Writing Flash Fiction

FlashI’m sure none of you have this problem, but I can get a little wordy sometimes. Little short stories balloon out into novelettes. I get started on standalone novels and, next thing I know, I’ve got a five book series planned out. If brevity is the soul of wit, I’m incurably dull.

But really, I have lots of things that I’m bad at. If it really bothers me, I can often train myself out of it. So I figured, why not practice writing shorter stories with flash fiction? Hahaha, yeah. I thought that.

My first several attempt simply ended up being… not so flashy. But after a few more tries, I started to get better at it. First I kept myself under one thousand words. Then 750. I bottomed out at under 500, despite trying really hard to produce a story at under 250. (The closest I got was 460, soooo… not close at all, haha.)

Skip the Exposition When writing flash fiction, you don’t have the space to build slowly up to your exciting climax. Instead, jump to just before the pudding hits the fan. (Obviously, this won’t work for the kinds of stories that need that buildup, but those aren’t the kind of stories that make good flash.)

Leave Stuff Out Not every element of the story needs to be explained. Backstory, hair color, what route the character used to get to this room- leave all of that out. Readers should be able to get enough from context to build their own world in their minds.

Every Word Counts Okay, maybe not every word. But in such extreme limitations, flash fiction writers have to be pretty choosey about their words. Drafting and editing flash means packing the maximum meaning into the least words. If you can read a sentence and drop a few words without losing any of the sentence’s impact and meaning, drop the few words.

Narrow the Scope If you try to tell too ‘big’ a story, you simply won’t have the room to do it justice. Not all stories can be compressed into flash fiction. When spit balling ideas, choose a very small story and resist the urge to deepen, widen, complicate, etc that one small story.

And do all this while still telling a full story, with a character making choices, and an arc that surprises, and all that jazz. And do it in under X number of words. Whew! Flash fiction is hard. But look, I’m getting better- this post is less than five hundred words, hahaha. All I needed was a little practice.

Happy writing, guys! See you next week!

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I’m Totally Judging You

judge1A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to help judge a writing competition. I’d never judged at this level before, although I had competed in several judged competitions, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from the process.

I won’t claim that I learned anything earth shattering, but I wanted to a post a few tips I would give writers submitting to competitions in general. Most of this stuff you’ve probably heard a dozen times, but they came up often enough that once more probably won’t hurt, right? Right.

So without further ado, here are my six tips for entering writing competitions.

Use a spell checker. Seriously. Few things are as distracting to me as a reader than an abundance of typos, and they are so easy to guard against these days. Most writing programs will tell you as you’re writing if your words are misspelled, and often even if they’re being misused. (Some even offer style suggestions! Crazy!) So just take a few moments before submitting a story and make sure yuor words is’nt wrong.

Follow submission guidelines/ competition rules. Are you tired yet of being told to follow the rules? I always am! And yet I was shocked at how many of the submissions I reviewed weren’t following guidelines. One wasn’t even the right genre for the competition! When submitting, please make sure you are submitting the right story to the right place and in the right way. Please don’t be That Guy that makes people like me have to keep telling decent internet folk to just follow the rules.

Make sure your story is a story. Does your story have an arc? Does it have conflict? Does it have characters? (I’m not even kidding.) If it’s missing any of these things, squint at it a little harder before sending it in. Even a very skillfully written series of events won’t go far if it’s just that- a series of events. Make sure your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, preferably with some kind of growth in between. Make sure it’s a story.

The first few paragraphs are key. Make sure that you draw your readers in immediately. When judging, I read through and rated submissions in batches. While I took care not to work while I was totally glazed over, it’s hard to get into a story that starts off in the wrong place, or even too slowly. Short stories have a limited word count so be certain you’re making the most of your space.

Sensory details really sell a setting. Again, limited word count. But that’s why you must make sure that you set the scene quickly and completely. Small, specific sensory details can ground a reader in a time or place with few words and make a huge difference in the reader’s immersion level. Of all the stories I judged, each one described what conversations were heard and what people/things/events were seen and what emotions were felt. Fewer talked about the colors of flowers or the city sounds of cars and construction. A couple talked about how the environment actually felt. Only one mentioned smells and tastes.

Take heart- There are a lot of good writers out there. Whether or not you win, you’re probably one of them! Even if you don’t place the first time, or the first ten times, don’t sweat it. Any writing competition is going to draw in writers of all levels and, while judges try to be objective in their criteria, there is some personal taste going into the matter, too. If your story doesn’t get picked, don’t quit. Polish the story a little more and find another place to submit it to. Never surrender!

