The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘flash fiction

A week ago, I sold my first microfiction story called, ‘What the Slots Hold’ about Lady Luck. It’s 300 words.

ladyluck

Most of my fiction tends to veer long. It was thrilling, a few years ago, when I started writing longish short stories (i.e. 7,000 words), as before that all my work was 10,000 words or more. It’s much harder to find paying markets for short stories over 7,000 words and novellas. The sweet spot for many publications is between 3,500-5,000 words.

Earlier this year, I discovered Jake Bible’s Writing in Suburbia podcast which I highly recommend. Writing in Suburbia is geared toward pro-writers, but is chock-full of great information for writers at all levels. I say a bit more about the podcast here and also review one of Bible’s novels.

One of the features that he hosts on his website is ‘Friday Night Drabble Party’. Drabble was a new term to me. A drabble is a 100 word story. He writes a new one just about every Friday. I enjoy reading his drabbles and that got me interested in microfiction.

I didn’t believe that I could write a drabble, or rather a good drabble. But, I decided that such a belief was really limiting. What was it based on anyway? I had never even tried to write a compressed story. So this spring, I challenged myself to write several drabbles a week for fun. I read a lot of micro and flash fiction and got very inspired. I got into a rhythm with writing drabbles and thought some of them were good enough to submit. I submitted several and then recently wrote “What the Slots Hold”.

It’s being published by the editor Matthew Wayne Selznick, creator of Thing Magazine. This literary magazine pays writers and publishes microfiction, poetry and creative nonfiction. The magazine is delivered via email. So, I’d love it if you’d consider subscribing soon for the upcoming issue released on Tuesday (the issue that my story will appear in), and also support this new little magazine. It’s free to sign up (and you can always cancel, if you don’t like it)!

What’s in it for you? One: You’ll discover some writers whose work you may love. Two: It’s a paying market, and if you’re a writer, you’ll get a feel for what Matthew is looking for. Three: Reading this issue may inspire you to take a look at some of the longer pieces you’ve written and see if there is a microfiction (or nonfiction) nugget that is just waiting to be discovered, polished and submitted to Thing or other markets. There are numerous markets that are looking to purchase flash and microfiction.

signup here: Thing Magazine

I’m grateful that I got introduced to drabbles through Jake Bible’s podcast and website. I never thought I could write microfiction, but I worked on that self-limiting belief and here we are! I hope you are busting through some of your self-limiting writing beliefs, too. Because really, what are they based on anyway? Fear, lack of experience, habit? Breaking through a self-limiting belief tends to reward us with more confidence and possibility.

Image Credit

Affirmations-366Days#187: In my writing, I play with length by crafting everything from flash fiction to book-length work.

For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.

 

For many years I kept a dream journal and consistently recorded my dreams. I did this mostly for personal interest, but also to build a creative repository. My diligence, over the years, in keeping up a dream journal has waned. My dreams are only sporadically recorded and rarely do I mine them for creative ideas. Even rarer still is the occasion that I use a specific image from a dream in a story.

Two years ago, however, I had a dream that was pretty disturbing. I was in a forest and in it stood a gigantic meat grinder. And, all sorts of fantastical characters were being thrown in. Many Disney characters. I don’t know who or what was operating it. Think body parts everywhere. Gruesome, I know. I woke up and immediately recorded this dream in my journal. For the past two years, I could not get this image out of my head. Why and how did my psyche throw together meat grinding and Disney?

There is a wonderful book by Naomi Epel called Writers Dreaming that features prominent writers discussing the intersections between their dream life and their creative life. Steven King, in his interview, likens most dreams to a kind of “mental or spiritual flatulence”, a pressure relieving mechanism that helps process the mundane aspects of life. But, he also likens some dreams to big underwater fish that we rarely see:

 

fish

“…if you go down real deep, you see all these bright fluorescent, weird, strange things with membranous umbrellas and weird skirts that flare out from their bodies. Those are the creatures that we don’t see very often because they explode if we bring them up too close to the surface. They are to surface fish what dreams are to our surface thoughts. Deep fish are like dreams of surface fish. They change shape, they change form. There are dreams and there are deep dreams.”

King also notes only a few instances where he was able to use a dream image unaltered in a story. My ‘meat grinder dream’ didn’t leave me alone. I wanted to find a way to write about it.

