Ask a Flash Fiction Editor: The Reader As Co-Creator

Welcome back, and thanks to Diane Klammer for providing her work in progress, “The Portuguese Lesson”, for discussion. I’ve edited Diane’s work previously in Fast Forward anthologies, so I was excited to see what she is currently working on, and her story in its entirety, as well as her bio and links, are below.

“The Portuguese Lesson” is a great reason to discuss one of the most interesting aspects of flash fiction: how the constraints of the genre force the writer to convey meaning in new and creative ways. Which means that the flash fiction genre is not only cultivating a new kind of writer but also a new kind of reader because, in order to convey meaning in such a short space, the reader must become implicated in the process. No longer is the reader able to passively absorb information but they now must actively jump gaps and fill in blanks.

A writer I admire a lot, Selah Saterstrom, talks about the “synapses” between ideas. In such a short space, the core of our ideas often sit stripped to their essence, without all the connective tissue that we are afforded in a longer work. Imagine nerve cells that don’t quite touch but still communicate because the impulses are jumping the gaps. In the same way, the flash fiction writer often has to throw an idea to the reader—and trust that they have properly posited their reader to catch it. Ultimately flash fiction is cultivating a new symbiosis between writer and reader, readers who are actively participating and writers who must trust their readers to complete their thoughts—on and off the page.

This happens on both a micro and a macro level. On the macro level we ask the reader to orient themselves without backstory, for example, or leave a story without a neat “bow” of resolution. On a micro level it often happens inside the sentence itself. Line editing a flash piece requires we ask the question: what is essential? Not what is beautiful, or what is clever, or what is poignant, but what is absolutely essential? There’s a delicacy to the flash fiction editing process akin to trimming a bonsai tree: Does the reader absolutely need this word or will they be able to jump the synapse without it? How about this whole branch of description—will the reader be able to follow me without it?

This does not mean that all flash fiction has to be minimalist, but this kind of editing, not for meaning or beauty or language but for essentiality is one of the most important skills that the flash fiction writer must hone.

So Diane, let’s look at your piece in progress, “The Portuguese Lesson”, with some of these things in mind.

What works really well in your piece is that you’re familiar with the flash fiction form on the macro level—you jump right into the action without bogging us down with backstory or a lot of tangents. Writers new to flash fiction often feel they need to set up a story, but you do a great job of entering the scene en media res (in the middle of the action) and ending the story at the soonest possible moment of resolution.

What still needs work in this story is trimming the excess at the micro level—while your piece falls well into flash guidelines at 778 words, its still feels bloated with nonessential words. Shrinking it will allow what is left to really pop and the story to take on a leanness that is doesn’t quite have yet.

So let’s see it in action: I grabbed the first section from your piece, which is originally 180 words. I’ve put your version here, and then a second trimmed version below:

180 words

“I want you to promise me that you won’t let me get lost,” She said, glancing at her daughter beside her.

“Mom, when are you going to grow up?’

“You know I get lost coming out of a paper bag, and tonight you have me driving, when I can’t see two feet in front of me.”  Mary’s mother was adamant and hurt.

“Mom, you name is Hope.  We are going all of eight miles.  I think you can make it.”

“This Highlander is too big.  I knew this Highlander was too big for me and it’s zero degrees outside.

What if we stall and freeze to death?  The streets are so dark, no one will find us for days.  No one in their right mind is outside tonight.”

“What did you tell me that kind of thinking is called.  Awfulizing?  You’re awfulizing.”

“I do that when I get anxious.  I’d better keep my mind of my driving.  Why did we sign up for the Portuguese class anyway?’

“Because you wanted to do this all your life.  This is Jupiter Avenue.  Make a left here.”

120 words

“I want you to promise me that you won’t let me get lost,” she said, glancing at her daughter. “I can’t see two feet in front of me.”

“Mom, we’re going eight miles an hour. I think we’ll make it.”

“This Highlander is too big.  I knew this Highlander was too big for me and it’s zero degrees outside. What if we stall and freeze to death?  No one will find us for days.”

“What did you tell me that kind of thinking is called?  Awfulizing?  You’re awfulizing.”

“I’d better focus on driving.  Why did we sign up for a Portuguese class anyway?’

