Summer Resolution #1: Finish That Manuscript online workshop

An Online Workshop on Re-visioning, Taking the Next Step, and Falling (Back) in Love with Your Vision.

Starts April 27!

Are you or someone you know working on a manuscript? Are you stuck in the writing phase or in the revision process? Or have you “finished” but not gotten the response you wanted out in the world? Are you not sure what comes next? Most of us are better at starting manuscripts than we are at finishing them. But it’s only when we can conceive, create, and bring our projects to fruition that we begin to master the longer form known as a book. Each book we write brings us closer to understanding how to write a book. What phase of the finishing process are you in? And what do you need to cross the finish line and get it out into the world?

Are you ready? Find out more


Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Erasure

Ask a Flash Fiction Editor: Erasure

So first off, huge thanks to Denis Bell for allowing us to use his story in progress, “Dreams”, for our discussion of flash fiction today! (Full text of “Dreams” below).

One of the beautiful things about flash fiction is that, like poetry, it requires us to drastically trim, shrink, and carve our own thoughts. It leaves no room for bloating, filler, tangents or indulgences—and even forces us to utilize our silences.

Silences can be full of meaning—think back to the last time you sat in an uncomfortable silence with someone. What isn’t said is just as important—and often louder—than what is spoken.


The first time I ever heard the term “erasure” was in a class at Naropa taught by Laird Hunt. It was the first time that I had ever considered cutting intentional holes in my work, rather than just trimming to remove fat and fluff. Well-placed silences can carry huge implications.

Most of us understand the implication of silences in speaking. When I teach performance, I remind my students to


…because a pause is a way to emphasize what just happened.


a pause can shift a mood… to prepare for what is coming.

As a listening audience, we understand the signals that silences create. We understand how the absence of sounds adds drama and importance to the remaining ones.

The same is true on the page. As a flash fiction writer, we can trim our stories to create gaps of information and to leave purposeful ghosts.

So Denis, let’s look at your story in progress, “Dreams”, with this in mind:

First off, I love the universality you establish as you begin to take us into the dream sequences—the images are both familiar and unique. I love the staircase he’d never noticed and I particularly like the way the family members come in and out. As the interactions with mother and sister grow even weirder, the story takes on a dimension of foreboding, the ghosts in the texts become real, and the reader is disorientated in a good way.

There are a lot of stories out there where a character “wakes up” at the end, (think Bobby Ewing in the shower of Dallas). But I like how you take that cliché and make it fresh by allowing the waking to be a vital portal into the final pieces of information (more on that later).

I think there are two (or three) important places in this story where some strategic cutting will activate the power of silences.

In flash particularly, you need to arrive into your story at the latest possible moment. And while your opening right now is fairly concise, I wonder whether you can begin with the second paragraph, jumping right into the staircase and the dream sequence? We will recognize the dream landscape in the title and your descriptions, so we probably don’t need that extra setup.

I have the same thought about the middle section where he wakes up and then falls back asleep. It seems to me that it serves as a literary device to remind the reader that we are dreaming, but again I wonder if a succession of dreams with no interruption would be more interesting? Without all the awakened asides, we will be fully embodied in the dreamscape, and we will accept the oddity of things (such as the mother talking to him even though she has been dead for 15 years) with the same certainty that Joe accepts them. (Brilliant, by the way, how you state that so matter-of-factly.)

Which brings us to the end. I really love the idea that the waking life Joe is contemplating suicide, and his dream world and dream sister stop him—it’s a great crossover. If you make the other cuts I’m suggesting, then the question becomes how do you successfully give us the suicidal info only at the end. I think the place to look is your last paragraph, where he wakes up with “steely intent” and thinks of the knife. The way it’s written now makes it almost seem as if he has never considered suicide until this moment. So we’re left wondering: what just happened? Is he so mad at his nightmare that now he’s going to kill himself?

We might need a longer beat between the dream world and the real world. Maybe when he awakens he’s reminded of his pain, which he had forgotten in the dream world. Perhaps we, like Joe, need to see a few choice items that remind us, “Oh yeah, we hate our life”. Perhaps he sees the knife sitting next to the bed where he left it before he passed out? The empty bottles? The phone off the hook?