I’m happy to say with a little trial and error, I did find a way. The poem and flash fiction pieces that I wrote were like nothing else I had ever written before. It’s dark and creepy. Every time I wrote a draft, I felt like I was walking back into the eerie nature of the dream. My flash fiction/prose poem piece ‘Grinding Disney #2’ was just announced as placing in the 2014 Science Fiction Poetry Association Contest under the ‘Long form’. I bet you didn’t know there was an association devoted to studying and promoting science fiction poetry. Neither did I until recently and I love what they do. They are interested in “poetry with some element of speculation—usually science fiction, fantasy, or horror, though some include surrealism, some straight science.” It was founded by one of my favorite writers, Suzette Haden Elgin. SFPA “holds an annual open contest, and yearly awards for speculative poetry: the Rhysling Awards for individual poems, the Dwarf Stars Award for short-short poems, and the Elgin Awards (new in 2013) for genre poetry books and chapbooks, named for the SFPA founder.”

Poet and editor Kenji Liu was the judge and I am thrilled to be in the company of such amazing poets.

Here is a tidbit of my poem:

I have a meat grinder and I have brought it to this forest. Invitations were sent and as the light fades, I see them twirl in, oblivious to danger. Leading the way is the fairest of them all (why doesn’t she use sunscreen nowadays?), the one who keeps losing her shoe, the one who went from mermaid to human and the rest of the princesses and common girls assemble.

Read the rest of my poem and all the amazing winning poems here.

I hope a dream or two of yours will bring up some deep fish.

 

Photo: The ‘sarcastic fringehead’ from jwz.org.

 

 

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.

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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.

 

I haven’t been able to take a writing workshop in some time, so I was looking forward to taking a ‘flash fiction’ class from acclaimed poet and short story enthusiast, Ruth Moose. I am still doing daily writing and am moving various projects forward, but there is a deliciousness and spontaneity that comes with creating fresh writing in a workshop. Until the last few years, I didn’t even believe that I could write flash fiction or short fiction. Every time I tried to write a short story, it would come out as a novella. After a semester long class with Ruth and exploring the form of short stories, I started to understand the demands of the short form. I also started voraciously reading short fiction. One time Ruth described the short story as having the length and character of a lovely dinner party. I understood then that one of my problems was that in many of my stories the characters were staying much longer and making it a sleep over party!

The workshop last week was so invigorating. We explored a variety of short fiction that ranged in style and content. We read T. Coraghessan Boyle’s ‘The Hit Man’ that chronicles the life of a hit man in episodic moments. It is both abstract (the hit man is always described with a black bag over his head), yet chilling. The piece below is an excerpt:

Excerpt:

Father’s Death

At breakfast the Hit Man slaps the cornflakes from his father’s bowl. Then wastes him.

Mother’s Death

The Hit man is in his early twenties. He shoots pool, lifts weights and drinks milk from the carton. His mother is in the hospital, dying of cancer or heart disease. The priest wears black. So does the Hit Man.

Sylvia Mullen Tohill’s ‘The Unfaithful Wife’* is about a woman who slyly undresses from her pajamas each night while her husband sleeps. This is her first paragraph:

Under the covers, she sometimes slipped out of her pajamas and slept nude beside her husband. She waited until he was snoring, then eased out of the bottoms—one leg, then the other—slipped an arm out of one sleeve, the other sleeve, then a time of listening before she lifted the top over her head and slid both garments under her pillows.

In the stories, we looked for where things turned and in short fiction, that moment is usually well delineated. We also noted that many times the main characters aren’t named.

We also read Jamaica Kincaid’s well anthologized ‘Girl’ and Carolyn Foushee’s ‘The Colonel’.

Ruth said that she loves the short form because of its complexity and yet accessible nature. She also loves it because there is currently a strong market for micro fiction, flash fiction and very short stories (100-1,000 words). Although short fiction requires a beginning, middle and end, I find that it is possible to leave some questions lingering and resonating then having everything perfectly wrapped up. I now enjoy writing short fiction and writing more of it has also allowed me to enter contests and get my work published.

Here are some writing exercises to try; try to keep these in the 200-750 word range:

-Write a short piece that is based on giving advice. In Kincaid’s ‘Girl’, the narrator is a young girl who hears her mother’s voice in her her head interspersing sexual advice with everyday ‘ladylike’ ways of being in the world:

Excerpt: this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile at someone you like completely

-Write a short piece about someone who comes close to telling an important truth, but stops

-Write a short piece about a couple standing in front of a door about to go into a party who begin to argue

-Write a short piece about a character standing in someone’s home and being troubled by what they notice displayed on their friend’s refrigerator

Limiting beliefs are often so hidden from our everyday awareness they feel more like inner immutable truths.

We all have a list of things we “know” we can’t do. It’s good to periodically examine a limiting belief and see if we can’t prove ourselves wrong and have fun while doing it.