“Because you wanted to do this your whole life.  This is Jupiter Avenue.  Make a left here.”

*

So Diane, with simple testing for essentiality I was able to reduce this section by 1/3 without losing any meaning (except her name, which comes up later).

So here’s your homework: test every word for absolute essentiality to the story. And what I suspect is that you will end up eliminating wordy phrases or extra descriptions or information that is already given in another part of the story—stuff you won’t even miss.

And now we return to the reader: without the extra words, the extra backstory, the extra description, the well-positioned flash fiction reader sits waiting in the synapse, jumping the gaps, catching your meanings thrown and co-creating the story with you in a beautiful act of symbiosis.

Thanks so much, Diane, for letting me play with your story! And I welcome comments and continued conversations–we are all writers in progress!

Happy Writing!

Nancy Stohlman

Next up: M! (contact me on Facebook or at nancystohlman@gmail.com if you would like me to consider your flash story in progress for future columns.)

The Portuguese Lesson

By Diane Klammer

(787 words)

“I want you to promise me that you won’t let me get lost,” she said, glancing at her daughter beside her.

“Mom, when are you going to grow up?’

“You know I get lost coming out of a paper bag, and tonight you have me driving, when I can’t see two feet in front of me.”  Mary’s mother was adamant and hurt.

“Mom, your name is Hope.  We are going all of eight miles.  I think you can make it.”

“This Highlander is too big.  I knew this Highlander was too big for me and it’s zero degrees outside.

What if we stall and freeze to death?  The streets are so dark, no one will find us for days.  No one in their right mind is outside tonight.”

“What did you tell me that kind of thinking is called.  Awfulizing?  You’re awfulizing.”

“I do that when I get anxious.  I’d better keep my mind of my driving.  Why did we sign up for the Portuguese class anyway?’

“Because you wanted to do this all your life.  This is Jupiter Avenue.  Make a left here.”

Somehow they weaved through the dark with frost on the window.  Hope knew she was starting to get cataracts, but the insurance company wouldn’t remove them until they were really advanced.  She also had vitreous detachment and recovered retinal detachment. A whole list of things made her hate driving, but her daughter insisted she give it a try.

“This place is on the end of a cul de sac, but the street number is not visible,” Hope said.  The number is 1800.  Maybe we can figure it out by process of elimination if we see the other numbers.  What is that one?”

“That one is not marked either.  Mom, don’t freak out, but none of them are numbered and they all look the same.”

The houses were all one story brick buildings with brown shingles and there were no street numbers. No cars were parked out front.  There was one large oak tree in front of each one, planted in the middle of each front yard. A small, snow covered lawn led up to a small porch.  It looked somewhat otherworldly to see so much identically in houses.

“We’re going to have to get out and walk,” Hope said.

“That’s going to be a picnic in this weather.  OK, let’s go.”   Mary did not particularly want to come tonight, but she wanted to help.  They walked up to the first door and knocked.  It was two houses from the one in the middle.  No one answered, but they heard conversation behind the door, so they called out.  A Japanese man came to the door.  “Hello, are you here for the Japanese lesson?’  That question really floored both of them.  “No.  As it turns out, coincidentally we’re looking for a Portuguese lesson.

“Portuguese?  No Portuguese taught here.  Only Japanese.”  Mary tried to ask if he knew of the location of the house that taught Portuguese, but the man was already walking away and shutting the door.  “あなたの手助けをありがとうございますThat was weird,” she said.  They went to knock at the next house, both a bit spooked.  An entire family of German speakers answered.  The mother said,. “Willkommen zu unseren Home. Möchten Sie sie begann Deutsch lernen? “

One of the kids added, “Ma, schauen Sie auf die lustige Kleidung, die sie tragen.”

Hope muttered “Leider können wir nicht sprechen deutsch.”

The two of them backed out of there as the words were falling from Hope’s mouth, uncomprehended.  “Where the hell are we?” Mary blurted out.  Hope just shook her head.

At that moment, the door to the house at the very center of the cul de sac opened.. Brazilian music played from inside.

“Boa noite. É preciso ter Esperança e de Maria. Vamos ter que se esperava,” A very good looking man of around forty five said.  He had dark hair and coffee colored skin and the biggest brown eyes Hope ever saw…

“Boa noite.  We’re here for the Portuguese lesson, and it seems like the whole block is teaching tonight.”

