Writing Flash Fiction – The Science of the Microshort

USAR Captain (Ret.) Yancy Caruthers and I have been best friends for more than 30 years, and in that time, he has given me more good advice and encouragement than probably any human being has a right.  I am proud to say he has agreed to guest blog for you and I today at Scene Clearly about his techniques and success in writing flash fiction.  Look for his stories in such online pubications as Ascent Aspirations coming in 2013.

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 Flash fiction, or short-shorts, have nothing to do with Daisy Duke (Catherine Bach, not Jessica Simpson), although they certainly could.  They are defined as stories with less than 1,000 words, and are increasingly popular with online venues.  Some forums ask for even less.  Like Daisy's shorts, shorter is better.

 As our collective attention span wanes, (Oh look…a squirrel!)

 What was I saying?

 Get to the point, blogger.

That’s it, thanks for reminding me.  Back in the days of high-school research papers, a required length was the enemy – it need only be exceeded, and all was well.  It was easier to write a three-page paper than a six-pager.  The use of maximum verbosity and superfluous words was encouraged by the format, so the idea was to cram in as much unnecessary crap as possible.  Never use a big word when a diminutive one will suffice.

Writing flash fiction has the same enemy, except the author is on the other side of it.
To make my point, there are 150 words preceding this paragraph.  If the venue has a maximum of 500 words, then the show is 30% done, and I have barely defined my topic!

For this reason, short-shorts are usually limited to a single scene.  There might be two characters, but certainly no more than three, and the reader can’t know them.  As a writer of short-shorts, you have a choice between setting the scene and rounding out the character.  Do too much of either, and you are toast.

Oh wait, a plot.  Excessive exposition is strictly off-limits, and more than a few lines of dialogue is also a no-go, so better start with action on the part of the characters.  You don’t have time to build fear, the reader has to start out afraid.  In the first line of the story, the psychopath is RIGHT BEHIND YOU.  The intruder has to already BE in the house.  The smoke is ALREADY coming under the door. 

Consider this opening line:

Steve jerked his hand from the doorknob as it burned his hand.

What does the reader know?  Well, I'm pleased to meet you, Steve, but we don't have time for introductions, nor do I really care what you ate for breakfast or that you just broke up with your girlfriend last week.  Your building is on fire, and leaving by the front door is not going to work.  You better do something fast or it's goodbye, Steve.

He pulled the last of his towels from the arm of his wheelchair and began rolling it.

The reader isn't stupid, we know what Steve will do with the rolled-up towel, so there is no need to say it.   We've also got a good idea that our hero won't be taking the stairs.  In two short sentences, we know a lot about Steve and his current situation, and man, is he screwed, or what? 

Of course what follows will be what Steve does, and how his fear builds.

Three quarters to your word limit, and you should go back and eliminate the unnecessary, to make room for the ending.  Here’s an example:

Todd wasn’t sure if Karen was awake or not, but surely she was.  He made a soft “shhh” and slowly pulled back the covers.  The scratching sound they made when he did so was deafening, in spite of his efforts. 

It makes the point.  But consider this:

Todd wondered if Karen slept. "Shh," he whispered just in case and eased back the covers that despite his effort scratched loudly, like sandpaper.

Both paragraphs say the same thing.  The first in 40 words, the second in 24.

So what would possess an author to write flash fiction?

That’s easy, it’s fast.  It’s so fast that you can’t get married to it.  Instead of carefully cultivating that final version, you can easily manage two or three alternate endings – in fact, with a few changes, that scenario can result in more than one completed story. If you hate it, write it anyway, and change it later.

It's so fast, in fact, that one can scribble a few notes before bedtime, and draft a piece the next morning.  With a few revisions, it can be headed to an editor before the sunset.

In the end, that’s why I write short-shorts.  I wanted to finish something, and the three-page paper was still more alluring than the six-page one.

Little did I know.

Yancy's Work:

Short stories:

Related Scene Clearly Post:

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Special Effect

Nothing I've ever written has come within a parsec of making $89 million. This number incidentally is the (as of this writing) worldwide box office of the 2011 movie Sucker Punch, of which I am about to break that rule of "If you can't say something nice . . ."

So, I probably should keep my fingers off the keyboard concerning this matter.  It ain't gonna happen, though.  Sorry. 

The point I want to make is that it is easy, especially for new writers, to mistake special effects for elements that move the story forward. Generally, they do not advance the plot. They are attention-grabbers.  Shock value.  Spice, but not story.  I think it was either Wes Craven or John Carpenter, when comparing the emotional involvement required to create horror as opposed to simple on-screen scares ("Boo!"), said he could produce the same effect by showing the audience blank celluloid and somewhere in the middle have the film pop!  The same thing happens in movies or books where the writer tries to stuff ten pounds of special effects into a one-pound sack.