Happy writing!

Blogiversary V, Part III

Yaaaay, another short story! This is the last one for the week, and it’s been a lovely week to have a blogiversary. We’re on spring break up here and, while I was a little sad that none of the kids in our school district had the opportunity to exercise their First Amendment rights this week, it’s been very nice to have the week off. I literally spent the entire day yesterday in a bathrobe, packing my laptop around the house with me like a baby. It’s been a good week.

I did a lot of hemming and hawing trying to decide which short to end with this week. The one I settled on isn’t as silly as the first one, nor as academic as the last one.  And unlike the other two, this one isn’t set in the real world either. And finally, it isn’t prose either- it’s a poem! Whee!

I wrote this up (with editing help from my hubby and his parents) for a writing contest and, as it’s one of my less embarrassing attempts at poetry, I give you…

 

Water

(this is obviously a working title, haha)

 

On storm-tossed coasts, a young girl lived,

Lost in misery.

It drove her to the water’s edge,

Bearing these items three:

A bud of rose, an egg of blue,

A spool of sewing thread.

She took a breath and took a step

And brine closed o’er her head.

 

The water folk, they found her fast,

Drawn by the rose’s scent.

She bartered it for passage safe,

And off her escort went.

They led her past the sandy coast,

Down where the kelp beds furl.

They took her to the castle deep

With halls of gold and pearl.

 

The gate keeper, he barred her path,

And would not let her in

For she was daughter of the drylands

And no aquatic kin.

She offered him the egg of blue,

Which thing he’d never seen

So he let her with such wonders

Within to meet the Queen.

 

The Ocean Queen with coral crown

Welcomed her to her court

But bade her leave the watery depths

Back to the humans’ port.

The girl gave her the spool of thread,

A tribute to the Queen,

But the royal mer just smiled

With kindly eyes of green.

 

“A bud of rose, an egg of blue,

A spool of sewing thread.

You offer us mementos of

The very world you’ve fled.

You won’t find what you look for here,

For all the world is bound:

Above, beneath, and in between,

Lives are built, not found.”

 

And so the girl returned again

To step upon the shore

She left her gifts within the sea

And sought for something more:

Instead of rose, a bloom of hope,

A bud’s blind reach for spring;

Instead of eggs, a new life gained,

With joy in each small thing;

 

 

Instead of thread, the ties that bind

People heart to heart.

And so she slowly learned the things

The Queen knew from the start-

The love she sought so far and wide

Was not beneath the waves

She only had to learn that one

Received just what one gave.

 

I hope you enjoyed this year’s blogiversary. We’ll get back to our normal schedule next Monday. Until then, happy writing!

Blogiversary V, Part II

The party continues! For today’s short story, I give you a piece of creative nonfiction about a murder that took place in Fairbanks Alaska (or at least a patch of wilderness that would later become absorbed in the then infant town of Fairbanks). It’s quite a bit more serious than Monday’s piece (which is unfathomably stupid), but is still kind of a work in progress as I continue digging around for more information and documentation. I’ll think I have everything settled, and then find something new! Sometimes I feel like I could write a whole book about this case, but I’d need a heck of a lot more sources than I’ve currently been able to scrounge up. Nevertheless, I think it’s an interesting story that you might enjoy, fine internetfolk. Cheers!

Dead Man’s Slough

Clouds rolled over the sun in a murky eclipse, and Mark Skorlich shivered in the sudden shadow, glaring up at the sky. It was dark enough in October without this.
Skorlich huddled down tighter in his sweater and trudged on to his friend’s cabin, four low walls with a sheet of canvas for a roof. He’d known Jacob Jaconi since the two of them came to the Klondike together, and been partners off and on in the four years since, hopping back and forth between Dawson and Fairbanks, between fishing and panning and river-poling. Both immigrants, both struggling to scrape a living from the unforgiving landscape, they took care of one another. Now, with Jaconi settled on the bank of the Noyse Slough four miles between Fairbanks and Chena for the winter, Skorlich popped in for a visit every few days with news from town. And this time, an invitation to join him hunting.

The noon whistle shrilled back in Fairbanks, and Skorlich trudged along the bank of the partially frozen Chena River, his boots squeaking in the snow. Three men on dog sleds swept down the opposite shore toward town, the dogs baying happily. They disappeared around the bend, but Skorlich could still hear the dogs.

It took him a moment to realize that the sound was coming from before him. And that instead of barking, the dogs were howling.

