Speculative Fiction podcast link spam!

When it comes to fiction, I generally prefer reading over listening, but over the last few years, two factors have led to me spending more time listening to short fiction podcasts: 1) I’m a dreadfully slow reader with very little free time, and 2) I often have stretches at work where I’m doing fairly routine tasks like binding or scanning music—the perfect opportunity to put on my headphones and let someone else do my short fiction reading for me.

What’s been interesting about listening to fiction rather than reading it myself is that audio often gives me a better sense of when a story is truly gripping me. The less engaged I am with the story, the more I find myself zoning out and missing things. But when a story’s good, I’ll hang on every word—assuming the narration is decent, that is. There have been a few times when I’ve given up on an audio story because of a monotone narrator or mispronounced words left and right. Sadly, poor narration can ruin a perfectly good story. Luckily, poor narration has been the exception in my listening experience.

That’s enough babbling from me. I now present you with the promised podcast link spam! I’m sure there are more short fiction podcasts out there, but these are the ones I’ve given a listen to (some more than others).

Magazines that podcast some of their content:

Other assorted speculative fiction podcasts:

Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her writing at www.babarnett.com.

Siren-ish fiction on the web!

Barb here to interrupt your regularly scheduled blog programming with a moment of shameless self-promotion:

1) My story “The Swan Maiden” (originally published in the October 2013 issue of Flash Fiction Online) is one of the audio stories featured in the latest episode of the new fantasy fiction podcast Far-Fetched Fables; and
Unburied Treasures cover

2) Unburied Treasures: An Illustrated Anthology of Speculative Fiction, which includes my story “7:74 p.m.”, is now available as an ebook from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and iTunes. It’s only $2 and is full of all sorts of fantastical goodies—including a talking pug, ’cause that’s how my story rolls.

Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her work at www.babarnett.com.

Crit Confusion

I’ve been working on a lot of critiques in preparation for a writing workshop next month, so I’ve kind of got criticism on the brain right now. I generally find critiques to be hugely helpful. I sure as hell have my blind spots when writing, which makes good crit partners invaluable for pointing out the things I’ve missed, be they plot holes, muddled character motivations, inconsistencies, or what have you.

The hard part for some writers is figuring out what criticism to take. You can’t—or shouldn’t, rather—try to address every single comment you receive. Fiction is a largely subjective thing, so inevitably, people are going to have different opinions. Try to incorporate all of their comments and you’re going to end up with a serious headache and a hot mess of a story.

So which comments do you address?

When I was attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Michael A. Burstein was one of our guest lecturers, and in reference to critiques, he paraphrased the Talmud: “If one person calls you a donkey, pay him no heed. If two people call you a donkey, buy a saddle.” In other words, if one person has an issue with your story but no one else does and you’re happy with it, then leave it alone. But if multiple people all point out the same issue, then that’s something you should probably address.

Unfortunately, there are also those head-desk inducing times when you get conflicting opinions. Half the people in the room were blown away by your twist ending while the other half thought the story was too predictable. Four people think the story’s well paced, four others think it moves too slowly, while yet four others think it speeds along too quickly. Or worse yet, everyone agrees that the story doesn’t quite work, but they all have a completely different opinion as to why.

That’s when things get tricksy. There’s no scientifically proven method or magic spell for figuring it all out. The best I can do is offer up some things to keep in mind:

1) What people say the problem is may not actually be the problem. Ending doesn’t work? It could be that your ending is fine; you just didn’t set it up properly, so it’s the beginning that needs to be tweaked.

2) Give the story, the critiques, and yourself some temporal distance. Writers are only human, so often your initial reaction to receiving a critique is going to be a bit raw—you just handed people your baby, and they’re telling you it has three eyes and a missing ear. I usually set critiques aside for at least a couple days, often longer. When I come back them, my reaction is less defensive and emotional, and I’m therefore able to look at the comments more objectively.

3) Not everyone is going to be in your target audience. If you’ve written a story about albino goat herders and there’s someone in the critique group who absolutely detests stories about albino goat herders, then there’s probably not much you can do to make the story work for that person. Don’t automatically discount all of their feedback by any means; there might be something useful there. But, there will probably also be comments that you can safely ignore since this simply isn’t the reader you’re hoping to please.