Ultimately the ending will be most effective if we are gaining a final level of insight into Joe. This is not the “surprise! we were dreaming all along” ending that can come off as too easy but it instead adds a layer of organic surprise. Joe wakes up and remembers that he is in a hospital, missing both his legs. Joe wakes up and remembers that his wife left him. Joe wakes us and remembers…that he has nothing to live for. Whatever it might be. But do it through showing us what he wakes up into.

With a bit of focused trimming your story is going to ring both haunted and wise, lovely and liquid. You are almost there. Thanks for letting me play with it—keep going!


 (I welcome all comments and conversations, so join in! And feel free to find me on Facebook or contact me at



By Denis Bell

On the day after his thirty-second birthday, Joe took a swing at the foreman and was fired. Now he spends most of his days in the bedroom, ensconced there with a bottle of Jim Beam and a bag of weed. He sleeps fitfully and has a series  of vivid and affecting dreams.

Joe’s apartment contains a staircase he’d never noticed before leading to a large suite of lavishly furnished rooms. The apartment is much grander than he had imagined. Children are playing in some of the rooms. A cousin packs up the mood in a plastic box to be buried in the back yard at the end of the day.

Joe is presenting a report in science class. A new teacher is standing at the back of the classroom wearing a hood that hides his face. Joe’s classmates are cheering but behind the hood the teacher is angry. The teacher reaches into his pants and pulls out a –

The clock on the bedside table reads a groan worthy 11:35. Beside the clock are a stack of porno mags and a wadded up rag.  The room is too bright.  He stumbles to the window. Outside there is snow on the ground. A child’s broken tricycle is rusting in a neighbor’s yard. He pulls down the blind and steps into the bathroom.

When he gets out his mother is standing there, pretending not to notice the magazines. Why did you leave us like that, she asks. Joe looks away.

She tells him about a house in the country she bought for herself and his sister. Sturdy wooden frame, brass fittings, hardwood floors. Nice gated community. She wants Joe to move in with them. Now that you’ve lost your job there’s no reason to stay in this dump. Soon, he tells her. The conversation seems strange because both mother and sister have been dead fifteen years, but it would be rude to point this out.

Fragments of Joe’s past float through his dreams. The ramshackle house where he grew up. The dank cellar with the rusty furnace. His sister with her coloring books. Days spent fishing alone in the creek. His father fish-eyed and silent.  His mother grimacing as she reaches to button his coat, his father absently nursing a damaged hand.

The swish of a belt.

His mother’s cries.

Bloodless lips, twisted in silence.

White napkins dark and crusty with dried blood.

Memories from the night they died.

Don’t hide in the cellar, lend us a hand, his sister says (bossy as ever).

Joe awakes with a start, head full of steely intent. Thoughts of kitchen utensils. He starts to climb out of bed but a hand restrains him. Not yet, a voice whispers.

Flashnano Pep Talk/Writing Flash Fiction: What You Don’t Say Is The Story

In the month of November, in solidarity with our Nanowrimo friends, we’ll attempt to write 30 flash fiction stories in 30 days.

So you’re going to try your hand at this flash fiction thing, huh?

In the beginning you will still very often land closer to the 1,000-word cut-off mark, trimming and pruning to make sure your story makes it into the official flash fiction guidelines. As you become more comfortable with the form you will find that your stories naturally shrink and start to land well beneath the 1,000-word mark.

What happens in between is a process of letting go.

Boy-Jumping-From-a-Plane-with-an-Umbrella-76482First of all, let go of being good at it. Whether you come from poetry, longer fiction or nonfiction, it takes a while to get used to the new form. So let go of the need to be an instant expert. So many of us find it frustrating to “start over” and embrace being a beginner in a new genre. I invite you to instead see it as an opportunity.

Let go of exposition. We have become fond of our exposition techniques, our lush, sardonic, witty, poignant, clever, or otherwise expository voices. This is often the first thing to let go of in flash. It doesn’t mean you must let go of it altogether, but your urgent storytelling voice must trump your love of exposition for the magic to happen.