Skorlich caught the scent of smoke in the cold air and froze.

Something was wrong.

He ran up the river, turning onto the slough, and finally saw the cabin through the trees.

Smoke bled up into the clouds, the canvas burned away. The front of the cabin was merely scorched, the damage worse toward the back, and the dogs were scattered around the remains, mourning. Skorlich ran to the cabin, clutching his rifle, and stepped inside. The back wall was nearly gone, and a burnt hide was draped across the crumbling remains of the bunk, all of it still smoldering. He fell back a disbelieving step, staring around the home he had stayed in countless days and nights.

Jaconi might not even know yet.

Skorlich leaned his rifle against the blackened wall and ran back out into the woods, calling wildly, “Jacob! Jacob!” He paused, panting.

How much of the cabin could they possibly salvage at this point?

And how long had Jaconi been out that he hadn’t noticed? Where was he?

Heart pounding, Skorlich turned back to the cabin. Jaconi’s biggest dog watched him with mournful eyes as he returned on stiff legs.

Skorlich picked up a stick and stepped back into the smoldering cabin, his eyes locked on the bunk. He started slowly toward the scorched hide, and finally realized just what he was looking at.

To read the full story (or at least what I’ve dredged up about it so far), go here!

Blogiversary V

dog-cake-happy-birthday-postcard-greeting-card-send-online-2637_57Hey, look! It’s been another year and I still haven’t managed to get thrown off the internet! *flings confetti*

To celebrate, I’ll be posting three times this week (today, Wednesday, and Friday). Since I haven’t put up any new short stories in a long while, I’ll put up a fresh short on each of those days. So don’t forget to check back again Wednesday and Friday! Happy writing!

Story one: This was written with many regrets at the prompting of my husband, although I have to say, he was very confused with the direction I went with his prompt. I’ve never actually smuggled chihuahuas across the US-Canada border, but I once crossed the border with an apple core in my garbage bag that had actual seeds still in it, so I figure that’s close enough. I can handle myself.

But seriously, everything about this story is so stupid, including the title. I’m sorry, internet.

A Very Poor Career Choice

I know, I know. Of all the things to sneak across a border, chihuahuas are not topping anyone’s Most Smuggled list. But where there’s a demand, there’s a market, and where there’s a stiff tariff, there’s a black market.

A smarter guy would have told his friend no. A smarter guy would have found real work, preferably in front of an air conditioner. But I’ve never been known for my smarts.

I’d run the smelly little yappers across the border a few times already, under the watchful guidance of my buddy Steve, who’s been in this sort of business since our sophomore year of college. They’d been perfectly simple jobs. After all, we were skipping the border between Smallville, USA and Tiny Town, Canada. Not exactly tight security. We picked the little guys up mid-nap, crated them, stacked a few duffle bags on top and, voila! Fifty pooches and five thousand dollars later, we were on our way home. No sweat.

So maybe that’s why it came as such a surprise when, on the first run I attempted without Steve, I showed up ready to crate the dogs, only to find them all wide awake, yapping like maniacs to see me.

I glared at them, imaging what a beautiful arc one would make if I punted it across the warehouse. Then I turned my glare back up to the supplier. “Why are they awake?”

He shrugged, not-my-problem just oozing out of his pores. “Ran out of the stuff.”

I was pretty sure it was a lie. I shook my head. “I can’t take fifty noisy little rats across the border like this.”

He shrugged again.

I whipped out my cell phone and dialed Steve. But Steve wouldn’t answer, probably working his way through an entire paycheck at a skeezy bar. And since he still hadn’t told me anything about who he worked for, I was officially out of options.

To read the full story, go here!

Camp and Class Updates

Chore BearWhew! This month is seriously kicking my butt!  I’m slogging through Camp NaNo- waaaay behind schedule- and barely keeping up with this class I’m teaching at the school and I’ve upped my (admittedly small amount of) hours at work by 50%. Yikes!

Still, it’s been a good month. I feel like I’m doing reasonably well, and I hope to play a little more catch up later in the month.  I’ve put my submissions stuff on the back burner until May, and I haven’t been able to do as much reading as I’d like, but I’m actually keeping up in all my other regular chores.  (For example, not every pan in the house is dirty.) For now, that’s gonna have to do.

Next week, we’ll have a reblog from the ever amazing Madison Dusome, but for now, enjoy a super unedited bit of weirdness that I thought was kind of fun regarding the plight of a low-tier camp counselor. Enjoy!

