story into The Gettysburg Review.
Although I still sometimes feel like every acceptance is a lottery win, I am guilty of cultivating my own obsession with the scratch-off ticket equivalent of the Mega List of journals: the absolute apex of the publication stratosphere.
This lottery list features places that have published at least one flash by someone other than Junot Diaz, Joyce Carol Oates, or Donald Barthelme. This is a list of shooting stars that I still wish on myself from time to time, just in case my luck changes.
1. Tin House The eminent journal now runs a blog called the Open Bar which focuses on Flash every Friday. That’s NOT what I’m dreaming of here for my first lottery. I’m talking about the flagship. Tin House. Period. What would I do if I won this lottery? I’d get a tattoo of the cover my piece appears in on a bodypart randomly chosen by the editor. I’d live in my own makeshift Tin House for a year–Thoreau style (without all the crying and bragging). I’d get personalized license plates attempting to spell out Tin House.
2. Glimmer Train “We are interested in the work of new writers. Of the 100 Distinguished Short Stories listed in the recent edition of Best American Short Stories, 10 first appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, more than in any other publication, including the New Yorker. Three of those 10 were the author’s first publication.” Their “Very Short Fiction” contest is held quarterly. It is open to submissions JANUARY, APRIL, JULY, and OCTOBER ($15 entry fee buys your lottery ticket here–the nice thing, though, is that they’ll post a generous list of finalists for valuable bragging rights even in the absence of publication). While most submissions to Glimmer Train are now routed through contests, they still host three “standard” submission months a year — no reading fees — and, the most lotteryacious news of all: Glimmer Train pays! $700 for accepted stories.
3. The Collagist Matt Bell was at the helm of this frigate of flash and other outstanding fiction, and it’s not wrong to say Matt “wrote the book” on how to write flash (he has; it’s by Rose Metal Press). The magazine continues to find itself in fine editorial hands since Matt stepped down from his duties in August. Matthew Olzmann and
Gabriel Blackwell edit the magazine now and the results are sublime. Some of my favorite flash from the Collagist is James Tadd Adcox’s “Viola Is Sitting on the Examination Table” and “Three” and “Exodus” by Daniel Grandbois.
4. Ploughshares There are few journals as prestigious as Ploughshares. What puts them on this list instead of AGNI or The Cincinnati Review or One Story is that they, at least, say they are interested in flash fiction in their editorial information, whereas these others advertise word limits that do not actively welcome flash submissions.
5. Blackbird Justin Torres’ “Seven” from We the Animals which appears on the Blackbird‘s wing at the moment, easily qualifies as a flash. Another great piece is R.T. Smith’s “Col. Othniel Sweet’s Mysteries of Nature, # 14 (auto-combustion),” BLACKBIRD (Spring 2012). And the editors at Blackbird are so proactive about their flash that within minutes of posting this editor Leia Darwish emailed me to champion Elizabeth Hubbard’s terrific flash “Confluence” from their latest issue. Blackbird has soaring fiction and passionate editors, too. I’d bet on them any day.
6. The Kenyon Review (0.62 % Duotrope-reported acceptance rate out of 487 posters; 140.3 avg. days per acceptance) As a native Ohioan (and former Oberlin student) I am proud to witness the eminence of Ohio liberal arts institutions like The Kenyon Review. Some of my favorite flashes published in KR include Hannah Pass’s “Remedy,” KENYON REVIEW (Fall 2012) and Jason Lee Brown’s “Left Leg, Just above the Knee,” KENYON REVIEW (Spring 2012).
7. The Iowa Review (1.82 % Duotrope-reported acceptance rate out of 167 posters; 103.3 avg. days per acceptance) “We take our mission to be nudging along American literature, to be local but not provincial, to be experimental but not without love for our literary traditions. Although you may find writers already familiar to you in most of our issues, you will surely find others who are not.” My favorite flashes here recently include Thisbe Nissen’s “The Challenger Disaster at Smiling Goat.“
8. Narrative A bit like Glimmer Train in its publishing model, Narrative has multiple genres for readers to contribute to including one for short short stories (between 500 and 2000 words). Winning the lottery here most typically comes as a result of literally winning–as submissions seem to take the form of contests, but not exclusively (as with Glimmer Train). Still, for the price of skimping on a few extra steamed sugary caffeinated drinks, you can budget in a lottery submission. Who knows? You might end up like Jan Ellison, whose tiny flash “The Hookup” (Fall, 2012) will let all your lucky numbers come in.
9. Redivider (.51 % Duotrope-reported acceptance rate out of 197 posters; 244 avg. days per acceptance) Editor-in-Chief Lauren Kay Halloran has this to say to prospective writers: “We don’t have a particular aesthetic; we like to think of ourselves as edgy and quirky, and we publish quite a bit of work that leans toward experimental, but quality is always the main consideration. Because we have a rotating staff (main positions usually change annually), our collection of tastes rotates as well. So if the current group of editors aren’t fans of a piece, the next group might be!” The quality just sings from this winning lottery ticket of Meredith Luby’s flash “Cicada Season“
10. Guernica (1.5 % Duotrope-reported acceptance rate out of 67 posters; 40 avg. days per acceptance) The funny thing about Guernica is that they advertise a distaste for flash, they end up publishing quite a bit of it, particularly flash memoir. A recent gem is Autumn Watts’s “The Cities of Animals“ (July 2012), which circumvents any editorial disinclination for short, undeveloped fiction by fusing multiple shorts together–creating a sense of expansiveness and interconnected depth.