Here are three quick tips on dialogue. No comments on my stellar acting, please! If you can’t watch this video, try this:
If you have any writing block tips, add them below! I love to hear from you.
Who knew this medium could help you revise and memorize? First you have to find a poem that fits easily into 60 seconds. It can’t be much more than 20 lines, because you need to speak slowly if you want people to really absorb it. Normal speaking rate for public speaking is about 150 words a minute. For poetry, I’d go slower. You have to do so many takes that it forces you to learn the lines and to make better decisions about how to say them. Add a little music, flip the camera around to record something besides your face once in a while, and voila!
If you’ve been writing for a while, you already know what flash fiction is, but if you’re somewhat new to writing, you may not have heard of this liberating form. Man, are you gonna love it! My students do!
Flash fiction is very short fiction – between 50-750 words, and it goes by a few different names, micro-fiction and short-shorts. It embraces extreme compression and is a literary hybrid between a short story and poem. It tends to bend, explode and reinvent genres and most writing rules. As H.K Hummel and Stepnanie Lenox say in Short-Form Creative Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, it is “trangressive” by nature. Traditional story elements found in longer stories, such as complex character development and a series of reversals of fortune, don’t always apply to flash. Nevertheless, they have an internal logic that makes them tick, and when you miss that logic, they fall flat.
One of the reasons I love the form so much is that it forces you to put every word under the microscope to see if it’s really needed. A few years of writing and grading flash fiction has made me much more confident about editing longer works, including novels.
A great online journal to explore the form is Wigleaf (linked here). Every year, they pick fifty very short stories they consider the best of year (one of mine was picked in 2015).
Usually, the trick is to write about the last few seconds of an event, as Joanne Avallon does in “All This,” a copy of which can be found at this link, also anthologized in the text above, published by Bloomsbury. This story provides us with the anatomy of a moment’s revelation when a woman’s three-year-old bites her and she slaps the child. Between the hand drawing back and the hand hitting the child, so much happens, and yet the whole thing is only 244 words — less than a page.
The most common mistake students make when attempting flash is to try to cram too much into the short form, resulting in bland summary. Nevertheless, it can be done if you use the fable form, as we see in the story “Row” by Charmaine Wilkerson, available here, about how a civilization responds to climate change. The story is only 100 words. The reason it works is that it uses third person plural, in which the people go from minor to major denial, and it uses just the right amount of concise detail: they “eat cactus and fried lizards” and they “tie their rowboats to the higher branches.”
Another exciting thing about the form is that experimentation appears to be inherent. Lydia Davis, who said she could never master the conventional short story form, found liberation in flash fiction. All those things you’ve written in which you can’t quite identify the problem — or don’t quite know how to turn into a short story– turn out to be great flash fiction. A great example of an experimental form is “Three Ways of Saying the Same Thing” by Leonora Desar. It is just what it says it is, three paragraphs, each with their own subtitle, that talk about states of non-being, but which also employ surrealism or fabulsm (also called magic realism), as we see from the first line: “One day my boss was talking to me and I just disappeared.”
So, I hope you enjoy this brief introduction and dip your toes in soon.
People used to tell me I was really a poet, not a fiction writer because I tended to focus more on wording than plot. I disagreed. For one thing, I was afraid of poetry and had always preferred to read stories. Years later, after much writing, reading, and teaching, I’ve learned a lot about plot and character development, and I’m no longer afraid of poetry either, as I explain in this Tiktok video.
I tend to like more accessible poets, but if they’re too accessible, they don’t reverberate- which is one of the best properties of poetry. “Reverberate” is my word for when you keep finding more layers of meaning as you go over it. I liken poetry to a riddle. It’s like playing scrabble or chess. You want it to give you something to unravel, but you don’t want to be totally left out in the cold.
It’s hard to teach poetry, because it’s so darn subjective, but I believe I’ve come up with some good general rules: It should be compressed, it should make leaps of association, it should shift in some way (for example, from inside to out, from past to present, from abstract to concrete), it should make meaningful use of line breaking, it should appeal concretely to the senses, and it should be original. The parameters are broad intentionally.
I have a fondness for Wallace Stevens, even though he can be pretty abstract. I’ve found that it’s easier to understand a poet if you read a lot of their poetry all together, because you start to be able to crack their code. Memorizing poetry is another way to to understand a poem, and it has the added benefit of being good for your brain and making you seem super erudite (not that we need to try, right?