Films like Friday the 13th no longer have the ability to scare the average movie goer.  Creating an assembly line of "That's cool!" moments does not work for long if the writer failed to give us characters and themes to care about. Eventually it pushes us past horror and disgust to the point that it just becomes funny.  Next to indifference, unintentional laughter is just about the worst response a writer can receive to his or her story.

Explosions in space, ray guns, car chases, profanity, sex, etc. are all the same when pasted into the works gratuitously.  The story goes out of its way to give the reason for the characters to fist-fight, swear, or get nekkid. Pretty flashing lights get boring after a while, and 300 pages is a long while.

To belabor this point, I am going to rehash a review I wrote a little over a year ago of Sucker Punch. . . .

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My wife's and my entertainment choices rarely agree.  For example, she refers to my library as "That crap you read."  It's gotten to the point that I can begin a sentence with, "I like..." and she instinctively shouts, "Crap!"

"But it's--"


"No, I'm talking about--"


"Will you listen to me?"

"Crap, crap, crap. Crap. Crap-crap-crap-crap!"





"Tonya likes--"

"Good stuff!"  Then she smiles. 

Okay.  Okay. I admit I occasionally watch movies that ... um ...  Well, if The Shawshank Redemption is an A movie and Godzilla Versus the Bongo Monster is a B movie, then these would land somewhere around W. 

When I first saw the trailer for Sucker Punch, I was extremely underwhelmed.  I strained at least a dozen brain cells wondering whether somebody unintentionally made a live-action Powerpuff Girls movie.  A few days before the home video release, I saw new trailers.  In these, this pigtailed blonde in a half ninja, half school girl outfit was whipping around a Samurai sword, dodging bullets, and jumping in slow motion.  Part of my brain -- the part that later I inevitably refer to as Temporary Stupidity -- took note of the ka-pows! and shings! and booms!  and made me say, "You know, that kind of looks cool."

And so while everybody else in the world was going to opening night of Harry Potter, I rented Sucker Punch

The box claimed it was only 110 minutes long.  I'm pretty sure this was in dog years, though.  The story proved a little bit hard to follow, assuming you measure your "little bits" by the metric ton.  I will do my best to recap.

It's a dancin' movie, like Footloose.  But nobody really dances and I suspect Kevin Bacon would have filed for a restraining order if the movie ever wandered within six degrees of separation from him.  Oh sure, every once in a while, Sweet Pea wiggles just a little bit (remember "little bits" are relative here) but it never actually reaches the exuberance of, say, sleepwalking.  But that doesn't matter, because as soon as there is even the slightest chance someone might Vogue, we fly into an extreme close-up of Sweet Pea's eyelashes, which are each just about the same size as the average feather duster.  The angle rotates  to an extreme close-up of her temple, her ear, her blonde pigtail, and the back of her head, where we stop and experience two magical realizations:  we have traveled Somewhere Else, and we are about to begin a mind-boggingly implausible fight scene.

Don't get me wrong, I like to watch an itty bitty Powerpuff Girl slice and dice a 30-feet-tall demon samurai just as much as the next guy.  All the fight scenes are cool.  It would have helped however if they all belonged in the same movie.  Because the next time we get a close-up of her eyelashes we end up on a train shattering shiny robots or in the air popping WWII Zeppelins.

There's Nazis.

And there's steampunk.

And there's robots.

And there's steampunk robot Nazis.

Then, when it's all over and we zoom out from her eyelashes, we're back in the theater and everybody is clapping and telling Sweet Pea what a dancin' prodigy she is.

Oh, and the dancers might be hookers (well, actually love slaves), or they might be patients in a big ole Dr. Frankenstein insane asylum.  The bad guy might be a sleazy wealthy thug packing a tommy gun or he might be sleazy nurse with a key around his neck.  And, the songs are really cool, but they may just be part of the lobotomy.

Either way, my brain hurts.

After the 110 minutes in dog years was over, I realized that the only reason I began watching Sucker Punch was because I was younger and more impressionable then.  I brought the movie back into the living room and set it on top of the These Go Back Tomorrow pile.  

"It was crap, wasn't it?" my wife snickered.

"It was a dancin' movie," I said. "Where everybody was kung fu fighting."

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If you'll remind me, one of these days, I'll talk about how to use special effects . . . well, effectively.  

Literary Agent

Somebody famous said it.  I'm sure of it.  I think it was a guy, and I'm pretty sure he was a writer. 
          He(?) said, "Don't get an agent until you are making enough to afford a good one, because 10% of nothing is nothing."

          Essentially, a literary agent's job is to say, "Okay, you write.  I'll distract 'em!"  Agents act as a buffer between you and those publishers seemingly  compelled to say "No!" to any question asked them.  They sniff out Mr. Grinch clauses from contracts.  They are marketing managers. They walk into your life to handle the business side of writing after you have become so successful you no longer have time to write and sell.  You need one when the percentage of his commission from your sales is big enough to snag his attention and when your schedule demands outweighs the expense.
          You don't need one for short stories. 
          You don't need one for a first novel.
          You don't need one to get your book on the Amazon Kindle Store.