4) Inevitably, there will be someone who critiques your work in the most dickish way possible. I’ve been fortunate enough not to run into too many of them, but they’re out there. Luckily, the dickishness means that you can generally ignore about 90% of what they say since it’s usually unconstructive feedback along the lines of, “Your story sucks.” Still, occasionally you’ll find a good point or two buried in the I-am-a-sad-tiny-person-who-needs-to-feel-superior snark that is a dickish critique.

5) Always remember that it’s your story. Be grateful for critiques, but don’t feel obligated to address every single comment. Even a perfectly valid point might be best discarded if it turns the story into something other than the one you want to write.

6) When in doubt, trust your gut.

Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her work at www.babarnett.com.

Brain – Mental Ass Kickings = More Productive Writer

For my last post, I babbled about where I write. When pondering what topic to tackle next, one of my fellow Sirens suggested I could continue the sequence and address the question of how I write. That’s an easy one: I just start typing.

Well, ok, maybe not that easy. I get an idea first, and then I start typing.

But seriously, there’s more nuance to it than that. I could get into how I approach theme and plot and character and structure and blah blah blah. Those things are important, and I recommend giving them some thought, but I only just finished a masters degree program like a week ago, so the last thing I feel like doing right now is engaging in an intellectual analysis of, well, anything. My brain is tired. And that got me thinking, which totally doesn’t help with the brain tiredness, but did lead to a realization:

I got my masters degree to help me write.

No, it wasn’t a writing program. My shiny new degree is a masters in library and information science (MLIS). So how the hell does that help me as a writer? Well, it goes like this:

Once upon a time, I worked in development (aka fundraising) for non-profits, primarily as a grant writer. While I liked many of the people and the organizations I worked for, the work itself made me miserable. Fundraising and my personality type were not a good fit. And writing grant proposals all day often left me too mentally exhausted for fiction writing, and that just made me more miserable.

Also once upon a time, I briefly escaped from fundraising for two years to work on a cataloging project for a music library—a temporarily funded project, alas, or else I would have loved to have stayed there. I enjoyed the job, and it didn’t sap all of my writing energy. I cranked out my first-ever novel draft on my lunch breaks. But trying to find another library job after that usually resulted in one of three problems: 1) the job required an MLIS, which I didn’t have; 2) if the job didn’t require an MLIS, I was deemed overqualified (“Don’t you think you’ll be bored?” was an actual question at one interview); or 3) they looked at my resume and went, “Ooo, you have grant writing experience! We could use a grant writer!”

So after wavering about it for several years, I finally dove in and got my MLIS. On the down side, working toward the degree meant three years of more mental exhaustion and getting even less fiction writing done. But now that I’m done, I think the upside is going to prove worth it: I work in an orchestra library now. I enjoy my job, I work with interesting people, and every day I get to listen to amazing musicians. But most importantly, the type of work I’m doing doesn’t drain my fiction writing energy the way grant writing did. Many days I come home energized instead.

So my takeaway from all this babbling is this: how you write isn’t always about getting words down. Sometimes it’s about looking at other aspects of your life and figuring out if there are changes you can make that will improve your ability to get those words down. For me, that involved a short-term sacrifice of writing time so that, later down the road, I could dive back into fiction without regularly beating the crap out of my mental well being. I’ve only been done with grad school all of a week at this point, granted, but if my summer breaks were any indication, my brain is going to be a lot more cooperative during my writing time now that it isn’t getting its ass kicked on a daily basis.

Where Do You Write?

I can write just about anywhere. Noisy cafés, libraries, airplanes, waiting rooms, the train on my way into work, sitting in the park, alone at home, in a room full of people who are chatting and watching TV, outside on the patio listening to the birds chirp. Some unwanted distractions are easier to tune out than others, but I’ve learned to be flexible. Because sometimes, if you want to get anything written, you simply don’t have a choice.

