Nancy Stohlman, Uncategorized, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Revising Flash Fiction: An Inoculation Against Cliches

Writers fear the word “cliché” almost like it’s catching, a sort of literary herpes. The problem with clichés is that we’re surrounded by them—in speech, on television and movies, on billboards.  Clichés are the currency of communication in both speech and the media, so it can be hard to disentangle them from the air we breathe.

Fun fact: The word cliché began with the printing press. In those days, when you wanted to create a page of text, you had to assemble it letter by letter. Words or phrases that were used a lot started to come pre-assembled to save time. These pre-assembled stereotype blocks were called “clichés.”

Sayings and slang are one type of cliché. Think: “On a dark and stormy night” or “happily ever after.” The first guy who said, “It’s raining cats and dogs” must have seemed like a genius. But when you hear that phrase now you don’t picture the dogs, the cats, the sounds of their furry bodies smacking the ground. And that’s the problem. If good writing intends our readers to engage, then clichés encourage us to disengage.

I love this alphabetized list of cliches from the How to Slay a Cliche website:

but here are other types of clichés so insidious we may not even recognize them: descriptions like a “pounding heart”; characters that are all good or all bad like the jock, the cheerleader, or the villain; plots that unfold/resolve in predicable ways, like “the butler did it” or waking from a dream at the end of the story.

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Any overworn idea can become a cliché. I once had an editor tell me that all my characters “rolled their eyes”. Not believing her, I did a search through my manuscript and found over 100 instances! Needless to say (cliché!) I have not had a character roll their eyes since.

The sin isn’t in writing clichés, the sin is in not revising them. Each mindless cliché is instead an opportunity to say it in your own, unique, fresh, fantastic way. And that’s the real problem with clichés—they aren’t your original creative wonderful fresh brilliance but a mosaic of everyone else’s rehashed ideas. You don’t want your readers to disengage from your writing because it’s been said a million times (cliché), you want them to be on the edge of their seats (cliché). But if you’re using predictable combinations of words or writing about predictable situations, then your reader is more likely to tune out (cliché) rather than tune in, because he or she has already “been there, done that” (cliché.) See?

So here’s my favorite technique to inoculate yourself against clichés:

Step away from your work for one hour and instead write a story using as many clichés as possible. Cliché phrases, ideas, concepts, idioms, characters, descriptions—really do it up. This will be liberating and fun and ridiculous.

Then after an hour, return to your editing and watch all your own clichés pop right off the page.

Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

“How is Crafting Microfiction Like Getting a Boat Inside a Bottle?” by Jayne Martin

The lovely and talented flash / micro writer, Jayne Martin, will be joining Nancy and me (again!) this summer for our French Connection retreat outside of Bordeaux, France. She also took part in our retreat in Italy last May AND our debut retreat in Breckenridge in 2018! We love Jayne and we love her writing and are so excited about her new collection, Tender Cuts , which comes out November 4th (pre-order from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.)

Jayne graciously agreed to share her microfiction wisdom in the guest post below. Enjoy!

How is Crafting Microfiction Like Getting a Boat Inside a Bottle?

I have no idea how anyone gets a boat inside a bottle. I’m still trying to figure out how all those people get inside my television. But I do know a bit about writing microfiction. And a touch of mystery is a big part of it.

“It’s what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power” – Toni Morrison

When writing micro, what I describe as stories under 300 words, leaving room for the reader to participate is crucial. To do this, the writer needs to think like a painter, encompassing strong imagery. Our brains are wired to respond emotionally to sensory details.

As a child, I enjoyed lying on my back on the lawn and staring at the clouds as they morphed into angels, butterflies, even sharks. Look! There are his teeth. That’s not a shark, a friend might dispute. That’s a wolf! And who’s to say who was right? Imagination, interpretation – they’re as unique as our DNA.

Tender Cuts (Vine Leaves Press, 2019)

When crafting microfiction, whether it’s a 25-word story or 300 words, the writer needs to engage the reader’s imagination, encourage their interpretation, and give them a fully realized character whose life continues far beyond the constraints of the story. Here is one of the shorter pieces from my new collection of micro, “Tender Cuts.”

Working Girl

Found upright at the curb in the chill of dawn, the single blush-tinted stiletto was the last footprint she would leave on this earth, its mate too quick to step into the car of another faceless stranger. Tiny hands press against a window and wait for her return.

Only 48 words, but what can we gather about this character? Consider the color of the stiletto. It’s not black or red, it’s blush. She still has a softness about her. She was snatched in a way that indicates violence. Likely, she hasn’t yet developed the street instinct to tell the harmless from the harmful. She hasn’t been doing this for long. Consider the “tiny hands” waiting for her return. She’s a mother. Consider the circumstances that could have led her to this state of desperation in order to provide for her child.

I could have written that all out, but doing so would have stripped you of having your own experience of the piece. A micro, even more so than longer literary forms, must leave the reader having had an emotional experience. Otherwise, it risks being just clever. And in writing microfiction, clever is the booby prize.

Jayne Martin lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she rides horses and drinks copious amounts of fine wines, though not at the same time. She is a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions nominee, and a recipient of Vestal Review’s VERA award. Her debut collection of microfiction, “Tender Cuts,” from Vine Leaves Press, is available November 4th. Visit her website at:  www.jaynemartin-writer.com

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Backwards and in High Heels: The Challenges of Writing (Really Good) Flash Fiction*

The quote, attributed to many, and paraphrased by Ann Richards, goes: “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

So imagine this for flash fiction writers. We must do everything that longer form writers must do, only in a much tighter space. We are constrained by brevity.

Perhaps “constrained” is not the right word though. From a different perspective, perhaps the word limit is actually—liberating.