“Pardon me.  I don’t know my neighbors very well yet.  I just moved in.  Actually, I’m renting from a friend.  We’re ending a music lesson and you two are welcome to listen until it’s over.  Please, come in.  You must be freezing.

“The two of them looked at each other.  “Are you up to this?” Hope asked her daughter.

“I am if you are mom.”

“You broke your promise, you know.”  Hope smiled at Mary

Mary gave her mom’s hand a small squeeze, and they went inside.

Diane Klammer feels she has lived several lives as a Biology Teacher, Counseling Psychologist for several populations, musician, wife and mother and writer, not necessarily in that order.  Her Poetry and stories are in many print and online journals, magazines and anthologies such as Rattle, Lummox and Fast Forward Press. She published one book of poetry with Monkey Puzzle Press in 2009 titled Shooting the Moon. She now serves BCPOS as a Naturalist, sings for seniors, works with Mental Health Partners as Counselor, is a Registered Psychotherapist in Colorado and tutors privately. She tries to read or write two hours a day.  She has contemplated throwing out her TV, but hasn’t succeeded yet.

Read more about Diane Klammer and her work here:

 

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. dianeklammer
    Mar 18, 2013 @ 05:03:41

    Hey Nancy
    The website looks really good. I’m not certain how to use the forum on it. I like the way you pared down the story. What I’m not happy with is my ending. Or maybe it’s the story arc. It seems to go OK until the reader actually gets to the Portuguese class, but because the form is mysterious, I want something to happen in between that point and the end of the story when they feel safe, maybe they need to drive (or crawl through a wormhole) to the next block where everything is normal, with house numbers and lights and less snow. Maybe the first Portuguese teacher is a scary monster who chases them to their car and the end up at the next block or going home. Maybe one of the other families does something to get them back to the right block.. How can we achieve a complete story arc with a surprise ending in less than 750-900 words? This form is challenging for me because I am wordy and have not really learned to write a story.
    love
    Diane

  2. Merlin Harris
    Mar 18, 2013 @ 11:26:57

    “eight miles” isn’t the same as “eight miles an hour”

  3. nancystohlman
    Mar 18, 2013 @ 15:27:37

    Merlin Harris–Great catch! Yes, you are right.

  4. nancystohlman
    Mar 18, 2013 @ 15:29:57

    Diane–I’m glad you brought this up, because I was having the same feeling about your ending, that it was missing something, but I wasn’t sure what. Before I jump in with suggestions let me open this up: Flash fiction writers, what kinds of suggestions would you make to help Diane achieve the kind of ending she is looking for? What might you have happen?

  5. nancystohlman
    Mar 22, 2013 @ 01:23:06

    Okay, well I’m jumping in. I’ve been thinking a lot about this piece this week, trying to figure out what needs to tweak. I think your ending is good, it’s just leading up to it that doesn’t quite arc enough. So here are some thoughts: First of all, when Mary says, “Don’t freak out, but…” I am startled because nothing at that point would make me freak out. It seemed extreme for a reaction, so maybe that is the moment that the disconnect with the reader starts. Maybe it needs to get freakier first? Second, it took me several reads to figure out that it was HOPE that was speaking in Japanese, because the characters on the page just seem like they should be coming out of the Japanese teacher’s mouth. Same with the German, though it gets clearer there, but with the first one, we sort of “miss” that she is now speaking in tongues, so to speak (no pun intended–smile). By the time we reach the end, it’s Twilight Zone like, but in more of a funny story way. If that is what you are going for, perfect. But if you are wanting that character shift change–Hope is an eternal pessimist and this snaps her out of it–then this weirdness that happens in the houses needs to really push her buttons more, and not just be weird but really confronting on some level too? It needs to be the one thing that she as a character has been trying to avoid, now put right in front of her with no choice but to face it. What might that thing be, do you think?

  6. Tantra Bensko
    Mar 23, 2013 @ 21:03:38

    The synapse between things, the open space where things are juxtaposed but not glued together in an inexorable way is my fetish.

  7. nancystohlman
    Mar 23, 2013 @ 21:57:32

    Tantra Bensko–me too! Stay tuned…more on that soon!

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