Let go of description. Not all together, but let your description come only in service of your storytelling. Let go of the urge to linger. In flash fiction, one well-placed detail brings an entire story into focus. Opt for one or two telling details over a wash of description—you just don’t have that kind of time.

Let your silences become informative. Don’t rush to fill them. As we learn to let go of exposition and description, we learn to embrace silence as a tool, and the juxtaposition of silences to infer information.

Let go of extra words. Try removing words and see if you can create potent gaps of intuition. See how much you can not say. Often what you don’t say is the story.

So what’s left you ask?

What’s left is tightly crafted little nugget of concentrated gold.

What’s left is flash fiction.

~Nancy Stohlman

Check here for daily Flashnano Prompts during November.

Join our Facebook Event page here.

Launching Your Book Into the World


Individualized Coaching To Help Your Work Succeed!

spotlight (1)You wrote the book…so you’re done, right? Wrong. Whether you are self-publishing, traditional publishing, or still undecided, today’s market requires that writers build and sustain their own readership. But how? Who are your readers? Who needs your book? And how do you find them? Personalized coaching can help you uncover blocks to self-promotion, give you practical skills to approaching the market as a professional, and help you understand and take the necessary steps to not just writing a book but building a long term audience for your work. Individualized coaching will explore:

• The difference between an amateur and a professional
• Who are your readers and how do you find them?
• Self-promotion: Are you avoiding it? (You’re not alone)
• Publication—is your manuscript ready to send into the world?
• Building a long-term fan base
• Creatively marketing your work
• What’s keeping you from taking the next steps?

Your work is worth it. Give your book the greatest chance of succeeding!

4 and 8-week individualized coaching packages tailored to you and your work.

Contact to discuss your needs.

To your success!


Self Promotion or Self Prostitution? Why We Resist Putting Ourselves Out There

Do you hate the idea of self-promotion? Do you tell yourself that you’re not good at it? That you shouldn’t have to do it? If you hate self-promotion, or even the prospect of self-promotion, you are not alone. No matter the genre, all artists seem to share a similar aversion. Most of us are still waiting for an agent/manager/publicist to come and rescue us from the prospect of having to promote…ourselves?

But why?

As artists, we have internalized certain agreed-upon stories, certain cultural mythologies that may be blocking our ability to put ourselves and our work out into the world. And since most of us agree that self-promotion is necessary, it’s worth taking a look at these stories and deciding whether perpetuating them is serving our art and our careers—or not.

1. The Starving Artist Story: “I’m not going to make any money at this, anyway.”

The-Lemonade-Stand1If we were running a company, a large portion of our budget would go to marketing, right? If we were selling shoes, our livelihood would depend on us getting out there and selling some shoes. Even if we were running a lemonade stand, we would understand that, in order to sell lemonade, we would need to make signs or hire neighborhood kids with megaphones to let people know that lemonade is available. If no one knows about our lemonade, then no one will buy it no matter how fantastic it might be.

But when it comes to our art, we’ve swallowed a toxic “starving artist” story, which tells us that we’re probably not going to make any money at this, anyway, so we don’t take the task of promotion seriously. In fact, most of us would probably do a better job promoting the lemonade than we would the art that we have poured our blood and souls into.

It’s crucial to realize that if you want to make a career out of your art, then you have gone into businesswith yourself. I am now the CEO of Nancy Stohlman, Inc., and my product is my work. If no one knows about my product, they can’t buy it. And then I am out of business.

But as long as we are stoking the starving artist story, then we’re going into the game already defeated. If we believe we cannot make a living out of our art…then we probably won’t.

2. The Overnight Success Story: “Once I’m famous someone else will do this.”

This is the story of the mythical artist who is catapulted into fame from obscurity with no promotional effort of their own. While this mythology is exciting, and the media loves to dangle it as some warped version of the American Dream, it’s also a bit like expecting to win the Powerball.

