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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I love The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: the examples, the exercises have sharpened my skills to write flash. Recommend it to everyone who wants to write effective flash.
That is great advice by Tara which opens a world into story writing. Great of you to host her, Damyanti:)
Phew! I have so much to learn!! o_O
Fantastic interview with Tara. Thanks for sharing this good advice, particularly the submission tips. 🙂
This is great stuff!
I’ve just started being more active in submitting to writing contests… it’s both exciting and discouraging at the same time.
Thanks Tara & Damyanti!
Thanks Damyanti and Tara! Tara, I’ve been writing short fiction for some time now, still trying to nail each piece (all mine feel incomplete). I have been trying to decide which book to get next: The Best Small Fictions 2015, or your Iron Metal Press Field Guide for flash fiction. I’m looking for something that will guide me, but I’m not sure whether I need more instruction or more examples. Which would you recommend reading first (I’ll likely get both)?
Ho boy, that’s like asking a parent which of their children should be picked for the play :-). Hopefully you will get both? They are both on Kindle and very cheap, and there are used copies. One gives more instruction, one has way more examples. Really up to you. Neither will disappoint, promise!
Haha, I do want them both. My wife recently sighed when I told her I wanted another book for my birthday. What can I say? I love fiction.
I have a mantra I never keep: No More Books! My apologies to your wife.
Can’t wait to see what your A to Z is all about! Great information!
That was very insightful. Thanks so much for sharing.
Good tips for competition entries. I especially like ‘make sure entries are free of grammar and spelling errors’. I’m always surprised how many writers think agents/contests will see beyond that, like they’re simply typos. Trying to convince these sorts has been a failed effort so in the future, I will simply refer them to you!
Learnt a lot. Inspired now!
Interesting and useful advice.
“Readers get to the end and feel a sense of fulfillment; they don’t feel the story is unfinished.”
I would like if I may, to request elaboration of the term ‘unfinished’ – does it mean a story with a cut and dried ending, all threads tied up neatly? Or can a story with a loose, ambiguous ending be considered finished, and readers derive satisfaction from its looseness?
No, doesn’t mean a cut and dried ending. I’m all in favor of endings that don’t tie things up neatly, as in life. But there is a fine line between echoing life or just having an ending that dies and does not leave the reader feeling it was worth the journey. It should resonate in some way. There is no black and white answer to this, no formula to follow, but the best writers know when and how to finish. Do you agree?
I do agree. Best writers finish with an ending, loose or otherwise, so perfect that it is hard for the reader to imagine any other possibility. Thank you for your response.
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction was the first book I read on flash fiction when I first heard the term and wondered what it was. Out of all the types of writing i do nothing excites me as much as flash fiction. It bursts out of my brain.
Thanks for hosting Tara, Damyanti. Such interesting information on how these compilations come about.
I love hearing that, Denise! Thanks for sharing.
I like writing short stories, novelettes, and full novels. Each one has its pros and cons.
I think the best anthologies have a theme but a variety of voices.
Hi Tara! I love short form writing, including short stories, flash fiction, and poetry. This is a fairly general question for you which could apply more broadly, though. Do you have any advice for writing stories (well) outside your own experience? How do you get in touch with and respect those characters? Thanks!
Bronwyn (great name): I get asked this a lot because I tend to set my writing in countries outside the USA, where I live. I say that it all comes down to respect and empathy. As long as you respect the culture you are writing about, and are trying to understand them and use your own experiences as a human being to do so, I don’t think you can go wrong. How do I respect them? I think that is taught early on or has to be learned as an adult. I was lucky to have a bicultural background which allowed me to see two sides to everything. And reading they have discovered increases empathy. So read outside of your own culture.
Tara, I’m curious as to which one — flash or short story — you consider to be a genre that comes more naturally, that you have a better affinity with, or do you find that you work equally well in both, but in different ways? What advice would you share with us if a writer considers herself better in flash, for example, but would like to improve in short story, and vice versa?
Elaine: Thanks for your question. Personally, I think I work well in both. And most flash writers write longer stories, as well. However, the reverse is not true. To me that says that if you can master the art of compression, you can do so in a longer work. But if your short stories are on the lengthy side, it can be hard to write a successful microfiction. For someone who feels they are better in flash, I think the trick is finding a topic that holds your attention longer. Some flashers feel they have ADD. It can be hard to get their minds to sit long enough with one story to take it the distance. So look for a topic rich in setting, theme, character that will allow you to write more and keep you interested longer.
I love that you’re highlighting other writers, that’s awesome, Damyanti.
I think working with a critique partner has helped me the most. While it was a process to get through initially, I learned the most from it and grew as a writer. Not to mention, he has the patience of a saint and his sense of humor rocks too!
Elsie, all thanks go to Tara for the interview. She’s an awesome writer, wonderful to work with, and very gracious in her responses.
Thanks to Tara for all the info about short fiction. It’s very interesting to hear she has audio stories up on her blog. It seems audio is the new big thing, but I’m kinda scared to try it. Wishing her much success on this anthology and the others she plans to do! 🙂
If you are scared to try it yourself, you can submit to this site and see if he will accept it for recording: http://www.elijahlucian.ca/ Thanks for mentioning this, it prompted me to find a broken link on my site. He is still recording.
I have always loved the short story genre. And for today’s generation that, generally speaking, wants a quick good read, I think it’s perfect. You’ve written a very good post here that’s very useful for the short story writer. I’m now your follower. And I thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment on my blog.
Thanks Ann. All credits for this post go to Tara, who has been a wonderful interviewee!
A very useful blog.
Thanks for stopping by, Ian.
Really great advice. I think it is important to submit to contests that have the same style of writing that you do. 🙂
All thanks go to Tara. She’s given a lot of good advice in this post!
I greatly admire writers who can write flash fiction. I think it’s one of the hardest form of storytelling. I’ve never been able to write it…
Thanks for acknowledging that it takes skill. Agreed. But reading the best of the best can help teach indirectly. Keep reading and trying!
I love reading a good anthology of varied stories, and I’m beginning to really appreciate flash fiction these days. Like your guest, I think of writing as a discovery process. I learn so much about myself and about the world I live in when I write.
It’s the greatest sedentary adventure, isn’t it?
It’s like being a critique partner – it improves your own writing by editing others.
Collective humanity – check!