 

Bear Attacks: How Not to Die

Alright kids, you have so far done an excellent job of not dying. And in the interest of not getting sued by your parents, we’re gonna talk about how to keep that winning streak going.

Atticus! Put that down and get over here. Pay attention.

Now. Who here’s seen a bear? Wow, all of you? Wait, no, Zoo Boise doesn’t count. I mean, like, you and some big ball of teeth and fur, and nothing between you but like a few thorn bushes and an outhouse. Okay, that’s what I thought.

Me? No, I’ve never seen one either. But we’re gonna learn about it today anyway because this is a summer camp and Smokey doesn’t care if you’re a moose or a third grader.

So who can tell me the two kinds of bears they have here in the Alaskan Interior?

That’s right! Brown bears. What else?

Gummy bears will not kill you in your tent for a granola bar, so no, Sophie, not gummy bears. Try to take this seriously.

Come on, Alex, do you really think they have panda bears here?

Seriously, guys? It’s the same two we have back in Idaho.  Didn’t your parents ever take you camping?

Thank you! Black bears!

Okay, yes, Alaska does have polar bears, but they don’t come this far south and if one of those starts hunting you, you’re pretty screwed anyway.

Okay, so black bears and brown bears. If you-

No, grizzlies are just another name for brown bears.

I don’t know; they just call them that.

No, those are just-

No.

N-

Sun bears? Where do you think we are?

Atticus, sit down.

Okay, guys, we’ve got black bears and brown bears, also known as grizzly bears. Who knows how to tell them apart?

Well, because you have to do different things when you encounter different bears.

Just don’t get them mixed up, okay? Now pay attention.

Sophie, put your gummy bears away.

Okay, how do you tell brown bears and black bears apart?

Okay, good! Color. What else can you look for?

No, Alex, don’t be silly.

Come on, guys.

Okay, which one’s smaller?

And one more guess.

Yes! Black bears are smaller. So brown bears are…

Yes. Thank you.

Black bears are only like five feet tall standing up, but brown bears are like eight feet tall.

Well, yeah, they’re both taller than you kids. But brown bears are a lot taller. Black bears also have a kind of straighter face and curvier claws.

Alex, come one. Would you seriously walk up and check its claws?

Well don’t, okay?

Yes, I’m checking the paper, I don’t want to mix this up.

Of course I know what I’m talking about. I’m just making sure.

Atticus- Sit. Down.

Okay. So say you want to go down to the waterfront, but you want to be bear safe. What do you do?

Okay, sure, but you’re not riding in a car, you’re walking.

Sophie. Leave her alone.

Sophie, you! You’re going to the waterfront. How should you get down there?

Um. Alright. But would you go alone?

Okay, but don’t, okay? If you walk in groups, it’s a lot safer. And if you make a lot of…

Make a lot of…

Come on, guys, you’re doing it right now.

Noise! Yes! Make a lot of noise. Bears don’t like to be surprised.

So you’re heading down to the waterfront and you’re in a group and you’re making noise, but there’s a bear on the trail ahead of you.

Well, okay, for this part it doesn’t matter. Black or brown, there’s a bear. What should you do?

That’s a good idea. Just heading back the way you came can’t hurt. Slowly back up, and don’t put your back to it. Always give bears a lot of space, and never-

Atticus! Do you want to spend the afternoon cleaning outhouses?

Thank you.

Alright, guys, let’s just get through this so we can go make bead necklaces or something. Give bears space. Never run. If you run, it’ll chase you and it’ll be a heck of a lot faster. What else?

No, please don’t try to climb a tree. Bears can climb, and they’re way better at it than you.

Yes, you too, Lily.

Lily, seriously, you cannot outclimb a bear.

I don’t care if your cousin is Tom Brady; beating some punk cousin in a tree climbing race doesn’t qualify you to escape a bear up a tree. And even if you did beat it to the top, it can just keep climbing up after you.

No climbing.

Okay, so say you haven’t been listening to anything I’ve said and you snuck up on a bear and now you’re in for it. So it decides to attack and it’s a black bear. What should you do?

Eh, screaming won’t help.

Okay, someone might come help you, but mostly you’re just telling the bear, ‘Sure, I’m prey! Easy pickin’s!’ Screaming isn’t gonna help.

No, it’s a black bear. You play dead for a brown bear. For black bears, you…

Yes. You fight back. Beat it around the nose as much as possible, they have sensitive noses.

And what if it’s a brown bear?

Come on, guys, I just said it.