This overnight success story is a darling of artists and runs deep in our culture. But if you look carefully behind most successes, you will usually find a different story. Madonna made hundreds of demos with her own money and personally brought them to every DJ in New York City; Truman Capote sat for 8 hours a day in the lobby of the publisher who refused to see him. Even Rosa Parks, our favorite little old lady who wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus and thus triggered the Civil Rights Movement, was actually a veteran activist for 15 years when she was finally delivered to the right place at the right time.

Because that’s what it comes down to: “It’s not enough to be at the right place at the right time—you have to be the right person at the right place at the right time,” says musical agent Justin Sudds in his interview for “Take Your Talent to the Bank”. The truth of the overnight success story is that it is usually not overnight at all.

But what’s most problematic about the Overnight Success Story is that it is ultimately disempowering because it takes the responsibility for our careers out of our hands. Our careers become like playing roulette, and we feel powerless to affect real change. And I like playing roulette, but only with what I am prepared to lose.

3. “It’s Not Polite To Brag.” This country is still influenced by our Puritan roots, and so this story is the one that often paralyzes us into non-action.

Here’s the truth: Will some people be annoyed by your promotional efforts? Yes. But usually the ones who are annoyed, offended, or otherwise triggered by your efforts are the ones who have not yet embraced their own self-promotion. So it’s important to remember that their support or non-support for you and your work really has little to do with you and much more to do with where they are on their own path. It’s pretty hard to jump on someone else’s bandwagon when your own bandwagon is rusting in the garage. It’s pretty hard to muster up zest and enthusiasm for someone else when you haven’t put your own work out there in a big way, yet. So when you encounter this kind of resistance—and it can come from the most surprising places—be kind, and remember this quote: “Those who have abandoned their dreams will always discourage yours.”

But the rest of the people won’t care, and in fact they will be happy that you’ve made it so easy for them to support you and your work. It is said that a person needs to hear about something five times (yes, five!) before it sticks, and most people are happy for the reminders.

Self-promotion is not bragging. It’s asking for the support we need to make the careers we want.

In this Puritan society we are told that “it’s better to give than receive,” so we give, we give, we give…but most of us have a hard time receiving. And most of us have an even harder time asking for the support we need with clarity and confidence. If I want people to read my latest story—I have to ask. If I want people to come to my my website, my lecture, or buy my latest book—I have to ask. “Hey, I’d love it if you checked out my work and passed it along.”

In our everyone-for-himself society we have attached a stigma to asking for help. In order to get over this stigma, we have to remember that artists must exist in community, and in order to create and sustain a community, you have to put yourself out there with honesty and authenticity. Self-promotion is truly about asking for the support we need, and building relationships with those who are excited about us and our work. It’s the greatest thing you can do for the promotion of art outside of creating the art itself.

So when self-promotion starts to feel like self-prostitution, remember: We promote our work because we aren’t okay with the mythology of the starving artist; we respect our work enough to take control of its dissemination, not leaving it to the agent fairies to rescue us; we have both the confidence and humility required to put it out there in the world and ask for support.

Many of us don’t promote because we would rather fail privately than publicly  We fear rejection and ridicule; we retreat into craft instead. And yes, it’s true that Emily Dickinson did no promotion. But then again, she never got to enjoy the rewards, respect, and recognition of her work while she was alive.

I want more for myself and my art.

And I want more for you, too.

Finish That Manuscript (And Get it Out Into The World): A Virtual Workshop

Do you have a manuscript you’ve been sitting on forever? Are you stuck in the writing phase or in the revision process? Or have you “finished” but not gotten the response you wanted out in the world?

In this workshop on finishing we will explore:
• What’s keeping you from finishing?
• Are your blocks telling you something about your manuscript?
• How to fall back in love with your work and your vision
• Allowing your manuscript to transform
• Publication—is your manuscript ready to send into the world?
• The different stages of “finishing” a manuscript
• Self-promotion—are you afraid of rejection? (You’re not alone.)
• Finding the support you need to take the next steps

writers-blockIn this 4-week virtual workshop I’ll give you the deadlines you might need, help you structure your writing time into your life, help you transition more easily between creation and revision, and help you become your own best editor. Whether you are planning to submit or self publish, you’ll learn writing tips, editorial and publication advice, how to excerpt and query, and even when to let a manuscript go. And most importantly, you’ll finally rescue your work from the desk drawer and give yourself the satisfaction of completion.

