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How to Make Your Flash Piece Better–R&R

November 4, 2013

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The problem with improving any piece of writing is that a change you make in one part inevitably affects another part. Revision has to happen to wholes, never to parts.

Once you bypass the fear of the snake that swallows itself–the fear that omission is self-mutilation rather than self-improvement–the rest is fairly easy. In fact, the rest is much easier than writing. Writing is hard. Good thing then, because the rest involves just that — REST!

I’m serious. If you’re reading this because you’ve got a piece of flash that you’ve tagged in your mind as being in need of some revisionary overhauling, then the first thing you should do is put that sucker away for a week or more. Just park her like a rusting jalopy right in front of the house on the front lawn. Go ahead. Your neighbors won’t mind.

2963475-2-old-rusty-car“For how long?” you ask. Glad you asked.

As long as it takes for that jalopy to become strange to you again. You want to look at it without the subjective or emotional interference of familiarity. You want to look at it the way you look at other people’s writing. You know the way I mean…

those flashes other writers show you whose flaws are instantly recognizable to you.

After enough exposure to the alienating rays of frontyard sunshine–or to the shadowy corners of a drawer, wood or web–it’s ready for the dissection.

In the meantime, do yourself a favor and recharge your writing batteries. Go find published flash pieces that are similar to the kind you’re writing and READ as much as you can. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t.

That’s the two step process of revision: R&R. Rest and Read.

During the reading stage, think of the pieces by other published writers in terms of the categories of revision that you want to use for own pieces. Look for their use of language (style, syntax, diction, dialogue, lyricism), their structure (beginnings, middles, climaxes, conclusions).

Ask yourself if there are patterns to the characters you find in them, or to the creation of tension, events, actions, scenarios, premises. Heck, you should even be studying little things like punctuation, paragraphing, and titles–anything that strikes your fancy.

Your job at this reading stage is to re-focus those eyes of yours. You want to make them truly fresh when they return to gaze upon that piece resting in its alienating juices.

Name and then claim those qualities for yourself that you see in other strong pieces of flash.

If there’s a particular type of opening that you prefer to read in flash and which you like to write in your own flash, you ought to have a name for it.  Write your own encyclopedia entry for it in your notes.

You want to be the expert bird watcher of that particular type of opening. You’ve got sketches of its shape and color. You can do imitations of its song. You’ve got sub names for the different variations of the species.

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Become expert in the things you like about flash to this degree and just watch the amazing flight of the flocks you’ll send up to the airy heights.

From → writing tips

7 Comments
  1. Thanks Michael – great tips and advice.

    I think that, even for those who feel they know this stuff, it’s really helpful to see someone defending the idea of letting something rest, to, as you say (one of your NAMED qualities?) let it get STRANGE. Depending where you turn, advice on writing often induces a stressful sense of having to churn stuff out, like on a conveyor belt, and older notions of artistic ‘inspiration’ are considered twee or outmoded. Of course, the best writers are in fact the writers that work hardest and read lots and lots. But, I think having a sensibility that allows you to carefully nurture a piece, to know when and how much to feed it, is also really important. It’s also fragile and precious and can’t be dealt with with the aggression of someone demanding success.

    I’m going to press ‘Post Comment’ now to park this dilapidated moped on your driveway. I hope you don’t mind. I’m sure once the button’s pressed I will wish I could have been a little more articulate. I’ll go away and read Lynne Tillman or something, and then return with fresh insight.

  2. Dear Michael, Putting together a flash collection for a chap contest I decided to use only previously published pieces. I have enough, but many are of the “oh no, I submitted this way too soon” category. I’m sure this happens to you. You write a story and go over it for some hours and then send it three places and the worst of the three accepts it before you get up from your chair. You’re happy, but the story is effectively dead and embalmed. So, I’m rewriting for the contest and the stories are getting better because I’m a better writer than I was a year or two ago, but I’m not going to win the contest, so what do I do with these much improved stories? No one wants published work even if the publication was read by no one and is not defunct. I don’t want Duotrope yelling at me, but Duotrope is easily fooled by a simple title change. Oh God, what if Duotrope is reading this?

    • Duotrope is definitely reading this, with as much voyeuristic wire-tapping delight as the government. I think there is a slew of possibilities for revised reprints:

      1) venues that take reprints: one of the best is Eunoia Review. Another is Pantheon.

      2) Submit your flash chapbook to the Emerge Press, which is recently interested in flash for chaps, as are several other presses expanding beyond the poem

      3) Self-publish your work here on the blogosphere–for posterity. Do it out of sheer generosity. Do it for the delectation of novitiate writers who would learn a great deal by seeing exactly how you revised your pieces–the old “before and after” pic could be your model, only with commentary!

  3. That last paragraph is fantastic.

  4. Such a great post, taking time off yr work once you have written it is something that’s essential for improving a piece. We’re looking to have a post on the subject on our site as well.

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