I have a terrible memory, so it took me a while to memorize Wallace Steven’s “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” Making a tiktok out of it was the clincher.
Summing up the meaning in a few sentences does it a disservice, so just take this as a conversation starter. The poem suggests our imagination is a powerful force, as powerful as that thing we call God. Yet sis poems “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and “Of Mere Being,” suggest he was an atheist, so poem seems to be suggesting that i wrapping ourselves in the beauty of poetry and the brilliance of a mind that puts itself to good use makes life worth living.
Sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury said he warms up for writing every morning by reading poetry first. You can tell by the poetic nature of his lines. Many writers write in more than one genre, but this isn’t well known because publishers think pigeonholing us makes us more marketable.
We don’t live to be marketable, and while I wouldn’t mind selling a few thousand copies of Strange Appetites, my book of short stories coming out in September and Blue Woman Burning, the novel coming out in December, I don’t write to be marketable, either. I write to be lifted by that candle Stevens talks about that lights the dark. I aim to blend a good plot with the best aspects of poetry. And my hope is that when you read my work, you too, are warmed by it and find that “being there together is enough.”
The first form of fiction was, arguably, fantasy, what with mythology going back to 4000BCE and the first written fiction, The Epic of Gilgamesh written circa 1200 BCE. Some of the first English fiction were also fantasy, such as Le Morte d’Arthur written c. 1470. Yet fantasy not still not considered “literary” merely because it’s fantasy.
Somewhere in the mid 1800’s, realism took over the halls of academe, and anything which took part in the fantastical was deemed “less than.” This might have been the logical extension of the “age of reason” or the “enlightenment” where science began to supplant religion. Fantasy was kicked to the corner and designated as children’s literature or inferior “genre-fiction” (as if realism itself wasn’t a genre – but the true natural state of literary fiction). Despite this, fantasy and science fiction’s popularity persisted.
Eventually, in the 1960s, the academy begrudgingly allowed some science fiction to be taught, but almost exclusively from male writers, and fantasy was still disdained. While many science fiction and some sci-fi fantasy anthologies are published by textbook publishers, no fantasy anthologies are.
A few years ago, I was attending a session on teaching creative writing at AWP (the Associated Writers and Writing Program conference – one of the largest of its kind in the US). Teachers were saying they routinely forbid their students from writing “genre fiction.” They bewailed the fact that student writers of science fiction and fantasy wanted to spend a lot of time on “world building,” as if this was somehow an inferior pursuit to character building, which is one of the core criteria of literary fiction.
My contention that what makes fiction good or bad literature has nothing to do with genre (including regionalism, romance, westerns, as well as science fiction and fantasy). It has nothing to do with whether or not life is portrayed as “real” or “fantastical.” After all, the tension between what is real and what is unreal is inherent in “real life.” Some good fantastical literature can be recognized by how well it employs that inherent tension, such as the work of Karen Russell an Aimee Bender. I allow my students to write whatever they want to write, and I encourage experimentation, but inevitably, the question arises, what is good literature and how do we steer our students toward it?
I contend that we call a text literary when it meets many, but not necessarily all, of the criteria below:
- It generally puts character before plot.
- When it makes use of characters, the characters are complex. However, not all literary forms utilize complex characters, such as poetry, allegory, fable, and fairytale.
- It has more ideas per page.
- It pushes deeper into the incomprehensible aspects of life.
- It poses life’s deepest questions, and it doesn’t offer easy answers or neat endings.
- It makes us think and wonder.
- It uses language originally and precisely.
- Its structure is inherently congruent with the content.
- It doesn’t resort to clichés, truisms, or stereotypes.
- It reflects the complex, beautiful, ugly, paradoxical, irreconcilable, tragic, absurd, and laughable aspects of life.
This doesn’t mean that all literary fiction need be dense. There’s beauty in a great plot.
But this is not something you should ever think about when writing a rough draft. Save these thoughts for the end of the writing process.
I do not condemn that which some consider mainstream or genre fiction. Having written a few novels, I applaud anyone who makes it to the end with something resembling coherence. It’s hard work. Also, a lot of people don’t like what we, in academe, call “good literature.” It’s often dense, plodding, demanding, esoteric, and downright boring.
All kinds of writing is needed in the world, and each have their place. Some of my students are absolutely besotted by their fantasy, romance, and horror fiction, writing many novels. I would never want to squash that enthusiasm.
Here are some links to what others have said about this: