The Practice of Creativity

Exploring Short Fiction-Part 2

Posted on: September 29, 2014

Last week I wrote about how writing short fiction, especially flash fiction, can be a very good way to develop one’s writing credentials. I also discussed my own challenges in learning the craft of short fiction.

Given the great comments I received and questions, I’m exploring this topic further. I want to provide examples from my own work and suggest some places to submit your short fiction.

Here are some working definitions of short fiction, in terms of length, that may be helpful:

Micro fiction 100 words or less, flash fiction 350-1500 words, short story 2,000-6,000 words (this seems to be the sweet spot for many publications), longish short story 7,500-10,000 words, novella 20,000-50,000

One of my teachers shared her organizing frame for the feel of writing different lengths of fiction. She said that novels are like a good marriage. Everything in a novel is rich, developed, and complex (i.e. characters, plot, subplots, etc.). In writing a novel, you have the leisure of deep exploration. By comparison, she said the novella is like ‘the one who got away’, enticing, sensual, complicated, but yet somehow elusive. In writing a novella, you have some time to develop a substantial subplot and a few characters, but you still will leave some things implied. And, flash fiction, by comparison is like a one night stand– don’t ask too many questions, just make it good while you’re there.

I’m not sure I completely agree with that frame, but short fiction definitely demands a type of narrative velocity and compression that distinguishes it from its longer cousins. You’re looking to plunge a reader into a situation very quickly. Last year, I took two exceptional semester long classes on the short form. One was with Ruth Moose and the other with Melissa Delbridge. Most of my short fiction that is finding its way into publication came out of working with them.

I got a prompt in Ruth’s class to write about someone in a workplace. She gave this prompt after we analyzed John Updike’s famous “A&P” story. I took this in two very different directions. One story I wrote called “Urban Wendy” is a speculative one about a girl who leaves one fast food chain for another and strange things ensue:

Urban Wendy

Marisol pulls another strand of red hair from a perfectly glazed Dunkin’ Donut, holds it up and looks at the stray bits of delicate pink icing clinging to the hair. Marisol reminds herself that her other team members working this shift don’t have red hair, nor does anyone else working here. Wendy is here.

#

When Marisol announced she was leaving Wendy’s to work at Dunkin’ Donuts, two weeks ago, her co-workers warned her.

“Expect a visit from Wendy,” they said. Marisol looked at the goofy-looking freckled girl on the napkins she had handed out so many times to snot-nosed kids, harried mothers and dope addicts.

“She doesn’t like it when we leave without warning,” one of them whispered.

“You gotta to be kidding me. I’ll tell her a thing or two,” Marisol said. She filed their concerns of Wendy the phantom stalker, under ‘another urban legend’ and said good bye to the drab brown uniform, the never ending work of keeping the salad bar clean and organized, and sought her fortune among coffee and donuts.

Marisol’s first week away from Wendy’s had been peaceful at Dunkin’ Donuts. No dreams, no nightmares, no prognostications from any cartoon characters with red hair. By the second week Marisol fielded daily complaints about bad donut batches, curdled creamer, and mixed up orders.

Urban Wendy won a prize in the Carolina Woman Writing Contest last year. You can read the full story here.

I also wrote a story about a teenage boy who is coerced to deal drugs through his father’s limousine service. Here is an excerpt from ‘”Invisible Son” recently published in the anthology Flying South.

                                                                                                                                                                     Invisible Son

“No one suspects you’re a dealer when you’re in a limo,” Brian said to Cara, his school’s social worker. When he talks with her, Brian feels time slow down, melt, and thicken, allowing him to think, and recently that had loosened his tongue. She appears now in his mind’s eye for a moment– a brown giantess, who wears spectacularly large gold hoop earrings, loud orange vests, and sometimes even a jumpsuit. She looks kind of hip for an old black lady, especially when she wears combat boots. Not like the others over the years.

Now, he closes his eyes for a moment and leans against the leather headrest that fits him perfectly, letting the music of Marvin Gaye reach through him. His dad’s favorite. He likes it, too.

“Three stops.” His father turns down the music.

Brian nods. They’ve already done five stops (three girls’ night out trips, and two anniversaries), all legit rides and when Brian looks out the window, he sees late night, the stars are out.

He has his father’s mop of dark blonde hair and at fifteen is almost as tall as him. His dad is bulky, he fills out a suit; Brian is wiry, he can live on protein shakes like his dad, lift weights constantly and maybe gain two pounds.

When did you start working with your father?

Since I was twelve, after mom died he wants to say out loud, but swallows instead. Stupid, you’re letting her creep in. He wants the social worker’s voice to be quiet. Cara’s not here with him in the night.

First Stop

The Lincoln Mega stretch limo eases to a stop behind a row of apartment buildings. A man emerges from the shadows. His father makes the tinted passenger side window slide slow, just enough so it’s level with Brian’s eyes. Dad looks out for me just fine. Brian reaches down and carefully peels away a small white packet that’s taped behind his belt buckle. He knows his father’s right hand rests on a Glock 17, but there won’t be trouble here.

 

“Invisible Son” was heavily inspired by the brilliant short story, “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem” that appears in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s collection of short stories, American Salvage. In this story, a husband is considering his options in dealing with his wife and mother of his child who also happens to be a hard core meth addict. The sections are titled “Solution #1, Solution #2, etc., through to Solution #7. The solutions get progressively more desperate. Gripping.

All fiction requires a good hook, but flash fiction survives on it. In writing short fiction, I’ve worked a lot on my my beginnings and its made me attentive to beginnings in my longer works, too. Here is a great post about how to write arresting flash fiction openings by Cathy Colbron called “Top Five List: Unlike a Pickup Line, A Good Opener in Flash Fiction is Perfectly Acceptable.”

So, where to submit? The good news is that there are plenty of magazines and contests that accept short fiction. Here are a few to look into:

Prime Number Magazine (accepts flash fiction and longer work, plus they sponsor the monthly ’53 Word’ Contest). They are published by Press 53, a small press making a big impact in the literary scene.

Gemini Magazine-frequent flash and short fiction contests

WOW-Women on Writing (quarterly contest 250-750 words; and they only allow 300 people to enter each contest)

Potomac Review (up to 5,000 words)

The Pinch Literary Journal (they have a reading period and accepts fiction manuscripts up to 5,000 words)

A great list by Becky Tuch on where to submit flash fiction: http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/flash-fiction-list-resources

Michael Alexander Chaney’s got a great list of markets seeking ultra short fiction.

 

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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