Monday, January 23, 2012

Flash Fiction - 100 Words of Fun

This week I managed to check off a bucket list item, I won a flash fiction contest on literary agent Janet Reid's blog. My prize? Two books, including the Edgar nominated "Purgatory Chasm" by Steve Ulfelder. (On a cool note, I talked to the author via Facebook and he's going to autograph them for me.)

She holds these contests from time to time and I highly recommend them. She gives you a list of prompt words, often in honor of one of her clients, and a 100-word limit. The competition is fierce and if you don't bring your best game, well then you get to stay home and watch.

I've written flash fiction for years. I love the spare economy. No words can be lazy or padding or fluffy. Every word has a job to do and had better do it well. However, there is some misconception as to what flash is. It is often written as a vignette or freeform poetry.

Flash is like any other story and has to have the four components of character, setting, conflict and resolution. In 100 words or less . . . Not a problem!

The key is inference. One flash writer said that if readers need description, then all of her characters must be naked, because she never discusses clothing. If she places her characters in church, she trusts the reader to infer they are appropriately dressed.

Forcing extraneous description out of writing is an excellent exercise. I hate reading "It was July 21st at 5 o'clock p.m. and the temperature was 102 degrees." (yes, I have read that in novels) Instead, "It was a hot July evening," tells me all I need to know. In his literary wordfest "Q," Evan Mandery sticks the landing with "It was one of those top ten days of the year . . ." I love that phrase. It is elegant and evocative and allows me to infer my own definition of a perfect day. He goes on with more description, but could have stopped right there.

In this contest, the prompt words were: red, bent, fold, chaos, and chasm. Each word came from a book title on the Edgar list of best first novels.

I keyed on "chaos." I had an old flasher where that was a pivotal word. The story had never seen publication because at 121 words, it was too damn long. I liked the story, but the editing always stumped me.

Here it is in original form:

_____________________________________

The last ambulance left the police station. No need for sirens; the victims were DOA. I settled in to start the reports. Twenty years on the job, and this was a first.

"Damn, I hate murder. Nothing but heartache and paperwork."

I inserted the form into my old typewriter and started on the first section.

The punks had been at the west desk. The old biddy at the east. Both were filing complaints.

She wailed about foiling a car theft.

The hoods bitched about someone pulling a gun and chasing them away from their car.

Hesitation. Double-take. Recognition. Silence. Chaos.


I hit the 'return' key. One section to go.

Conclusions: The old lady was a faster draw and a better shot.

________________________________________

Not bad, but not good enough. Too fat. After I folded in the prompt words, I went to work on the length.

I ferreted out redundant description, such as,"No need for sirens; the victims were DOA." The story is about a murder, the fact that there were dead bodies becomes clear in the next sentence. So, it can be foreshadowed with "No sirens."

You get the point. Once I had a goal, entering it in the contest, and a deadline, Sunday at 6:00 PM, the spare baggage glowed like neon.

The finished product:

_________________________________________

The ambulance left the police station. No sirens. Twenty years on the job and murder is still nothing but heartache and paperwork.

Unfolding a blank report, I bent over my old typewriter.

The punks were at the west desk. The old biddy at the east. Both were filing complaints.

She crowed about foiling a car theft.

Across the chasm, the hoods had red-ass about someone pulling a gun and chasing them away from their car.

Hesitation.

Recognition.

Silence.

Chaos.


I hit the “return” key. One section to go.

Conclusions: The old lady was a faster draw and a better shot.

____________________________________________

100 words exactly according to Word. Spare and clean. A much better story. I don't miss the twenty-one words. By choosing carefully, I took them out and left them in at the same time. The story certainly met and exceeded my expectations and was picked out of a field of 70+ entries. I read a lot of flash fiction and the flashers in Ms. Reid's contests are some of the best I've seen.

Next time she runs a contest, give it a try. Win or lose, you'll have fun, read a bunch of good stories, and you'll come away with a new outlook on the power and economy of words.

15 comments:

Wayne Kernochan said...

You rock. Seriously :)

Janet Reid said...

yea, what Wayne said.

Steeven Orr said...

Great post.

I entered one of Janet Reid's Flash Fiction contests a while back. It was the first time I'd ever tried to tell a tale with only 100 words. It was challanging, but it was a lot of fun.

I haven't done one since. I don't know why.

You've inspired me to try again. I'll keep an eye out for the next one.

Ali Trotta said...

Love this post. Thank you for the insight and for sharing the different drafts of this piece. :-)

Michael Seese said...

Terri --

Sincere congratulations from an "also ran."

I didn't win...this time!

Regards,
Michael

Colin Smith said...

These contests are great writing exercises because, as you say, Terri, they help us learn to really think about what we're saying. Do we really need five words to do the work of one? When we come away from the contest and go back to our novels, hopefully we have a better eye for the excess there.

Thanks for sharing your process!

Li said...

Even if you don't enter contests or intend to publish, writing flash fiction as a fun exercise certainly helps in the editing process on longer pieces! I enjoy reading flash and short stories - especially if they pack a punch.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

Congrats!!

wv: hystro

Seems accurate.

Bryce Daniels said...

Great post, Terri! And a clear reminder about how important the economy of words is to the writer.

Congratulations! Awesome writing.

Steve Forti said...

Well put, and congrats again. It's definitely a worthy bucket list cross-off.

Jan Rider Newman said...

What a great rewrite. Thanks for sharing the process and the idea of inference.

Jess said...

Yea! What Jan said. :)

And thanks for the Show. Always better than Tell.

Kitty said...

"It was a hot July evening,"

Or, as Mama would say, The night was sultry.

I love writing flash fiction. Great story and a great post!

Adrienne said...

Congrats on your win! I love these contests, and you're right. The competition is tough. Thanks for sharing your process!

AnnMarie said...

It's a windy February night...and I'm impressed. Great work, Roger!