For a long time, I believed that I couldn’t write short fiction, especially flash fiction. Flash fiction is a complete story that runs about 500 to 2,000 words. In a short number of words, flash fiction has to serve up all the traditional elements of fiction: interesting characters, a sensible plot, an engaging conflict, a setting and a resolution.

That’s a tall order. E-readers and shrinking attention spans have created a renaissance and hunger for high-quality short fiction.

I had good reason to believe that I couldn’t do it. I had never done it before.

As an academic writer, I’ve spent most of my time producing research and long scholarly books. As a creative writer, I’ve spent more than a decade of my time reading and analyzing novels, learning the craft of novel writing and working on a sprawling 800-page novel. The few times that I tried to write short fiction, I instead cranked out a novella (about 50,000 words).

Case closed, right?

After getting feedback from an editor at a small press that he liked my longer pieces, but wanted to see if I had short fiction, I was forced to confront my limiting belief. If I wanted to develop a relationship with this editor (always a good thing), it meant I’d actually have to create some short fiction. Also strategically, a publisher is more likely to take a chance on a new novelist if the writer has a lot of short fiction published, or a collection of short stories.

After a few moments of white-knuckled panic and some reflection, I realized that I had selectively chosen bits of evidence to support my belief and excluded others. In college, I was a dual major in political studies and creative writing. In my writing classes, I wrote tons of short fiction. I had totally discounted all that early writing. Our psyches are pretty clever, huh?

Scratching a bit deeper, I also knew that a fear of writing badly, in this genre, and hence rejection also had propped up my belief. Fear of the unknown keeps most people from attempting new things. It is very hard to “fail” in public. Matthew Fox, Episcopal priest and author of “Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet” says when we stop trying new things for fear of looking bad, we can suffer from a type of rigid “adultism.”

Although my writing teacher Marjorie Hudson (author of “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas”) encourages her students to think of claiming over 100 rejections as a path to mastery in the writing life, the thought of piling up more rejection letters didn’t make me feel wildly creative and rush to the computer.

However, once that memory from college surfaced and challenged my long-held belief, I took the next step.

I gave myself permission to try a new activity. I enrolled in writing classes devoted to flash fiction, read the New Yorker and subscribed to several literary journals. And, I wrote a lot of bad short fiction. I played and learned. I kept in mind the metaphor about short fiction that I learned from Ruth Moose, recently retired and beloved teacher of creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, it’s like a well-paced dinner party. I stopped trying to get my characters to sleep over.

Although I’m light-years away from mastering the short form, I’ve gained an appreciation for flash fiction and hope to write more. This month, I saw my piece “Urban Wendy” published in Carolina Woman magazine. It won a prize in their annual spring writing contest.

Changing self-limiting beliefs requires a willingness to puncture the skin of deeply-held beliefs. It requires giving one’s self permission to take the next logical action. And, it also requires a recognition and tolerance for doing something badly or even face rejection.

Crime writer Elmore Leonard’s experience with rejection is instructive: 84 editors rejected his first novel before it was finally published as a paperback original – 84! In 1982, after selling 23 novels, the thriller “Stick” became a bestseller.

This piece originally appeared as a ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News on 7/22/2013

New-Year-hug-club-clip-art-335

You never know what’s in you until you start writing. I never thought I could write flash fiction. All my previous attempts at writing short stories resulted in novellas. But, over the past year and half, I have intensely studied the form. Last fall and early this year, I signed up for classes on writing short fiction.

Ironically, my two recent fiction publications are flash fiction. One of these two stories, ‘Family Line’ , was published last year by Ink Monkey Press.

And, now Carolina Woman magazine has just published ‘Urban Wendy’. This story took the third prize in their spring contest. And, as if I needed any more encouragement from the universe to keep writing, I got it-the prize I won was a year long membership to The North Carolina Writers’ Network. The NCWN is a fantastic organization that supports writers in all stages of development. They sponsor residencies, an annual fall and spring conference, and events around the state. I am always promoting NCWN to newbie writers (so much so, they sometimes think I have a financial stake in the organization–I don’t. I just love the services they provide). I’ve been a member for years and I am thrilled that another year’s membership is my prize .

12222009-winner-rubber-stamp

You can read ‘Urban Wendy’ here as well as see the other winners (I’m in honored to be in such great company). In the magazine, they put together a perfect selection of pictures to go with the story. Full disclosure–I worked at a Wendy’s in Spanish Harlem when I was sixteen, and at a Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk in the Times Square Terminal when I was seventeen, and I have always loved the notion of urban legends. Enjoy!

 

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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