Hear me out.

With so few words at its disposal, flash fiction lends itself beautifully to innovation and experimentation. All those extra words we must do without force flash writers to find other ways to create a fully realized story, complete with emotion, movement, and resonance. The “constraints” imposed necessitate boldness, risk-taking, and originality.

But first let’s right dispense with the notion that since it’s so short, flash writing is easy. It is not. Nothing worthwhile is.

If you’re new to the form or struggling with it, here are a few things you might think about and try:

See what happens when you eliminate transitions and bridges from paragraph to paragraph. The result is a segmented or mosaic structure. Here, in a series of connected or very loosely connected very short pieces, the writer creates meaning in the jump cuts and the white spaces. In a sense, encouraging the reader to collaborate. (See my segmented flash, “A Room with Many Small Beds” published in Threadcount Magazine.) 

When you take disparate elements and bump them up against each other, you create new meaning. Poets do this all the time. Which takes me to my next tip.

Read poetry. Read lots and lots of poetry.

See what happens when you simply keep the pen moving. When you allow a story to spill out in one long exhale, not allowing yourself to editorialize or explain. Maybe you have a very emotional story you want to tell, but you keep stopping yourself, and the only way out is through. Maybe, for this particular story, you want to be all up in the reader’s face. Try writing what I call the “breathless one paragraph flash.” Read “Friday Night” by Gwen E. Kirby published in Wigleaf, a story that manages to be both funny and deeply moving.

OR cast aside all “rules” and borrow a completely different form to tell your story. See this innovative stunner, “Vagabond Mannequin” by K.B. Carle published in Jellyfish Review (and drafted in my Fast Flash workshop). 

It’s all about getting the words down. You can futz with it all later, but the best way to get better at this challenging form (to be a Ginger Rogers of the literary world) is to simply write it. Lots of it. Play. Experiment. Invent. Take the form and run with it. Make it your own. And read, read, read.

*(Note: This piece was written for Mslexia Magazine’s newsletter in advance of their 2019 Flash Fiction contest, which I am judging) There’s still time to enter! The deadline is Sept. 30th. Go here for more details.)

Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

“Flash Fiction as Language Art” by Anne E. Weisgerber

One of my favorite sentence and language level writers is our own Anne E. Weisgerber, whom we’re delighted will be joining us (again) in Colorado this August for our High Altitude Inspiration Retreat (Note: There is ONE remaining room available for this & still time to register!). Below is an excerpt from Anne’s essay, “Flash Fiction as Language Art” which ran in Smokelong Quarterly:

I only attest that the act of forming sentences and scenes, the punctuation, the pushed and brushed pigment of vowels and verbs and slow-motion ninja gerund phrases has become a vocation. Flash is an artist’s medium; writing it places one where people care about art.”

“I realized I could craft flash miniatures that added up to something bigger if I intended them to, like dabs in a Seurat painting. In this way, my reader at novel distance will see the rose window, hear the orchestra, experience the video wall of calibrated gifs but within scenes, each pane, each cellist, each meme stands alone. A reader might experience my novel as a flash choir, or pointillism, or whatever it winds up being. Flash forces writers to have the nerve to say: THESE WORDS ARE BEAUTIFUL. So I find myself now writing a huge novel in meditative, colorful spoonfuls. I must remember to look at images my words create, both at the linseed tip of my nose and at twenty skeptical paces. Up close, I worry: How can I honor this life with my writing? At practical, admission-paying distances, I fret: What’s in it for my reader?

You may read the whole terrific essay here at Smokelong Quarterly.

A.E. Weisgerber is from Orange, NJ and has recent/forthcoming work in 3:AM, Yemassee, DIAGRAM, Matchbook Lit, Gravel Mag, and The Alaska Star. She is a 2018 Chesapeake Writer, 2017 Frost Place Scholar, 2014 Reynolds Fellow, and Assistant Series Editor for the Wigleaf Top 50. She is writing her first novel. Follow @aeweisgerber or visit anneweisgerber.com 

NOTE: There is ONE room remaining (for one or two) and still time to join us for High Altitude Inspiration in Grand Lake in August. Join us!

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Today you can’t talk about Love…

cropped-beach-writer11.jpgWe writers want so much to talk about the Big Things, the Important Things. But it’s daunting to address the big things like Love and Hate and Death and Loss and Injustice, especially for the flash fiction writer.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech novelist Kazuo Ishiguro said, “But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”

Dear Writer, I want you to know this: You can talk about these things indirectly. By conveying as well as you can the small moments.

Emily Dickinson famously said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

And Joy Williams said, “So many times in a single day we glimpse a view beyond the apparent. Write those moments down. They might not speak to you at first. But eventually they might. Everybody writes too long and too much anyway, sacrificing significance for story.”

Today, you can’t talk about Death, but you can write about the small, significant moments around Death.

Unable to fully process my father’s death and our complicated relationship, I instead wrote about an inebriated woman escaping her father’s funeral reception with a complete stranger in order to look at gaudy necklaces at Walgreen’s in my story, “Disassembly.”

Today, you can’t talk about Love, but you can find those moments that are emblematic of love and loss.

Today, you can’t talk about Loneliness, but you can write a scene involving a teenager standing outside the school dance, not joining in because he feels there is no one there to welcome him.

Today, you can’t talk about Yearning, but you can capture a moment of longing that will break your reader’s heart.

Today, you can’t talk about Evil, but maybe the best way to talk about Evil is to create monsters on the page. Maybe fairy tales are your way in. Or create an absurd story. Or a surreal one. 

Give your readers the small, potent moments that vibrate with meaning and resonance and emotion. Give the world the story that only you can tell, dear writer. Use everything you’ve got.

~Kathy