Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Writing Roundtable--"Running Wind"

Before we get started, hop over to Book Roast sometime today. I'm the Roast Master turning up the heat on Jeff Somers and his novel The Digital Plague. There's fun, conversation, and a signed copy of his book up for grabs!

In this latest Clarity of Night contest, we saw many amazing approaches to bringing a simple photograph and title to life. As I've always stressed in my contest rules and announcements, my judging is based on writing technique first, then story second. Technical elements are weighted substantially higher. Why do I do this? Because my theory is that if you're a strong writer, any story you choose to write will shine. If you're a great a storyteller, but not strong in technique, any story you write, even a great one, will struggle to come alive on the page.

This roundtable discussion today is to share each other's thoughts on what works and doesn't work in flash fiction. I posed this question to each of yesterday's winners:

What is your personal approach to flash fiction--things you shoot for and things you avoid?

Sarah Hina says: "I usually focus on a driving emotion to propel the story, since the characters are somewhat short-changed in the flash format. I've come to realize how important pacing and readability are to accompany a reader's sense of discovery, so I am learning to make my writing more muscular (less ostentatious), and hopefully more powerful, too."

Sean Ferrell says: "My personal approach to flash fiction is to remember the phrase: In medias res. I think that flash fiction, in order to capture the reader, has to contain the pre-story elements and hint at the post-story elements. It must "read bigger" than it actually is. Unlike a snapshot I don't think it should be merely descriptive of a moment. I am loathe to simply describe a thing or person in a short-short. Actions should reveal what is necessary for the reader. Hair color, physical size, other details which longer pieces give space for are peeled away. I think it's not unlike witnessing something awe-inspiring or shocking (a birth, a death) where the actions of the event itself bring more of who the participants are to the fore; and even though the event may take seconds it leaves an enormous impact on viewer and participant."

Josh Vogt says: "Since one is so restricted by word count in flash fiction, I try to aim for sentences and dialogue that pull double duty as both action and description. Plus, I know readers have great imaginations themselves, and often fill in the scenery 'cracks' for themselves, freeing up a lot of embroidery words that one might be tempted to pad the story with."

Paul Liadis says: "My goal in flash fiction is my goal in all writing: to entertain and hopefully to get the reader to think a bit. I definitely try to avoid superfluous description in flash fiction because you don't have the space for it with a limited word count. I hate a lot of description as a reader anyhow, so I try to avoid it in all my writing. I've found that a good way to tell a story in a small amount of words is to use dialog to move the story along and let the readers fill in the blanks."

Jeff Brandimarte says: "What I aim for most in a flash fiction piece is a fully realized story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Though it is always a happy accident when a flash fiction piece spurs one on to write something longer, I don't go into these with the notion that I'm writing a sketch."

Charles Gramlich says: "I remind myself first that the canvas is small. There's probably not room for more than two characters, and usuallly only one twist. Of course, every word has to count, although I've found from experience that I can cut material pretty drastically so I don't mind if the first draft goes even a 100 to 200 words over the count I'm looking for. Then, focus on the visuals."

What do think? Can you see these approaches at work in the winning entries? What are your struggles or theories in flash fiction?

We've shared our creations, now let's share how we got there.


Charles Gramlich said...

A lot of interesting points here. I'm going to take a bit of time to digest it all.

Sarah Hina said...

I think I appreciate Sean's explanation the most. The idea of a flash story being lifted from a greater continuum--a small, focused corner of a larger canvas, perhaps--appeals to me.

Even if we can't "see" the before and after, we intrinsically know the arc of the character's journey, anyway. As Josh and others have said, that kind of faith in the reader's imagination requires less, and not more, from the writer.

For me, it's been difficult to develop that restraint. But well worth it.

Anonymous said...

I really like the comments about using dialog twofold: background information and to move the story forward. Here's a little example:

Version #1
Stephanie was so tired of her mother staring at her. Her questions. Her accusations. In a sigh, she found herself saying that she didn't even have the energy to respond.

Version #2
She pushed away the coffee cup she didn't ask for. Her mother stood by the table. Waiting.

"I'm sorry, mother. But sometimes...I really just hate you."

First off, version #1 is telling, not showing. Version #2 tells no backstory. It simply shows the action (except the "didn't ask for" bit), but in those movements and dialog, you can sense a certain backstory and weight. You start thinking about the kind of things that might cause such a moment. You think about where that moment might lead. The dialog is loaded with impact.

Even though the word counts are similar, version #2 feels more potent.

Charles Gramlich said...

Great example with the dialogue, Jason. I too often forget I can do that.

Scott said...

I approach flash fiction with a couple goals in mind. The first is to tell a story completely. Secondly, to put the protagonist is in one situation but will soon be in another one entirely. Third is to sprinkle in the unexpected, to set the reader up with one expectation then pull out the tablecloth with the place settings still intact. All this necessitates in medias res, as Sean mentions. Word economy is of the essence. Sarah especially impressed me with hers, combining action with descriptive elements.

