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Thursday Craft: Eleven Essentials of Writing Great Flash Fiction

Here is the demand of the flash form: To find in compression what could not be found otherwise, to view the constriction of time and space as a need for urgency and profundity.

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And here are The Eleven Essentials to Writing Great Flash Fiction. (Coincidentally, these are the eleven things I try to do when writing flash fiction):

    1. Have strong desires create an immediate urgency. I love when characters go all in. The trick (for me) is figuring out why now, of all times, they decided to do it. It’s more about the strength of their desire, their decision to commit to something rather than what’s at stake that draws me to them. We find them afire with wanting.
    2. Twist expectations from the outset. Readers come to stories full of predictions. Scare the bejeebers out of them!  They expect you to zig, you zag, not in the final sentence, but immediately. Serepentine, Shel! Serpentine!

    3. Create tension through revelation rather than omission. Hiding things from the reader is just plain mean, and it’s manipulative, too, especially when the POV character is hiding things that he/she clearly knows. Try to create tension by showing your cards. And the other person’s cards. And maybe the whole gosh darn deck, if you’d like. Reveal, reveal, reveal. You be the person to put the “flash” in flash fiction.
    4. Use specificity to create the supernatural. Make your details so vivid & so real that they take on the quality of dreams. The world of story already has that sense of supernatural wonder, where the gods and goddesses (i.e., the author) throw the very obstactles at a character that will get the character to transform into the person he/she was destined to become. Charles Baxter, I think, had a chapter on defamiliarization, where the everyday object becomes so imbued with exactness and wonder that it becomes something altogether other, like a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
    5. Make a truth—rather than a twist—the goal of your ending. Rather than misinforming the reader throughout (lying!) just so you can jump out and say “Gotcha!” at the end, try anything else, even if it means completely informing the reader about what’s going on throughout (revealing everything), so that each word can take the reader/character/writer closer to grasping something just out of our grasps. Make it something that will resonate.
    6. Use dialogue to dig deeper. In Donnie Darko, a temporal “accident” causes an alternative universe to be formed, and within this alternative universe, the universe and everyone in it conspires to get Donnie to do what he must do so that the “real” universe and everyone in it won’t be annhialated. Make that happen in your universe, so that dialogue exists to make the character confront what needs to be confronted, forcing the character (continually) to dig deeper for answers. Everyone who talks to your character has this sole purpose: to make the character face the very thing that will lead that character to have his/her destined ending.
    7. Figure out what you, as writer, desire to know. A lot of what experienced writers tell new writers, I’m coming to think, are lies, things to tell them so they can weed out the competition a bit. Like “write what you know.” If I only wrote what I knew, I’d be writing stories about guys figuring out how to write stories. The real secret is to write what you want to know. At my MFA at Vermont, Doug Glover worked to convince me that literature “is a way of thinking in which you think by pushing your characters through a set of actions (testing that character in a series of scenes which involve the same conflict).” I began to think that, if indeed writing stories is a way of thinking, then it might make sense if I had something to think about, something to figure out. So maybe, I thought, I should have the character be dealing with something that I, the writer, also wanted to discover. Now, once I’ve convinced people that this is true, that they should write not necessarily what they know but instead what they want to know, I will write what I want to write: a story about a guy figuring out how to write a story. Because no one will be writing that. 
    8. Compress to charge sentences. What’s it really mean that “every word counts” in flash fiction? I’d like to see some examples of 750-1000 word flash fictions where every word has that kind of weight. Some writers write as if to make every word equal, as if no word counts. Or so that only a single word carries the burden of the story. There’s rarely, though, a sense of wordiness to flash. The question I ask has to do with what word is or isn’t needed. It might be the realization that in I gripped her arm tightly as if holding a gun’s barrel I don’t need tightly. And it’s sometimes more than that. There is, in flash, for me, the desire to say what needs to be said and that is all. 
    9. Create “weighted” images & patterns. After a draft, I read it to discover the images that arose (as in dreams) without any conscious awareness on my part. I try to figure out the ones that seem to connect to each other. I work with those. I might hint at them in the title. These things create subtext, that thing that gets you into the very, very literary magazines
    10. Avoid “ready-made” phrasings. It’s a failure of creativity. Creative writing with cliches. Whoever heard of such a thing. The day I write with cliches is the day hell freezes over. 
    11. Use words in the title that create multiple meanings. I don’t like titles that summarize what the story is about. I like titles that work to uncover something hidden and central. Write revelatory titles, as if they’re both the first and last word(s) on the matter. Make it so that the title in some way changes everything. 


Flashes to Checkout  (warning; some may contain adult content)

Tom Saunders’s “Outer Space” in Smokelong Quarterly

Mary Miller’s “Angel” in Vestal Review

Rusty Barnes’s “The Way It Is Scripted, The Way It Goes” in Ink Pot

Jai Clare’s “Memory of Sky” in SmokeLong Quarterly

Joseph Young’s “Poems on Small Dogs” in Ink Pot

Nance Knauer’s “Drinking from the Well” in Ink Pot

Daphne Buter’s “He Wrote Sixteen Pencils Empty” in Smokelong Quarterly

Pamela Painter’s “Ghost Story” in Vestal Review

Joseph Young’s “What Happened Was” in the angler

Jeff Landon’s “Five Fat Men in a Hot Tub” in Smokelong Quarterly 

Kelly Spitzer’s “Disintegration” in Vestal Review

Katrina Denza’s “Crimes on the Bus” in Long Story Short

Stephen Douglas Gullion’s “A Flute Named Desire” in Adirondack Review

Kim Teeple’s “Raw Silk” in Salome Magazine

Nance Knauer’s “The Scent” in Dead Mule 

Robert J. Bradley’s “Blind Love” in SmokeLong Quarterly

Ellen Meister’s “A Crack in the Foundation” in Ink Pot 

Claudia Smith’s “Bluebonnet” in Juked

Gary Cadwallader’s “Out of Scale” in flashquake

Ellen Parker’s “Metallic” in SmokeLong Quarterly

Robin Slick’s “Picnic” in SmokeLong Quarterly

Lesley Weston’s “The Lamb Misused” in Night Train

Terry Dehart’s “Clear Cut” in FRiGG

Cliff Garstang’s “The Learned Llama” in Six Little Things

Foster Trecost’s “A Quiet Evening” in Flash Me Magazine

Ramon Collins’s “Sgt. Nelson, KIA” in Long Story Short

Lydia Theys’s “Grace Notes” in Flashquake

Beverly Jackson’s “The Cucaracha” in Tattoo Highway

Dave Clapper’s “Spike. Resonance.” in FRiGG

Bill West’s “August, 1946” in Right Hand Pointing

Maryanne Stahl’s “Looking for Rabbits” in Word Smitten

Bob Arter’s “Grace” in Ink Pot

Bonnie Zobell’s “Movement in the Wire” in Juked

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  • What is Flash
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