It’s easy to fall in love with this romantic notion of only being able to channel the muse when the stars have properly aligned over your perfect writing environment. But the reality for me and many of my fellow crazy-scheduled writers is this: the only way to get any writing done is to use whatever scraps of free time you have, regardless of where those scraps of time are taking place. That, and my muse is a surly plumber named Jim Bob. The guy does good work, but he never shows up when he says he will. He sure as hell doesn’t care about star alignments or my preferred writing atmosphere. So lately, most of my writing has been getting done here:

PATCO
I’d like to describe the train’s interior as retro, but sadly, they just haven’t updated it since 1968.

But, given a choice, where would I prefer to write? A comfy place with a pretty view. And as luck would have it, my sunroom meets those qualifications:

sunroom backyard

I can curl up in my papasan and watch a gorgeous-looking hawk land on a tree, perch there and be awesome, and then fly off. And when I don’t feel like sitting, I can plop my laptop onto the room’s pub-style table and stand. We’ll come back to that standing thing.

Alas, the sunroom isn’t perfect. It can get noisy as all hell in there when it rains, and the view is less awesome in the winter. That’s when it’s nice to be able to retreat to my office. When the spousal unit and I started looking for a house, I knew exactly what I wanted for my office—a big-ass desk and a place to display all of my geeky toys and collectibles. And I got it:

old-desk office-toys

But I found that the more time I spent standing at the table down in the sunroom, the less comfortable it was to sit at my big-ass desk for extended periods of time. I got a balance ball chair, which was an improvement, but I would still get too fidgety after a while. So now, the big-ass desk is gone, and I have this:

standing-desk

An adjustable height desk so I can alternate between sitting and standing. I’ve only had it for a little over a month now, but so far I love it. Add to that the health benefits, and I’m a happy writer.

dinos
Yes . . . yes. This is a standing desk, and we will thrive. We will rule over all this desk, and we will call it . . . This Desk.

But, the real point of all this is that, even when I’m an unhappy writer stuck on a noisy, crowded commuter train, the work still gets done.

“Nobody poops in fiction” and other silly complaints

Let’s talk about some of your basic biological functions. They’re often not pretty or pleasant, but it’s kind of an accepted fact of life that we all have them. Like breathing, I just assume they happen, and so I’m perplexed when I encounter comments like, “People in fiction never have to go to the bathroom!” There’s even a “Nobody Poops” TV Tropes entry for it.

My response to that sort of complaint is usually a Scooby-Doo style “Ruurghh?” Are some people really so literal-minded that they need to be shown characters peeing for the sole purpose of establishing that they do indeed pee? Pictures or didn’t happen?

Of course people in fiction go to the bathroom (well, there are always exceptions to be made in fantasy and SF scenarios). But unless there’s something significant about it, I just assume the characters take care of their business off stage. Is a bowel movement going to tell me something interesting or revealing about a character or the setting? Is it going to advance the plot in some way? No? Then I don’t need to hear about it. Get on with the story.

Now, there are times when depicting things like urination and defecation actually do serve the story. The first example I thought of is Margo Lanagan’s “A Thousand Flowers” from the anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns. The story opens thusly:

I walked away from the fire, in among the trees. I was looking for somewhere to relieve myself of all the ale I’d drunk, and I had told myself—goodness knows why—in my drunkenness that I must piss where there were no flowers.

We then get several paragraphs of the poor sot trying to find a flowerless patch of earth before he’s finally able to relieve himself. Why does this work for me? Partly because it’s funny, but mostly because it tells me a lot about the character and what he values. No matter how drunk he is, no matter how badly he needs to pee, he respects this beautiful part of nature so much that he will go ridiculously out of his way not to sully it. Also, his search for an appropriate spot to pee also advances the plot as it leads to him stumbling upon an unconscious girl who appears to have been assaulted—a crime he is then falsely accused of when a bunch of soldiers show up.

Or, for an example from a different media, one of my favorite scenes in Battlestar Galactica is the conversation Baltar and Gaeta have in the bathroom in the episode “Six Degrees of Separation.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a video clip of the scene, but here’s a picture that sadly cannot convey just how awesome the foot acting in this scene is:

bsg-bathroom

Baltar: “So how’s it going over there?”
Gaeta: “Uh…”
Baltar: “In the lab, that is. I’m talking about the photograph.”

In addition to being hilarious, their conversation is relevant to the plot, and it’s a great character moment—Baltar is so desperate for information about the photograph Gaeta is enhancing (a photo that could condemn or absolve Baltar of a crime) that he follows him into the bathroom, where the poor guy becomes a captive and highly uncomfortable audience. And Gaeta is so determined to get out of this awkward conversation that he races from the bathroom as soon as he’s able, leading to Baltar’s hilarious, “Wait, you didn’t wash your hands!”

So yes, if it serves the story, I’m all for portrayals of characters answering the call of nature. But if someone actually needs to see characters peeing and pooping in order to accept that those characters do in fact have such bodily needs, I have to question their priorities as a reader. Really, if you just like depictions of people vacating their bowels and bladders, I’m sure there’s a place on the internet that can hook you up.

The Problematic Approach of Colorblind Writing

In her last post (It’s the Skull, Stupid), Naima raised the question, “If in my brain the two main characters of my book look East Asian and Black, but it isn’t relevant to the story, does it matter if these details don’t make it to the reader?” Naima’s post focused more on how to describe a character of color in fiction, particularly when writing a fantastical world that might not have the same historical and cultural shorthand that exists in our world. For this post, though, I wanted to get back to that question of why those kinds of details matter in the first place.

Sometimes I hear other writers (almost always white folks like myself) mention how they try to be “colorblind” in their writing—in other words, purposefully not describing a character’s skin color so that readers are free to picture the characters however they want. There was a time when I naively thought that was a good way of striving for inclusivity in fiction. Unfortunately, while colorblind writing generally comes from a place of good intentions, it’s ultimately a flawed approach.

The first problem with colorblind writing is the underlying assumption that, if a character’s skin color is not described, readers will default to imagining characters who look like them, thereby making the story inherently more inclusive and diverse. Sadly, that assumption just doesn’t hold up. My wake up call to that fact occurred several years ago when the concept of colorblind writing came up during a discussion I was having with some other writers. It surprised me when two of the writers, both people of color, said no, they actually didn’t default to picturing characters who looked like them. They had grown up in a world where white was the societal default and where they were frequently bombarded with the message that their skin color was not ideal or, worse yet, a sign of inferiority. So when reading a book, they assumed a character was white unless told otherwise. Because that was what dominated the society around them.

Another major problem with colorblind writing is that you’re not just erasing skin color; you’re erasing all of the culture, identity, and history that comes with that skin color. What we look like and where we come from plays a significant role in shaping who we are, so let’s not ignore that by embracing this Pollyanna-ish “I don’t see race, I see people!” idea of equality. Equality doesn’t mean being oblivious to differences in race; it means not hating or discriminating against people based on those differences.

Of course, some people will make the argument that, if you’re creating a fictional fantasy world, that world need not be saddled by the same racial dynamics and tensions that exist in the real world. True. But in order for me to lose myself in a fantastical world, it needs to have a sense of realism to it, and racial homogeneity isn’t something I find to be realistic (unless you’re writing about an engineered society or something like that). I think one of the best ways to achieve a realistic fantasy world is to create one that, like our own, has a rich diversity of races and cultures and people who have been shaped by those backgrounds. Those cultures can be different than what we have in the real world, and they can have a different history with each other (though there are still plenty of Save the Pearls-style pitfalls you can stumble into with that approach, but that’s another post). But even in a fictional world where people aren’t judged by skin color, I imagine people would still notice skin color in the same way we notice hair color or eye color. That’s the thing—noticing skin color doesn’t have to be negative or combative or racist. It can just be one element among many that makes up a full person.

Anyway, that’s enough babbling from me. Here’s what some other folks have had to say on colorblind writing and reading:

On women and science fiction

This post was adapted from a blog entry I wrote a few years ago when there was a big blow up in spec fic writing circles surrounding representation of women writers in science fiction:

When I first encountered the stereotype that SF was strictly a boys’ club, it was rather strange to me because it was my mother, not my father, who helped kindle my interest in SF. In fact, my father doesn’t particularly care for most SF. Throughout childhood and high school, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who didn’t tell me I shouldn’t like all those “boy” things I found interesting, like spaceships and splatter flicks. One exception was an adult who, upon seeing that I had brought a copy of Dune to read while babysitting her kids, said, “Why are you reading that? You should be reading my trashy romance novels instead.” I finished Dune while I was there and didn’t have another book with me, so I picked up one of her romance novels. After a few chapters of it’s-not-rape-if-there’s-no-penetration-and-it’s-actually-romantic-because-she-secretly-wants-her-hot-abductor ridiculousness*, I chucked it aside and started re-reading Dune.

Given my otherwise supportive environment growing up, it came as a bit of a surprise to me when, freshman year of college, one guy on my dorm floor refused to believe that I could truly be a hardcore Star Wars fan. Because I was a girl. He took to quizzing me on the films every time he passed me in the hall and emailing me whenever he thought of an obscure bit of Star Wars trivia he was oh-so-sure I wouldn’t be able to answer. I answered them all, quickly and correctly, but it got really annoying really fast. One night, a bunch of us were hanging out watching Return of the Jedi. Quiz dude was there, hammering home the fact that I was the only chick in the room by continuing his interrogation until one of the other guys burst out with, “Would you stop already, she knows her shit!” Sadly, it took admonishment from the alpha male in the room and nothing I said or did to finally convince quiz dude to give it a rest.

Another college incident: Spring 1998 semester, there was a class on women science fiction writers being offered. I very excitedly enrolled. This class was the first time I read Frankenstein. It introduced me to Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, which became one of my all-time favorite novels. We read Octavia Butler’s Mind of My Mind, and my mind was sufficiently blown. Other books on the syllabus included Gaia’s Toys (Rebecca Ore), The Eye of the Heron (Ursula LeGuin), The Ship Who Sang (Anne McCaffrey), Speaking Dreams (Severna Park), and the professor’s book Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction. As if all that wasn’t awesome enough, if you got an A on your first paper, you had the option of writing a short story for your final paper. Gee, bet you can’t guess what I chose to do after getting an A on my first paper. Rather appropriately, the story I wrote for that class eventually became my first paid fiction sale.

Now for the part that marred an otherwise awesome class. We had to do group presentations at one point. I had the misfortune of being grouped with two girls who, when we met up to work on our presentation, spent the better part of the time cattily discussing the poor fashion choices of other women in the class and how some of them were fat and needed to drop some pounds and learn to wear makeup. The real kicker came when the one girl, while complaining that she didn’t like the books we were reading in class, proclaimed that women just can’t write science fiction. Being an aspiring SF writer with a vagina (not that this person would have known about the writer part), that of course pissed me off. But I didn’t want to get into a fight that might impact our project grade; I just wanted to be done and get out of there. So I kept my “Then why the !@#$ are you in this class?” reaction to myself. But I got my dig in later. During the fashion mock-fest, these two girls derided one woman for wearing sweatshirts with Disney characters, because it was childish and she needed to grow up or something. So for the day of our presentation, when they’d be stuck next to me in front of the class, I wore a Yoda t-shirt and a Tigger baseball cap.

Minor fashion victory aside, so many things about that incident bother me. I’m bothered by the castigation of those who are different in how they look or dress and the internalization of unhealthy ideas about body image. I’m bothered that a dislike of a mere seven books was not met with “I don’t care for this professor’s selections” but with a blanket declaration that women can’t write science fiction. That such a statement came from a woman suggests a scary amount of self-loathing. I’m also bothered that, in order for me to have been party to all of these comments, there appeared to have been an assumption that I was “safe” to launch into this tirade around. Perhaps because I was a thin girl who dressed in what they deemed to be socially acceptable fashion (at least until the presentation), I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with those overweight social misfits and would therefore agree that they were to be scorned, right?  Yeah, whatever. I’m just as sick of people being mocked for looking like your stereotypical SF geek as I am of having it assumed that I can’t possibly be a SF geek unless I’m wearing the proper uniform (the proper uniform apparently being plus-size clothing, shirts proclaiming one’s fandom affiliations, and/or a penis).

That lovely incident was 15 years ago, so I’d like to believe that we’ve made progress toward achieving gender equality in science fiction circles (and in general) since then. But I still see and experience plenty that tells me we’re not there yet, from contractors who enter my home and assume that the swords and SF toys must be my husband’s, to sexual harassment at cons. And it’d be a lot easier to make progress if we didn’t have to maneuver through all the poo that gets slung about when people debate these issues. Getting that stuff off your shoes? Kind of a pain in the ass.

Cheers,
Barb

*I realize that not all romance novels are like that, but this particular book was pretty damn appalling.

Auditions, rejection, and other things that suck

I used to perform in a lot of community theater productions. But as I got more serious about writing, finding the time and energy for both writing and theater was tough, so eventually theater fell by the wayside. There are things I miss about theater, and then there are auditions. Auditions suck. Getting up in front of a bunch of people and belting out 32 bars of a show tune in the hopes of being cast in a show? It’s not that dissimilar from submitting your fiction, where you put yourself out there in the hopes that an editor will think your story is a better fit for the role than all those other stories auditioning for a place in the publication.

With fiction, though, there’s a greater remove during the submission/audition process. You don’t have to stand in front of the editor and read the first few paragraphs aloud until they cut you off. You’re spared from seeing the editor’s look of disappointment as a story that started out strongly goes off the rails, or worse yet, the look that says “not impressed” or “oh good god, make it stop.” If you screw up a submission, you’re not standing on stage with the editorial staff there to watch you flounder while your face turns lovely shades of red. Rejection as a writer is far more private.

That privacy, however, can lead to skewed impressions of one’s writing success (or lack thereof). For example, I’ve had several sales and publications that I’m quite thrilled about, and I’ve been squeeing to high heaven about them on Facebook and the like. However, when people see all those squees, it’s easy to forget that they’re not necessarily seeing the entire picture. They see this:

2007-2013Happy

But the reality is this:

2007-2013Reality

Reality includes: that morning I woke up to find four rejections in my inbox; that story that sold, but only after four years and 30+ rejections; that string of form rejections from editors who bought stories from me in the past; that story I really adore yet still can’t find a home for after 20-something submissions; the fact that I’ve gone from a string of great sales to a multi-month dry spell full of rejections, most of them form letters and not of the “your story was close” variety I had been getting before.

In other words, reality kind of sucks. And being as human as the next person (pauses for debate on that topic), I tend to focus on the stuff that makes me look good, not the stuff that sucks. That approach is generally better for one’s self-esteem, but there’s a downside.

A lot of us have a bad habit of judging our worth by comparing ourselves to others—a bad habit that gets even worse when you realize we’re usually comparing ourselves to an idealized version of someone else, not their reality. And even when we know that rationally, a lot of us still can’t stop our irrational selves from wreaking havoc with the comparisons anyway. So when I’m depressed and demoralized on the writing front, expressing those feelings to people who have only seen Idealized Me tends to result in either confused looks (“But it’s going so well, you’ve had all that stuff published!”) or outright dismissal (“You’re doing better than me, so you’re not allowed to complain about anything ever”). I’m guilty of this as well, often reacting to other writers’ expressions of disappointment with a knee-jerk, “What the hell is that guy complaining about? He got published in friggin’ Awesome Magazine I Can’t Seem to Crack. But here’s the thing: rejections still happen, and having sales under your belt doesn’t make them any easier. If anything, a bunch of rejections after an awesome sale makes you feel like your writing’s getting worse, or that you were ever only a one-hit wonder who will never sell anything again.

To bring this back to the acting comparison I began with, there are famous actors who no longer have to audition; the roles come to them to accept or turn down. Similarly, some writers reach a level of fame where editors solicit them for books and stories instead of the other way around. But those folks are the exception. So the next time someone is disappointed by rejection and you feel that give-me-a-break-you’re-too-successful-to-complain reaction coming on, remember that most of us still have to audition. And auditions suck.

Cheers,Barbara

Flashing vs. Showing Us Your Shorts

Your short stories, that is.

Anyway, I’m no expert on writing flash fiction. For that, I refer you to Bruce Holland Rogers. But nearly half of the stories I’ve written and sold are flash fiction, so my fellow Sirens thought I should babble to you about writing flash fiction versus a more traditional short story.

Flash fiction is a tricksy little beastie. For starters, not everyone can agree on what flash fiction even is. Most folks define it as a story of 1,000 words or less, but I’ve seen some publications put the limit as low as 250 words or as high as 1,500. If there’s a point of consensus, it’s this: flash fiction is pretty dang short.

Short, however, doesn’t mean easy to write. The best flash stories are more than a vignette, and they have more substance than the set-up and punch line structure of a joke (says she who has been accused of writing both). A successful flash story does exactly what a short story does, only in a more compact format.

To analyze how flash fiction differs from a more traditional short story, I decided to look at the plot breakdown of two fantasy stories I wrote set in the same world. One is a 500-word flash piece about a leprechaun named Seamus; the other is a 4,800-word short story featuring Seamus’s son, Miles.

The flash story: “Lucky Clover” (Flash Fiction Online, March 2008)

  • Seamus is in the middle of a battle between his fellow leprechauns and their fairy enemies. The leprechauns are losing. Horribly.
  • Seamus has a magic four-leaf clover that could help him fight the fairies, but he’s afraid to use it since leprechauns think four-leaf clovers are an abomination. Seamus therefore has a choice: use the forbidden object and risk becoming an outcast, or watch his friends die. Horribly.
  • Seamus uses the clover, killing a crap-ton of fairies. Their corpses pile so high around him that no one sees him with the four-leaf clover. Seamus saves the day without being ostracized.

The short story: “Unlucky Clover” (Beyond Centauri, July 2011)

  • Miles’s mushroom house is stolen by humans. Not wanting to move back in with his father or sleep on his neighbor Frank’s couch, Miles decides to get his house back.
  • Frank tells Miles to take his magic family heirloom for protection (all leprechaun families have one), unaware that Miles’s heirloom is a four-leaf clover. Miles, ashamed to have an abomination for an heirloom, refuses.
  • Frank insists on asking Seamus, Miles’s father, to accompany them and use the heirloom himself since Miles won’t. Seamus refuses, too ashamed of the clover and the fact that Miles doesn’t respect him because of it.
  • Miles and Frank try to get Miles’s house back, but Frank is captured by humans.
  • Seeing no other way to save Frank, Miles asks his father to give him the four-leaf clover.
  • Miles uses the clover to fight off a cat, but is captured by humans, dropping the clover in the process.
  • Miles gets the clover back by outsmarting the humans, then uses it to help him and Frank escape.
  • Miles moves back in with his father, for whom he has a newfound respect now that he’s used the clover himself.

So why was I able to tell one story in 500 words while the other story took a lot more verbiage? They both have a protagonist with a conflict. They both have a beginning, middle, and end.

The difference is in the scale. The flash story focuses on a single character (Seamus) during a single defining moment. He has a choice, he makes it, and there’s resolution. The short story, on the other hand, focuses on multiple characters (Miles, Seamus, Frank) facing an escalating series of obstacles (the house is taken, Frank is captured, a cat tries to eat Miles, Miles is captured and loses the clover). Additionally, the protagonist’s conflict is two-fold: Miles has lost his house (external conflict), and he has to come to terms with his relationship with his father (internal conflict).

So in my view, the key to writing flash fiction is to keep it simple and focused. One protagonist (though you can have multiple characters). One clear obstacle (though I think you can pull off an internal and external conflict in flash if they very closely parallel each other—like, Siamese twin levels of paralleling). One setting. One theme. And 90% or more of the time, one scene. There are always exceptions, of course, but most of the successful flash stories I’ve read all have that single-minded focus in common.

On that note, I wish you happy flashing.

Barbara A. Barnett has two flash pieces out this month: “The Swan Maiden” at Flash Fiction Online and “The Perfect Coordinates to Raise a Child” at Daily Science Fiction. She invites you to check them out so you can see for yourself if she has succeeded or failed horribly in living up to her own flash writing advice.