I definitely need to keep an eye out for the showing vs. telling thing. Always keep the action rolling downhill.

Scott from Oregon said...

I just enter contests 'cause it's fun...

(But I realized I should hold a piece for a day if I can so that all the little "edits" get done before I send it off. It takes that long to fully realize what a piece of flash is really about).

I prefer these short pieces resembling poetry in effect over story telling myself.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Hey everyone,
This is such great advice! I see numerous traps I fell into. Having a minimum set of characters can sometimes lend to overcompensation of description. Big problem for me this time around. On the other hand, my flash story forthcoming in NANO Fiction (only two characters) has no description whatsoever. The characters are vivid enough based on their actions and dialogue.

Precie said...

This is a great discussion. And I agree with much of what has been emphasizes about the need for strong mastery of technique since there's such a small space for the story.

I have a follow-up question:

Considering the short length, do you think even a single minor faux pas becomes more glaring?

Anonymous said...

Yes, great points are being made!

As for you question, Precie, any writing issue tends to stand out much more in a short piece. However, a minor faux pas is not fatal. A major faux pas or maybe 3 minor ones are enough to eliminate a story from contention in my contests, however. That may seem harsh, but let's face it, there are many talented writers entering these contests. The curious thing to me is that when people are upset that a certain story didn't place, they are basically saying that one of the ones which did, should not have. I understand that people might see many of these stories as equivalent, but after drilling down on somewhere around 540 short fiction pieces in these contests, I really don't. That's not to say that there weren't more than 10 deserving entries, because there certainly were.

Anonymous said...

jason - I think you nailed the heart of it - you've read 540 of them, and many of us don't understand how you read them. I mean, you've explained the points and all of that, but ultimately, you're still coming from a subjective viewpoint.

SO - it might help if you wrote up the top ten faux pas that are made, contest to contest? I always prefer to know what I'm doing wrong to what I'm doing right - it's how I grow. I get that not everyone's the same, though. But - how about it? A few more examples of things to watch for?

Anonymous said...

Aerin, I'll give it some thought. However, since you're an Honorable Mention, you really didn't do anything "wrong." When you get down to placing within the top ten, it's more about my judgment of who had more impact, more creativity, more intensity, more uniqueness. All of the top entries, and more, were very strongly written. No real issue there. About 25% of the entries had no substantial technical writing issues, in my view. (Just to be clear, the Honorable Mentions are listed in entry order, not placement order.)

A list of top 10 writing issues I see may be helpful, however, for the 75% which could be tightened.

Anonymous said...

Alright, here's my top ten writing issues that result in point deductions in Clarity of Night contests:

1. Telling instead of showing. (See my comment above for an example.)

2. Over-description. If a single sentence has more than two adjectives, you're in danger of diminishing your impact. Example: The long, winding road was filled completely with a permeating, oppressive darkness.

3. Unbelievable dialog. Example: "What are you going to do with that hammer?" "I was thinking that maybe I should hit you with it. In fact, I've been thinking about murdering you for ages upon ages."

4. Pacing. If the words don't flow, if the structure is fragmented and painful, you pull the reader out of the story. Hard to give a quick example.

5. Powerful words paired with an non-powerful moment. Example: The parking ticket thundered into my hands and demolished my every chance of having a good day. Descriptions should generally fit the important of the moment in length and intensity.

6. Weak verbs. Example: The sky was dark. The motorcycle was idling. He was eager to go. Rewrite: The clouds piled in the sky. The motorcycle engine sputtered. He flexed his hands, ready to go.

7. Unnecessary words/tightening. Example: When he sat down on the chair, he thought he saw her go out the door and out of the room. Rewrite: As he sat down, he saw her rush from the room. (Stronger verb too.)

8. Cliches. Example: He needed her like he needed to breathe.

9. Distracting sentence structures and punctuation. Example: I went to the store...she was there...but not the butter...where was I going...I don't remember.

10. The piece doesn't fit the word count. Example: If your story is all telling and no showing, you are trying to pack too much into 250 words. The statements from the winners are instructive on this point. Your words must do double duty if you want a 250 word piece to read larger. On the other hand, you can focus on one particular moment, and stick to that (like #19).

Anonymous said...

Jason - oh, gosh, I didn't mean to suggest I was unhappy with my placement - I was pretty floored, considering that I found several places I could have tightened mine.

I just - I don't know, wanted to get feedback. Off to read the top 10 - thank you so much for doing it!

Anonymous said...

I just snorted my water at the cliche example. hee-hee. Now I so want to use it in the next contest!!!!

I need some sleep.

Jason, those 10 points were really helpful - thanks!

Anonymous said...

Very detailed Jason. I'm gonna go have that tatooed to my eyelids now.

To move the discussion further, maybe, I find Flash Fiction easier than Novel writing. I think I'm in the minority there. My thing is I don't do all that well with description and details and with Flash Fiction I find I don't need to deal with them as much.

