Advice from 6 Amazing Writers on Writing Your First Flash
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.