Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: A Ukulele is Not a Miniature Guitar

At the Flash Fiction panel at AWP last year, Tom Hazuka said one of the things he loves about flash fiction is that it truly defies genre—with the exception of the word constraint, there are really no other “rules”. As a result, flash stories show up as letters, found texts, lists, exercises, conversations, sometimes they go backwards, sometimes they are told entirely in dialogue, or changing tenses, or different points of view, or maybe even in one long sentence. And to exemplify stories behaving differently in space spaces, I’m delighted to have Cath Barton’s piece in progress, “This Is All It Takes”, to spark the discussion. (Full story below)

Flash fiction has created a new sort of genre freedom with only one rule: tell us a story in 1000 words. I don’t care how you do it. Just make it work. So flash writers are giving themselves permission to take risks, attempting literary acrobatics that could not be accomplished (or at least as effectively) elsewhere. And what ends up happening is we begin telling stories that could not be told in any other form. 

As a flash fiction writer, that’s incredibly exciting.

I like to use the comparison of the guitar vs the ukulele: to the untrained eye, a ukulele is a miniature guitar. Having played the guitar all my life, I was initially thrilled by the simplified chords and smaller neck of the ukulele, and thought to myself, “Well, this will be so much easier!” But I quickly began to realize that, while one may just look like a shrunken version of the other, they are really two different instruments and they require two different repertoires. Songs that sound good on the guitar may not translate well to the ukulele, and the ukulele, with its distinct tuning and style, makes certain songs come to life in a way they never could on the guitar.

So with that in mind, Cath, let’s take a look at your piece, “This Is All It Takes”.

Your story is a perfect example of utilizing techniques that wouldn’t work in longer forms. For instance, your story really seems to vibrate in that second person point of view, that strange narrative voice that so mimics our primal “gut”. In addition, your attention to sentence structure, rushing the reader along your winding, breathless sentences–alternated with the shock of short and punchy bursts—and then back to the frenetic pace of words tumbling on top of one another, recreates the feeling of breathlessness and panic of running, trying to keep someone in sight, almost losing them, finding them again. You do a great job of creating syntax that really supports your story tone and message. And all of these techniques really find themselves at home in the flash form.

I have three suggestions for this piece. The first is to look at the point of entry into the story. As it stands now, we begin the story after the flash of red has already happened. The impetus for the whole story—that flash of red—happens offstage, out of sight.  As a result, we don’t connect with that glorious moment of panic/excitement/mystery—we come in later, as a spectator, after the momentum is already going. I’d like to propose that seeing the flash of red and everything that it stirs up in our character IS the game changer, here, so don’t have it happen offstage. Have it happen, here, and have it affect us in the moment as it affects the character. Because what happens now is that we are running, but always trying to “feel” why we are running.

A second suggestion is that sometimes the character’s “thinking” slows the story down. Just run—don’t think about running. See the flash of red, let it grip her gut and go. A character “thinking” about what he or she is doing—the exposition that might work in a longer piece—is often the first place to start cutting in a flash piece. In this form we must trust our reader to “get it” more, so resist the urge to explain whenever possible. Show us the flash. Run. Run with an unexplained vigor. Show us what to “do” and we will naturally feel the emotions with the character.

For example: (This is from your original)

You shake your head, very slowly, as if you’re in a film but you’re not, you’re in town on a Tuesday morning and you were just taken by the red flash of a man’s coat and now he’s there in front of you and you can’t believe, you really can’t believe that it’s him, holding out your hat to you, holding out your life to you. You were quite happy, you weren’t looking for anyone, you are, you were, completely content and now everything has changed in an instant. This is him, the one. There is no mistaking that he is the man you will now leave with, leave this market, leave this town and never come back. You won’t even stop to think, you daren’t because if you did you would remember that just a few streets away there is someone waiting for you, probably looking at his watch and thinking that you should have come home with the  bread for lunch, that it isn’t like you to take so long.

Here is it, stripped down:

You shake your head, very slowly, as if you’re in a film but you’re not, you’re in town on a Tuesday morning, and now he’s here in front of you, holding out your hat. It’s him, the one. You don’t even stop to think because if you did you would remember that just a few streets away there is someone waiting for you, probably looking at his watch and thinking that you should have come home with the bread for lunch, that it isn’t like you to take so long.

And my final suggestion is: I bet you can come up with a killer title for this piece that will really draw the reader in. I tend to think the strongest titles use striking nouns and verbs. I keep thinking Red wants to be part your title…

Cath, thanks so much for trusting me with your work and allowing us all to learn from your process! And all comments are welcome—jump into the conversation! We want to hear from you.

Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

(Questions? Email me at nancystohlman@gmail.com or find me on Facebook)

*

This Is All It Takes

by Cath Barton

You come out of the yoga class and you hesitate. Will you turn left for home or right for town, following that flash of red you just saw out of the corner of your eye? You’re thinking if in doubt say yes. You turn right. You’re a little behind as the person dodges into the market hall, you see the red cloak swirl as he goes out the back and you run.  You could trip, but you don’t, you’re sure-footed, and you’re out in the yard gazing at the bowl of the sky above your head and there’s no one there, except that out of the corner of your eye you see something against the blue, bright red on bright blue so that for a moment it’s purple and you’re off running again, and he’s running too, must be because you’re really fast but he’s faster.

You’re down the street and there are sheep in the cattle market, the acrid smell is in your nostrils. You stop, your breath coming out all jagged, because you’re not used to running so fast for so long, and you twirl around, and all you can see is sheep, and the sound of their baaing is loud and rude and somehow gets in the way of your looking.

Someone coughs behind you, really close, and you gasp and hold your breath and you daren’t turn, not for a minute.

“You dropped your hat.”

You turn. It’s him, the man in red, holding out your hat, your purple hat.  You shake your head, very slowly, as if you’re in a film but you’re not, you’re in town on a Tuesday morning and you were just taken by the red flash of a man’s coat and now he’s there in front of you and you can’t believe, you really can’t believe that it’s him, holding out your hat to you, holding out your life to you. You were quite happy, you weren’t looking for anyone, you are, you were, completely content and now everything has changed in an instant. This is him, the one. There is no mistaking that he is the man you will now leave with, leave this market, leave this town and never come back. You won’t even stop to think, you daren’t because if you did you would remember that just a few streets away there is someone waiting for you, probably looking at his watch and thinking that you should have come home with the  bread for lunch, that it isn’t like you to take so long. But he won’t worry for a while because you always do come home, always have before and why should it be different now, and that is such a pity, because by the time evening comes and he knows that all cannot be well, you will be far away. So far away that no-one will find you. You and the man in red, the one you followed, the one you were always meant to be with, you and the man will be somewhere else and that will be an end to it.

Cath Barton is an English writer, photographer and singer who lives in a small town in South Wales. Cath particularly likes writing short fiction, and has had work published in Fractured WestShort, Fast and Deadly, Vine Leaves Literary Journal and beyond. She has recently published the anthology of stories and photographs Candyfloss II in collaboration with her husband Oliver.

Cath blogs about short story writing at www.cathbarton.wordpress.com and posts her daily photographic journal at www.blipfoto.com/Cathaber.

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