Play dead. Thank you. Lay on your belly like this…

And then cover your neck with yours hands like this…

And spread your feet like this.

So you’re harder to flip over.

Well, I guess your back’s got more bones to protect you if it starts clawing you open.

No, I mean, it won’t. Probably.

No, no, seriously, the odds of a bear actually attacking are like really really small.

No, honestly. Look, it says right here.

Oh, Alex, don’t cry, honey. This’ll seriously never happen.

Well, because there’s a really really small chance that it might happen so you should know what to do just in-

I don’t know. It just says ‘rare’.

I really don’t know.

Because whoever wrote this pamphlet didn’t think percentages were important. It’s just rare, okay?

Oh, Alex. Nobody’s gonna eat you.

Atticus, sit down!

You know what? Let’s just… review this later. Who wants to run up to the obstacle course?

Yeah. Me too.

Writing Events!

I wanted to recap on a couple writing events I participated in earlier this year, but they were both small enough that they didn’t quite merit a full length post.  So rather than taking the time to expound meaningfully on each one and really dig into it, I’ve decided to be lazy and crowbar them together!  (Plus this is my last full week before we take off for our three-month-long roadtrip through the Lower 48.  Oy, so much to dooooo.)

Panel Poster

 

SCBWI Panel

Earlier this year, I helped to organize an author panel and workshop in Fairbanks Alaska, riding on the coattails of the statewide librarian’s conference taking place that same week.  The panel featured Carole Estby Dagg, author of The Year We Were Famous and Sweet Home Alaska, and local authors Cindy Aillaud, Lynn Lovegreen, Jen Funk Weber, and Marie Osburn Reid.

The turnout was pretty small, so we all managed to wedge in around a few large conference tables, and it was all very snug and casual.  The panel was more of a round robin, with the authors- or anyone else present with writing or publishing experience- sharing tips and advice.

Here I’ve picked out the best advice for you!  (Ain’t I sweet?)  Common core, at least in Alaskan school districts, has upped the need for informational stories for children, so there is a high demand for fic-informational (also known as faction).  National SCBWI conferences are awesome, and check out savvyauthors.com for even more networking opportunities.  SCBWI itself is very helpful for non-agented writers, but agents can get a much better deal than an unrepped writer can.  Take your time, and write what you love.

Following the panel, I ate too much candy and then Carole Estby Dagg presented about the stages of writing, from selecting an audience through writing and editing, and on to publication and marketing.  She approached the topic through the lens of her own work as a writer of historical fiction.

While I love a gal who plugs research so heavily (because research! I love it!), I think the most relevant thing that I pulled out of her presentation was the Shrunken Manuscript technique.

Shrink your manuscript to the tiniest print you can read.  Cut out all the open spaces: paragraphs, section breaks, everything, until it’s crammed onto as few pages as possible.  Then get three highlighters.  Everything with high emotion, highlight in red (or whatever).  Everything with high conflict, highlight in blue.  Every major plot point, highlight in green.  Then lay your whole manuscript out.  No matter how much you love them, any spots without color need to be either cut out or amped up.

 

AWG Reading

Just a few days after the SCBWI stuff, I attended an AWG meeting.  It was actually one of the meetings I usually skip- a chance to read some of your own work and get feedback.  But I had a short story competition coming up and I wanted a test audience for the piece I was planning to submit.  So why not?

I’d never done a critique group thing like this before, so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect.  I managed to position myself in the seating circle so that I went dead last, which afforded me the perfect opportunity to chicken out, or for the meeting to run out of time, or all kinds of exciting possibilities.

None of which materialized.

I took my turn in the hotseat and read a short story I’d been prepping for a writing competition.  Historically, I have always been a terrible reader when it comes to my own works.  I stumble on words, read too fast, too quiet.  I get nervous.  But I knew this going in, so I had read it through several times out loud.  I find it’s harder to suck at reading when you memorize the piece instead. 😛  So the reading didn’t go as terribly as I’d been anticipating.

After I finished my reading, I whipped out my notebook.  The others in the group had lots of excellent questions and suggestions that really helped me zero in on what was working in the story, and what could use a bit more tweaking.  It was great to get some alternative perspectives on the piece, since I’d so thoroughly exhausted my own.  But on top of that, they were all very encouraging, and meaningful encouragement is sometimes hard to come by in this line of work.

In the end, though, the critique must have done something right, because the piece took first place in the competition, leading to many a happy squeal.  So maybe consider trying a live critique some time, even if you never have before.

Until next time, happy packing writing!