The workshop format will include weekly online instruction, telephone check-ins, and professional line edits (limited). Both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts are welcome.

Begins July 1. For late registration or a free info call contact me ASAP at

Let’s do it.

Finish That Manuscript: Free Workshop Preview Tuesday, June 25th

Summer Project #1: Finish That Manuscript

Each book we write brings us closer to understanding how to write a book. What phase of the finishing process are you in? And…what’s it costing you to not finish?

Three Types of “Finishing”

1. Crossing the Finish Line. In this phase, you’re creating, allowing, and writing yourself to the finish line of that first draft, where you can write The End and give yourself that well deserved glass of port.

In this phase you need the support, motivation, and commitment to get to the end. A first draft is like a lump of clay—it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to be complete before you can start shaping it into the grand vessel it will become.

2. Alligator Wrestling. In this phase you’ve finished a first draft and now you’re in the revision—re-visioning—process. Re-vision. Seeing again. Sometimes it’s hard to see your manuscript with fresh eyes—like looking for your sunglasses when they’re on your head. Yet the true writing magic usually happens in revisions.

In this phase you need new ways of seeing your manuscript differently, both in pieces and as a whole, as well as identifying your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and inviting the potent potential of unexpected possibilities into your work.

3. Becoming a Player. In this phase you and your manuscript prepare to enter the public arena, and the “finishing” has just as much to do with you as a professional. This is the point where we usually long for an agent to swoop in and do all the uncomfortable work of promoting ourselves, but the catch here is that if we want to be taken seriously, we have to start playing seriously.

In this phase you need help with promotional and professional materials including bios, queries, how and why to excerpt, and learning how to avoid the mistakes of looking like an amateur—regardless of your publishing goals.

*Tuesday, June 25th at 7 pm MST, join me for a 30-min FREE WORKSHOP PREVIEW.

Contact me for registration information at


Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Why Literary Bondage Is Good For Your Writing

The first thing Ellen Orleans said about her flash piece in progress, “How to Write The Name of God”, was: “It’s 1170 words—too long for flash?” The answer is technically yes (though I’ve seen flash defined as long as 1200 or even 1500, as a general rule it’s 1000).

tied handsWriters new to flash often find the constraint arbitrary and infuriating: Why such a stickler on the wordcount? So what if it’s a few words over? But having worked in this form for so long, I can say with confidence that the magic of flash fiction happens because of the constraints. Interesting things bulge against boundaries. From sonnets to writing prompts—even deadlines—many writers find they produce some of their best work when pushing against the wall of a constraint: you can only paint with the color green, you must finish a film in 48 hours, you have to write a story without using the letter E.  The famous Oulipo movement in Paris in the 1960s was made up of writers and mathematicians who suggested that using constraints created a new kind of writing.

Embracing the constraint is the true gift of flash fiction.

Working with flash will make you a very different—and I would say better—writer no matter what you write. You will cultivate a sharper eye to what is truly necessary in your work. So if you find yourself battling against the constraint, trying to make your story fit into flash fiction…relax. You’re going about it all wrong. Because once you “see” your story through the lens of the constraint, it ceases to become a battle and instead becomes about “freeing” the flash story from the longer work.  As Michelangelo said about his sculpture David, “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.”

So Ellen, let’s look at your story, “How to Write the Name of God” and make it fit the constraint.

First of all, I love this story. I love the sweetness of the character, how well I’m able to relate to her struggle, and how as children we all try so hard to make sense of a world that doesn’t always make sense. A child’s struggle is always a glimpse into ourselves, and I love your character’s honesty and transparency. Her dilemma is so pure.

There are two ways of shrinking a story: chipping or chopping. The trick to writing flash fiction is learning to chop rather than chip, looking at the story in sections rather than trying nitpick. When we are picking at the story, checking the word count every 10 seconds to see “if it’s under 1000” yet (yes, we are all guilty), the final result feels moth eaten and thin.

