Sunday, January 31, 2010

Flash Fiction February


Well, I get to kick off Flash Fiction February.  First things first: enter the Flash Fiction contest.  BIG PRIZES and PRESTIGE!  A win will go on your permanent record, although it probably won't land you an agent.  See Joyce's post immediately preceeding (SCROLL DOWN) this one for details.   WAIT!  Don't click the link yet, finish reading, then go back. 

We're hoping this is a very interactive and fun month.  Short month, short stories. So what’s the big deal?  I think most people believe that writing a short story is easy, or at least easier than writing a full blown novel.  Personally, I don’t think so.

When my aunt encouraged me to try writing, she meant I should write a short story, not a novel.  I didn't listen.  The first thing I wrote was a novel of 105,000 words.  That became A Reason For Dying.  My second manuscript is currently at 110,000 words.  While I was writing my first novel, I took an advanced fiction class put on by the University of Missouri’s MFA Program.  The entire class was dedicated to short stories.  About halfway through the class we were given an assignment to write an original short story.  Of course, it had to have a clear beginning, middle and end.  It had to be no more than 2,500 words.  Since the novel I was writing about was about a natural viral outbreak that was mistaken for an act of terrorism, I decided to write a story about the hopelessness of the Spanish Flu Pandemic. In Flew Enza was the title. 

The first draft was over 4,000 words.  After some serious cuts I pared it down to 3,200.  I went back gutted it down to 2,800 words and that was it.  I couldn’t take it down any further.  Or so I thought.  

That’s when I really learned about economy of words, that in a short story, every word counts. If a word can serve double duty, well it would have to take on the extra work.  Your adjectives and verbs need to be especially powerful.  Here are a few really bad examples.

A man leaves a bar.  Well, you could say:

He sipped the last of the cognac, flipped a twenty to the valet and slid behind the wheel of the Mercedes. 


He crushed the empty beer can against his forehead and stumbled across the parking lot to his rusty Chevy.

Basically the same action, but you’ve said volumes about the characters without going into details.  Each picture you gain from reading the sentence is completely different. 

In a novel you have the luxury to devote a chapter to show (not tell) the reader how stressed your character is.  In a short story that chapter can be replaced by:  She popped her last Valium and flushed it down her throat with the last of the whiskey.
Okay, that’s an extreme case, but I hope you get the point.

Anybody who has written a manuscript and prepared a query knows how difficult writing short concise stories can be.  Try taking a 105,000 word, high concept thriller and distill it down to a 5 page synopsis.  Then, concentrate it down to 2 pages.  Then one.  And finally, write 2 or 3 paragraphs that would go on the back jacket.  Oh, and try doing all that in the same writing style you used in the novel.  It’s some of the hardest writing you’ll ever do.  If it’s easy for you, you are insanely talented and I'm insanely jealous.

It is merely my opinion, but I think in the age of the Kindle, e-Reader, and now the iPad, short fiction could become popular again.  Priced similar to a song on iTunes, a digital short story is cheap, an easy read and in our fast paced lives, can be read in one sitting. 

I hope you enjoy this month and I really hope you give our little flash fiction challenge a go.  Flash fiction puts you to the extreme test and I’m putting up a signed copy of A Reason For Dying to the reader story I like best.

And just maybe, some special guests will stop by and post a flash fiction piece of their own.

So, what do you think?  Is it harder to write a good short story or a novel?

This just in.  Speaking of Short Fiction February, The Kill Zone members, a group of great authors and equally great people has released an anthology of short stories in ebook format callled Fresh Kills.  They are talking about it on their blog this week.  You might go visit them.


Gina said...

Whether short or long is easier depends upon the story. That said, I confess that the first book-length manuscript I completed started as a short story. When I got to page 24 and still hadn't introduced two of the three main characters, I knew it had to be a novel!

Jemi Fraser said...

I prefer writing longer works. I've intended to try a few pieces of flash for contests by friends, but I just can't seem to get an idea that would fit in that space - I'll keep trying :)

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Gina, it's very difficult to come up with a snippit that is an interesting complete story and then more so to tell it econmically.

Jemi, here's hoping our little contest is enough to give flash fiction a try again.

Joyce said...

Great explanation and examples, Will!

I'm in the "it depends" camp. I haven't written all that many shorts, but all of them are under 1000 words. I write very sparse anyway--I always have to go back and add more description in the novels--so I like a medium where I don't have to do that. There are many stories, however, that just can't be told in a few pages.

Jemi, here's a hint for writing flash fiction. Don't try and come up with an idea. Come up with a first sentence instead and build the story from that (like the first sentence for our contest). Or find an interesting photo--many times this will prompt a beginning.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Joyce, you're right, both the concept and the writing have to fit the format. If you force it, it will show.

Jennie Bentley said...

I still haven't forgiven you for making me do this, Freddy!

(Although I did it. And I think my 200 word story has the potential to turn into a full blown novel...)

Wilfred Bereswill said...

See Jennie. I want a percentage of the profits.

ramona said...

I will reverse what Gina said about the short story that was really a novel. If you get to page 100 of your novel and you find yourself struggling with how to flesh it out or add secondary story lines, it might very well be that your idea is really a short story.

I have a 154 word story that I have read aloud a couple of times at open mics. The audience usually loves it because, after listening to readers who don't know when to stop, with 154 words, I'm up, I'm down, and it's a welcome change.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Ramona, I used to frequent an open mic night put on my my local writer's guild. I know exactly what you mean.

Patg said...

I like flash fiction, 100 words, better--50. The best I've read simply allows you to visualize a scene where there is action taking place. You have to make it the most important moment and the action the most telling. Ideas lead to short stories and novels, and are not for flash.
Good luck everybody.