Starting with a FLASH! by Alex Reece Abbott
And we’re off! First up, flash fiction – for the Sixth International Hysteria Writing Competition, that means two hundred and fifty words with the very loose theme “things of interest to women.”
So, what if you could spend five minutes with an award-winning, flash fiction writer and get her to share her top three tips? And, maybe a proven story generator too?
We did it for you.
To get you going, here’s some pointers in their own words – from six acclaimed, award-winners from around the world, women who write, teach and/or judge flash fiction – big thanks to the stellar flashers Kathy Fish, Kit de Waal, Nuala O’Connor, Nod Ghosh, Meg Pokrass and Zoë Sharp. My own tip? Read their work and learn from them.
And, for further inspiration, check out Fifty Random Sentences or How to Face the Blank Page by Kathy Fish at the end of the post, this is an exercise Kathy uses herself. Yes folks, we promise that this story generator really works – you might even like to try that first, then visit the writing pointers to shape your new story.
So here’s what my cyberkuia (wise women online) around the world had to say…
Three tips for creating standout flash fiction from my perspective as a judge:
- Make sure your title, opening sentence/paragraph, and closing sentence/paragraph are as strong as they can be.
- Show your reader something she has never seen before. Or show her something she has seen before in an entirely new way.
- Evoke powerful emotion. This may be my own bias, but an emotionally compelling story will win out over a simply clever one every time.
Kathy’s stories have been published and anthologized widely, most recently in Yemassee Journal, Newfound Journal, New South, and Best Small Fictions, 2016 (Queen’s Ferry Press). She is the author of four collections: a chapbook in A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (Rose Metal Press, 2008), Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011), Together We Can Bury It (The Lit Pub, 2012) and a co-authored collection with Robert Vaughan, Rift (Unknown Press, 2015). Her story, “Strong Tongue,” was chosen by Amy Hempel for Best Small Fictions, 2017 (Braddock Avenue Books). She teaches flash fiction for the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver and blogs at www.kathy-fish.com and here’s a link to Kathy’s recent flash fiction, The Once Mighty Fergusons.
Here’s my three bullet points:
- Write long and then edit down to the required word count.
- Lose the beginning, lose the end.
- Make sure there is a turn, a movement, an action of momentum, something that propels the reader forward into the story.
Kit writes about forgotten and overlooked places where the best stories are found. Her debut novel, My Name is Leon, a heart-breaking story of love and identity, is a Times and international bestseller and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. Her prize-winning flash fiction and short stories appear in various anthologies. In 2016, she founded the Kit de Waal Scholarship at Birkbeck University.
Here are my flash points:
- A flash is a blink in time, an important one. But the reader needs to feel that there is life beyond the story. Yes, we can see the flash’s edges, but the reader should understand that there was a before and there will be an after. And you, the writer, are judiciously choosing to leave things out and concentrate on a white hot moment in this character’s life, an unrepeatable event.
- Language is crucial in flash. Fashion remarkable sentences. Have words within the story that surprise, sing, sting. Flash is no place for pedestrian prose. Use your thesaurus. Pluck and hoard new words wherever you find them. Read poetry.
- Flash may be evasive, malleable and difficult to pin down as an art form, but that doesn’t mean abstraction (taken to extremes) always works. Be definite and daring with your title (never take titles for granted). Make sure something happens in your flash. Work hard on your endings. You must leave your reader with good intent. With luck, the moment she finishes reading your flash, she will be moved to read it again.
Nuala (AKA Nuala Ní Chonchúir) was born in Dublin, she lives in East Galway. Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter will appear from New Island in 2017. Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. Miss Emily was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015 and is currently longlisted for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award. Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, is forthcoming. She is working on her fourth poetry collection.
My Three ‘S’ Hot Tips for Flash Fiction…
- Structure: Think about the beginning, middle and end, even if you don’t present them in that order. How do they relate to each other? Do you need them all? Effective flash can start in the middle. Think about tension. Think about conflict and how much resolution is required. Think about gaps between the elements of your story. When working with a limited word count, you can’t fill all the gaps, but your work should take the reader to the world you create so that they can complete the missing parts. Don’t attempt to cover too many themes. Shifts in point of view should be seamless. Dialogue may help reveal character, or help show rather than tell. Does the title hook the reader in? Re-draft and check prior to submission.
- Sound. Give some consideration to the ‘music‘ of the piece. Think about rhythm, internal rhyme, whether alliteration enhances or detracts. Vary sentence length. Think about whether the ‘voice’ is it consistent with the character(s), even if written in third person. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.