When chopping, it’s important to pay less attention to what is being eliminated and more on what is going to be left. You are trying to figure out how to remove the excess so that what is left becomes more prominent. My instinct on your story is to take a healthy swipe at the beginning, landing us inside the classroom as soon as possible. Imagine your story begins like this:

How to Write the Name of God

If you are an 11-year-old at Temple Beth Shalom Hebrew School, you write it G-d or G*d, or maybe just Gd, but never all the way, God.

With this chop you would now drop us right into your story and also tie your title to your first sentence (I also changed “spell” to “write”). You would suck us into the narrative and cut 241 words—enough to land you in flash territory in one swipe.

To clarify: does this mean I don’t like your current opening with all the names? Actually, I do, and I think you should put some of that into the story later, as the character is trying to figure out what to put into the box. And frankly if your story were only 500 words, you might just leave it.

But again the beauty of constraints is that they force us to look at our work with a more discerning and sometimes brutal eye—and for most of us that is actually a good thing. And something mysterious happens when we kill our darlings: Like a faint pencil mark that can’t be completely erased, those phantom darlings are still there, still delivering their messages in the spaces we’ve cleared away.

Thanks, Ellen, and Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

(Feel free to join in on this or any other conversation, and if you have a flash piece in progress please find me on Facebook or message me at

How to Write the Name of God

By Ellen Orleans

God, we learn, has many names, including ElohimHa Shem, and Adonai.  Elohim means Mighty Ones, which is no surprise except that it’s plural.  (The Rabbi says this multiplies God’s power.)  Adonai doesn’t have even an English translation. It just means God, my  Hebrew School teacher says, tired of my questions. Ha Shem means The Name which is confusing but also kind of cool. His name is The Name. There’s also El Olam: “the world,” “the universe” or even infinity or eternity. “Very trippy,” as my sister would say.

Another name is El Echad which means The One. “One with a hundred names,” I think, “How ironic.” I am eleven and nothing is more clever than irony.

In English, God’s names are Almighty, Master, Highest,  Father, Lord, Ruler, and King. Also, Most Powerful One. If God is so great, I think, why is he so insecure?

Years later, in a congregation led by a female rabbi, infused with liberals and sprinkled with queers like me, I will  hear new names for God:Creator, Spirit, Beloved, Shekhina. But by then it will be too late—the white-haired, scowling judge man will be seared into my imagination.

Anyway CreatorSpirit, and Beloved are years off. Now it’s 1971 and the biggest question here in fifth grade is not who is God, what is God, or even “Can God create a rock so big that even he cannot push it?” but “How Do Spell God?”

If you are an 11-year-old at Temple Beth Shalom Hebrew School, you spell it G-d or G*d, or maybe just Gd, but never all the way, God. Because if you write down God, then that piece of paper, like all the prayer books with God printed out—all its letters, no dash, no asterisk, no missing “o”—that paper cannot not be thrown away.  It is sacred.

Which is exactly the point when Baruch Benson, who’s Bobby Benson in real life at Burnet Hill Elementary school where he sits two rows behind me making armpit noises, whose Hebrew name means Blessed One even though that’s the last thing Bobby is, when Baruch Benson in the final minutes of Monday afternoon Hebrew School, writes GOD, all caps, all three letters, on a piece of notebook paper and shoves it into Kenny Graulich’s back pocket.

“Have to keep it forever,” he sing-songs as the bell clatters, our high-pitched punishment before freedom.

In the hall, Kenny yells “Glenn! You’re it!” and slaps the God-paper into Glenn’s hand, where it stays until Glenn passes it to Shimon, who’s always off in dreamland anyway until Cheryl, thinking it’s something else, grabs it, giggles, and pushes it off onto Debbie. By now we’re in the parking lot, waiting for, looking for, our carpools home.  Before running into the sea of parents, station wagons and sedans, Debbie passes the damp folded-unfolded-refolded note to Lynn Becker, who rolls her eyes and gives it to Nurit, who’s new and from Israel and doesn’t get the game. That’s when I take it because, unlike Lynn, Debbie, Cheryl, Glenn and Kenny, I know want to do with the name of God.

You bury the name of God.