In Flash Fiction I think you can rely on the reader's mind more to fill in the details of the story.

How about you all?

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

I know I didn't submit an entry for this, but here are my thoughts anyway:

Flash fiction needs tension. Conflict between characters, within characters, between characters and their environment. All characters should want something, but not necessarily the same thing, and not necessarily the same thing as the reader, either. Whether the piece is a fully-fledged story from 'once upon a time' to 'and they all lived (un)happily ever after', or just a descriptive vignette or snapshot, flash fiction gains much more depth and drama and excitement by having some contrasts. This can be achieved not only through character motivations and desires, but also through sensible variations in pacing and the rhythm of words, or even the things left unwritten.

PS: what's a rountable?

Anonymous said...

Whoops! My editor didn't catch that one, EOH. ;)

Great thoughts. And not just for flash fiction.

Bernita said...

Excellent comments.
People should remember too, that after the technical is considered, a subjectivity regarding effectiveness always comes into to play, no matter who the judge is.
Jason missed - by a very fine hair - winning a contest I held. Why? I have a sensitivity to heart-attack stories.

Aine said...

EOH-- the editor has been on vacation. Maybe he'll give the editor a raise when she gets back...

Terri said...

Sadly, I didn't get to enter this contest but having read the winning entries I don't think I was missed too sorely ;-)
Jason, your 10 tips are superb. I'm actually going to save those so I can look at them whenever I write 'cos that's some great advice.

Posolxstvo I said...

Chiming in late here --

I was never really aware of any “technique.” I simply visualize and then write, paying attention only to word choice and pacing. But after the prompt here, I realize that I have been using an unconscious technique that consists of the following:

1. Focus on the fulcrum of the story. In flash fiction, you don’t have time to tell the whole front and back story. You have to rely on implication of what went down previously and what will happen next. This creates ambiguity. And it is this ambiguity that draws me to flash fiction. This one moment may have 100’s of back stories, all equally valid. And infinite possibilities of what happens next.

2. Subtext is king. Goes along with “Show, don’t tell” but is more than that. My last two entries have featured 1st person narrators primarily because that allows me to put subtext into the narration, as well as the dialog.

Anonymous said...

AIne - I think probably the editor quite deserved a vacation!!

wrath999 said...

I just enjoy the fact that 65 people saw the same picture and told 65 different stories. I'm an avid reader and certainly no expert in 'technique'. If a flash, short story, novel, TV show or movie takes me away from real life, then it did its job.

I don't think one should try to define Flash (with the exception of word count). Ask 65 people and they will give 65 different answers.

Enjoyed the contest


Sheri said...

Passive verbs are something I am trying to correct in my writing. I find that I do use words like 'was' and 'is' a lot. It is a skill that I know has not yet clicked within me, but your example in your top ten is very clear.

I wonder if maybe you can post a couple sentences with passive verbs and we can post the rewrites into stronger choices as an exercise...

I had never written flash fiction before. I think my entry shows that I write novels. It was more like a first page than a self-contained story. Such a wonderful learning experience for me.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the thoughts, everyone! Great discussion! (Bernita, I didn't know that. Sorry if I dredged up something painful.)

Sheri, passive voice...maybe a writing exercise would be fun!

Jaye Wells said...

I don't have much to add to the great advice already given. However, I think as an exercise, flash fiction is a wonderful way to learn to write tight. Every punch has to not only land, but draw blood.

bekbek said...

New contest: Write a 250 word story that uses both number 3 and number 5 from Jason's top ten writing issues...

And why? They made me smile.

Some really great points, here. It strikes me that these are all good rules of thumb for longer pieces, and it's just that the very short format, in eliminating the room to flounder, actually gives us the opportunity to really stick to those rules and make them work for us.

For example, "know your audience." This was hammered into me in school, but what does it really mean? It means, don't write for yourself. Communicate. In a longer piece, I think it's easier to get caught up in the relationship between author and character; in flash fiction, I think successful pieces stay more true to the relationship between author and reader. Missteps break that bond too easily.

Precie said...

Jason--Now that's a great Top 10 list! Insightful and made me LMAO!

And I'm so fascinated by this entire discussion. I wholeheartedly agree that writing flash is a great exercise, and I think it helps me hone my longer fiction writing.

Sean Ferrell said...

Jaye - Leave it to you to mention blood. Such a violent, violent person.

sandra seamans said...

I don't have much to add to what has already been said. If anyone is looking for a flash site to learn technique you could try flashfictiononline.com There's a forum, and several teaching blogs for those looking to learn more plus they're a great zine if you're looking to read more flash or have something to submit. And no, I'm not connected to the site just passing along the info for those who'd like to learn more about flash writing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks all!! I agree that flash is a very effective way to learn techniques for longer fiction. And I'm glad you all liked the top ten and even got a few laughs from the examples.