- Setting and imagery. Evoke the senses where this enhances the storytelling. Show a range of human emotions. Research carefully where necessary.
Even fantastical stories need to be plausible. Similes and metaphor should relate to the theme.
A final word: Read examples of good flash (e.g. The Best Small Fictions series, SmokeLong Quarterly). Rules may be broken, provided there is a good reason. Make a story that stays with the reader, and haunts them long after they’ve finished reading it. Here’s a link to my flash fiction, Leaving Chriyat.
Nod’s work features in anthologies: Love on the Road 2015 (Liberties Press), Landmarks (U.K. 2015 NFFD), Horizons 2 (Top of the South NZSA), Leaving the Red Zone (Clerestory Press, N.Z.), and various other publications. Nod is associate editor for Flash Frontier, an Adventure in Short Fiction.
Here’s my pointers – hope they’re helpful:
- The reader needs to understand what your main character (or characters) want. What are his/her motivations? What are his/her obsessions? Every character has something that makes them vulnerable. This is where you’ll find the most potent material. That being said, the writer often doesn’t know what their characters want until it becomes clear in the process of writing the first draft of a story. This is what makes the process of writing so fascinating. Flannery O’Connor, considered one of the greatest short story writers of all time, said it this way: “I write to discover what I know.”
- It is helpful to write by making use of vivid, sensory detail in flash fiction. You’ll get to the heart of the story through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Using your own sense-memory recall is the most effective way to get there. Your memories are your best tools. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov
- Approach conflict head-on, in the very first sentence. You need to grab the reader immediately. In flash, you don’t have much time to earn our trust. No time for exposition. As readers, we begin to care about characters by seeing how they react, what they do and think and say and how they push against problems.
Meg is an American flash fiction writer, poet and writing tutor living in the UK. Her books include flash fiction collections, Bird Envy (2014), Damn Sure Right (Press 53 2011) and The Dog Looks Happy Upsidedown (Etruscan Press 2016) and an award-winning book of prose poetry Cellulose Pajamas (Blue Light Book Award Winner 2015). Among her many other publications, she has a flash-fiction novella and essay on the form in My Very End of the Universe, Five mini-novellas in flash and a Study of the Form published by Rose Metal Press. She judged the 2017 Bath Novella in Flash Award and is curating the inaugural 2017 Bath Flash Fiction Festival.
Here’s my flash fiction tips…
- Be original. Easy to say, hard to do. Look at previous entries and try not to go over the same ground. Approach the theme from a different angle and make the title work as part of the story.
- Make every word count. In flash fiction, like poetry, every word has to justify its existence. Make sure none of them are wasted, particularly not with clichés. Leave out any unnecessary words and trust people to read between the lines.
- Write long, then cut. The scriptwriting advice of ‘get into a scene late, get out of it early’ really fits for flash fiction. You’ve no time for build-up, to set the scene or describe your characters – you’ve really got to hit the ground running.
Zoë is the award-winning author of the Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox crime thriller series, and has been one of the judges for the Flashbang Flash Fiction competition since 2012. Her latest series book, FOX HUNTER, will be published in summer 2017, along with a new standalone, DANCING ON THE GRAVE.
Flash Fiction story generator
This writing tip first appeared in The Lascaux Review
Fifty Random Sentences or How to Face the Blank Page. We’ve all experienced that frozen feeling when faced with the blank page. This is an exercise I have used often and it’s never failed to produce a piece of fiction:
Your goal is to write fifty sentences as quickly as you can. The sentences needn’t be connected in any way. In fact, it’s better if they aren’t. Allow yourself to write whatever comes to mind no matter how weird. You’ll want to number them as you go to keep track. You may start out with a bang, then flounder around sentence #20 or so. Don’t stop. If you have to, go ahead and write a few very simple sentences, like “the car is red” just to keep the words flowing.
When you have finished, go back and read the sentences aloud. Listen for the ones that have the most juice. Where does your voice falter? Which sentences evoke strong emotion? Which ones have their own peculiar beauty? Which demand further investigation? Highlight these.
Now write each good sentence at the top of its own fresh sheet of paper and write new sentences beneath it. You want to follow a line of thought if you can. Move forward into a narrative if it feels right, but don’t force it. Write whatever emerges without judgement. I promise, at some point you’ll feel a sense of urgency that tells you: There’s a story here. Now tell it.
So, enjoy! Two hundred and fifty words before August 31 2017 – you can do it – and we can’t wait to read your stories over at Hysteria.