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 nancystohlman@gmail.com)

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.

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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.