If I had liked Glenn or if he’d written God’s name in fancy calligraphy, I might have kept it, at least for a while. But GOD was just three awkward letters, smudged pencil on creased paper.

Still, it was God.

That night, in the back of my dresser, I found the white box that had held the velvet case that had held the gold Chai my grandmother gave me when she returned from Israel two years ago. The box, I decided, was good enough for God.  I covered the bottom with Kleenex, neatly refolded the paper and put it inside. Tomorrow, I’d bury it in the back yard. Ashes to ashes. Dust to Dust. It was a good plan.

I turned off my bedside reading light.

It was a good plan…except.

Would God get lonely there in the dirt?  I thought of the box, the tissue, The Name, underground for years and years, long after I grew up and moved away. And after that.  And after that. Eternity for Eternity. All Alone for The One.

What could keep God company? What was mighty enough for The Mighty One, what could befriend The Universe? More to the point, what would fit in the box?

In bed, in the darkness, I considered the tiniest occupants of my room. The glass cat with the chipped glass ear. The dollhouse tea kettle. The miniature ceramic mouse, looking up, about to pounce. My Grandma Moses postage stamp, cancelled. My Apollo 8 postage stamp, uncancelled. Nothing seemed like the right match or maybe I didn’t want to give any of them up. Not even for God.

For the next three days, I scrutinized the world for the perfect thing to put in the box with God.  A flower petal would shrivel up. An inch worm would die. Pine needles? Too much like a Christmas tree. A yarmulke wouldn’t fit and a loose thread from a Temple tallis, well, there weren’t any loose threads. I tugged at one and nothing came off. I could spill a drop wine on it, like my father spilled wine in the Passover Seder, a tradition from his father and grandfather, but that seemed more like a stain than a friend.

Half a Hanukkah candle? A clove from the spice box? Crumbs from last week’s challah? (Crumbs next to God? Definitely ironic.)

Ashes? Dust?

Walking home on Friday, thinking of God’s names, I remembered Elochim. Mighty Ones. Plural.

God needs God.

At home, on my best stationary with my best pen in my best handwriting I wrote

God   God   God

God   God   God

God   God    God

and folded it into fourths. I lay my Gods on top of Baruch’s God and taped the box shut.

As I walked behind our house—gardening trowel in one hand, the box in the other—I could smell our Friday night chicken baking.  We would be lighting the Sabbath candles soon. I hurried past the swing set to the garden bed where early violets and lilies-of-the-valley shared the soil with mossy rocks. The soil was damp and easy.

There are Hebrew blessings to recite when you hear thunder, feel an earthquake, or see lighting or a comet or a rainbow.  There’s a Hebrew blessing for when you see the ocean or lofty mountains or exceptionally beautiful people. There’s even a blessing for strange-looking animals.

But what do you say when you bury God’s name between violets and lilies? When you cover God with a blanket of dirt?

What you say, I realized, is Psalm 91, the Bedtime Prayer. Or at least, what you can remember of it.  I knelt in the garden bed, wet earth seeping into the knees of my jeans.

With my wing, I cover you.

Under my wings take refuge.

For you yearn for me, I shall rescue you.

Fortify you, because you know my name.


A former columnist and essayist, Ellen Orleans is the author of five books of queer humor, including the Lambda Literary Award winner The Butches of Madison County. She co-edited Boulder Voices, an anthology published in response to Colorado’s Amendment 2, an anti-gay referendum later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Her story “Outreach” won the 2007 Gertrude Press Chapbook Competition for Fiction. Her writing has appeared in the anthologies Primal Picnics, Milk and Honey, The Incredible Shrinking Story and, forthcoming, A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park. Excerpts of her book, Inside, the World is Orange have been published in The Denver Quarterly; Palimpsest; wigleaf; and Eccolingistics and performed as part of a Stories on Stage/Buntport Theater production.  Other work has appeared in Trickhouse, Blithe House Quarterly, The Washington Post, Rain Taxi, and the Lambda Book Review.  The former curator of  Boulder’s Yellow Pine Reading Series, Ellen now leads story hours for toddlers and builds cigar box art in her garage in north Boulder.

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 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 and posts her daily photographic journal at