          Picking an agent ranks somewhere around the difficulty level of teaching cats to whistle.  Otherwise reputable resources swell with the names of No-License-Required professionals promising that with minimal effort you'll quit your day job and be a millionaire and fart nothing but rainbows and roses.  So, the first disadvantage is that you can easily get scammed.
          Even if they are legitimate, no agent can guarantee you will get a book deal.  Your manuscript being on the right desk at the right time still dominates all other factors, including your talent.
          Will an agent steal my story?  Maybe.  Probably not, though, especially since the income of the average successful writer places him somewhere below the poverty line.  Being a honest agent probably pays more.
          The good news is that some warning signs exist.  Harlan Ellison said, "Money always flows toward the writer."  If they are asking for any upfront charges, such as a "reading fee" (sometimes polished with the less threatening epithet of "expenses") they probably will do little else than relieve you of that pesky disposable income always lying around.  The same goes for suggesting an editorial service.  Professional agents have enough experience to spot the weaknesses in your book.  They would simply ask you for a rewrite.


          You need an agent.  No other choice.I know, you're probably wondering right now whether I actually read the first few paragraphs of this post.  The truth is most big publishing houses will not accept unagented material.  Editors don't have time to slog through the stacks of manuscripts written by wide-eyed gonna-be writers who have not yet figured out that opening with "It was a dark and stormy night," is not the height of originality.
          Of course, this creates a Catch-22: How do I get published without an agent?  You make noise in the publishing world.  You get accepted by anthologies and magazines (the few remaining) frequently enough your name starts getting remembered.  You submit quality work to Amazon and learn as much as you can about marketing so that your ebook sales get noticed.  Then, you use these events as collateral to approach an agent.
          Agented manuscripts skip the slush pile.  The slush pile is the haystack and your manuscript is the needle.  It is the bottom level of any publishing house where sits the vast stacks of unrepresented submissions, most of which are not yet professional quality.  The slush pile provides the reason most publishers refuse unagented material. For those rarities who still do (or temporarily open for unsolicited work), a junior-level editor slips your manuscript from its 4th-class manila envelope just far enough to read the first paragraph, before immediately tossing it into the recycle bin. If an SASE happens to fall out, the editor will kindly add a "Your material does not meet our needs at this time" to your form letter collection.
          When an agent is involved, you benefit from the fact that your representative might be on a first-name basis with the person directly responsible for getting your material onto store shelves. It is human nature to be more likely to buy from someone we know and trust.  At very least, the editor looks at the contact information and thinks, "Hm, this is one of Shirley's clients. She's a sharpshooter for hitting Amazon sales. Let's see if her newest keeps me turning pages after the first chapter."  If the editor accepts the submission, the agent then helps leverage the quality of your life for the next year -- namely money.
          Chris Rock said that the definition of minimum wage is "I would pay you less but it is against the law." Like any business, publishers exist to make the highest profit possible, not to pay writers more than the value of their product.  An agent negotiates higher advances, movie deals, and generally ensures you are not paid less than the value of your product.
          But long before the talks of royalties and foreign rights, agents help mold you into a better writer.  Their income depends on how good you really are. They have enough experience to know what sells.  They are not your well-meaning spouse or your mother and less likely to gush platitudes like, "Sweetie, you're so talented!" and more likely to say things like, "Um, you know your burly, profanity-spewing homicide detective?  Your target audience is not going to accept him with the name Bubbles."

Finding an Agent

          Landing an agent is a lot like landing a publisher.  Most provide submission guidelines, as to whether they wish to see the entire manuscript or the first three chapters and an outline.  They may prefer not to receive electronic submissions.  Research before sending. 
          Several publications offer good places to start.  Each year Writer's Digest Books publishes the Writer's Market, and Information Today Inc. prints an equally good counterpart, the Literary Marketplace.  Note, however, the copyright of the book as these listings can become dated quickly.
          On the Net, AgentQuery.com aims to be (as stated on their website) " the only one-stop writer’s resource on the web about literary agents and publishing."  They host a database of 900 agents that can be searched by genre or keyword.  Best of all, you do not have to register to search.

          The quest for a literary agent is an exercise in patience.  It is part of the apprenticeship period, providing an opportunity to learn how publishing works as opposed to the popular romantic view of being a writer.  You'll be grateful to be armed with this experience when your time comes.

* UPDATE (12/28/2012):  A kind and observant reader reminded me that not all publishing houses refuse un-agented manuscripts. Small publishers in fact are often quite willing to work directly with the author.  So, thanks for keeping me on my toes Lissa.

UPDATE (05/21/2014):   The advice in this post has become dated.  With the advent of indie publishing, just about everything in the industry is in flux now.  I personally think this is a good thing.  To quote Dean Wesley Smith, who is a hybrid author with 30 years of experience, “Agents are not writers, agents can’t help you rewrite, and they only know about six or seven editors and nothing at all about the new world of indie publishing.”