Flash Fiction Writing Tips from an Editor
Flash fiction has been one of my strong pursuits–I love the idea of coming up with a tiny story, an entire universe in itself, within a page or two. Flash fiction writing exercises your skills at the sentence level like nothing else, because each line, each word must contribute to both form and meaning, in an intense, laser-focused fashion.
As part of my ongoing guest post series in this blog, we heard from Michael Dellert last week. Today, it is my pleasure to welcome the fabulous Tara L. Masih, an editor and an award-winning author, and one of the best people I know to dole out flash fiction writing tips. She speaks about The Best Small Fictions 2015, an anthology she has compiled, guest edited by Robert Olen Butler, another author I’m a huge fan of. Tara has given excellent advice about the writing life, flash fiction writing, and submitting to writing contests. I’ve highlighted some of it for you in blue.
- What are your preoccupations as a writer? Which of your stories would you recommend to a reader who has never read your work? (Could you provide links to your favourite stories online.)
I’m not sure I have preoccupations. I don’t write about one set of issues or one group of people. For me, writing is about discovery. I get excited when I find a topic or get an idea that makes me want to put all else aside and sit down in a chair and write until I have a finished story. And while I write, I discover something new. It comes to me through the voice of the narrator as a natural consequence of the forward action, or it comes through research.
Most longer stories are in print journals or republished in my story collection. Some of my better flash work online is here.
I’d also recommend readers listen to the audio stories I’ve posted on my site. It’ll give them an idea of how I like to write. It’s an auditory thing for me. It has to sound good aloud. There’s also a wonderful short film that Michael Dickes produced and narrated, A Haunt of Memory. The reader can both listen and see the story come to life. I loved hearing my words through his amazing voice.
2. What makes a successful short story?
Many ingredients go into a successful story—plot, narration, details, voice, setting, etc. Every story is different. Every reader takes something different away and feels something unique when they read. But for those stories that are most successful and get read over decades, what they all have in common is they have captured some part of our collective humanity and illuminate it in a way that is new and refreshing. Readers get to the end and feel a sense of fulfillment; they don’t feel the story is unfinished.
3. Other than length, is there a difference between short story and flash fiction writing?
That’s a tricky question. Tricky because there are different forms of flash. For writers who write pretty traditional flash, no, I think length is the only difference, though of course within the body of the work there is more compression. It’s just as artful, just shorter, with more weight on what is unsaid. However, there are many flashers, for want of a better word, who experiment with the form and produce work that verges on prose poetry, work so brief it is almost aphoristic, or work that is close to a sketch. In some ways I think there is more freedom in the flash form.
4. You’ve won prestigious awards for your stories. What pointers would you give a writer submitting to contests?
Thanks. I wish I could say I’d won more prestigious awards. It’s a process that is just as mysterious to me as it is to folks who have never won one. But having judged contests, I can give some basic pointers that are outside the obvious of writing a damn good story:
(1) Submit early. Judges are human and can get overloaded and tired by the end of a short story contest.
(2) Make sure your story is free of grammatical errors and typos. One or two in a long story can be forgiven, but a string of poorly written and proofed writing says to us you aren’t really invested.
(3) Don’t play the judge game. Despite what you may have heard about looking for judges that write like you do, they really do try to be objective. It’s better to look to the group hosting the contest to see if their taste is in line with yours, as they do the initial screening.
5. As an established author and an editor, what advice would you give to those attempting to straddle the two worlds?
Good question. I’m often torn between the two. Anyone who does both has to be prepared that one will interfere with the other. However, they both complement each other as well. I’m a better writer for learning how to edit, and a better editor for being a writer.
6. When compiling an anthology, what factors do you keep in mind?
You want variety. I don’t like collections where all the stories seem similar. Harder to pay attention. You want each story/essay to stand on its own, but work together and flow together so the reader feels like they have taken a journey.
7. Could you tell us about the latest flash fiction anthology you’ve edited? What was the process for selecting the stories for the Best Small Fictions anthology? Are you planning to come out with another one?
To answer the last question first, yes, this is an annual. We are currently working on the 2016 volume with guest editor Stuart Dybek. We gather any sort of small fictions (hybrids, graphic stories, prose poems, haibun stories, tanka tales, micro fiction, etc.). It’s international, though as my connections are in the States, and this is a huge world, it’s been harder to get international flash fiction nominated. We need more editors from abroad to take part in the process.
We rely mainly on editors nominating up to 5 stories from their journals or story collections. We also have roving editors who change yearly. They scout out stories they feel are exceptional. Some are clear winners. Some need an expert eye, or some authors have multiple nominations, so these go to highly respected consulting editors. The thousands get narrowed down to about 100. These go to the guest editor, who selects around 50 of the best of the best. Each volume will be different as each year we see different authors, journals, work. It’s an exciting process!
Tara L. Masih is the editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle (both ForeWord Books of the Year), author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows, and Series Editor of the annual Best Small Fictions anthology. Her flash has been anthologized in Word of Mouth, Brevity & Echo, Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose, Flash Fiction Funny, and Stripped, and was featured in Fiction Writer’s Review for National Short Story Month. She received Wigleaf Top 50 recognition and finalist placing for the Reynolds Price Prize in Fiction.
Are you into writing short stories or flash fiction? Do you submit your stories and flash fiction to writing contests? What issues do you face in your flash fiction writing? Bought your copy of Best Small Fictions anthology yet? Do you have questions for Tara on flash fiction writing? Have at it in the comments!
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