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.


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

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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?

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Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Endings

A brilliant ending should make you go whoa. And reread.  And go whoa again.

Whoa can mean a lot of things: whoa—how messed up, or whoa—how poignant, or whoa—how surprising, or whoa—how perfect. But regardless it should punch you in the heart or the gut or the head or maybe several at once. And even if it’s just a little pinch it should still leave a mark.

I’d like to thank Brenda Morisse for allowing us to use her piece-in-progress, “Mixed Up With Jesus” (full text below) to talk about endings in general and flash fiction endings in particular. Beginnings and endings are like bookends—all the care taken to hook a reader into a story must be utilized in the same way to cast them out—shaken and forever changed. And this is especially true in flash fiction, where a reader is going from beginning to ending in one sitting.

Riding into the sunsetYour ending is the final ringing note of your entire story.

Many writers, even those who begin beautifully, underestimate the importance of endings. How many of us were taught in school that a “conclusion” was just a wrapping up, a clever regurgitation of everything already said? Brilliant endings, if they were discussed at all, were held at a distance like sorcery, admired but not imitated.

Endings used to be a huge struggle for me. I would conceive, craft and execute a compelling story, but once I’d said everything I wanted to, I’d just tack on a “bow” at the end. In graduate school, Danielle Dutton had us separately examine our beginnings, middles, and endings. We first examined our openings, where and how we began. Then we examined our middles, how we kept the tension always pulsing. And then, just as we were getting ready to examine our endings, she threw a wrench in the whole plan and made this suggestion: What if the middle IS the end?

With great discomfort, we turned back to our stories: What if this juicy middle thing I just wrote while under the auspices that I still had more time to “tie it all up” is really the end? What if there is no need for that clever bow, that concluding paragraph…what if it’s just…done?

Because that’s how it happens in real life anyway, isn’t it?

Most writers either over or underwrite their endings. If you are overwriting your ending, then chances are the true final ringing note of your story is actually buried in the territory of what you are now calling the middle. If you are underwriting your ending, it probably means that the most crucial part of the story arc still hasn’t happened yet—the story isn’t done. In that case it’s about turning the knife just one more time and seeing what else happens.

So with all that in mind, Brenda, let’s talk about your work and particularly the ending of your story, “Mixed Up With Jesus.”

But before we talk about the ending, let’s talk about everything else. Everything else is so fun! I believe there is so much “real” in the surreal, and I love reading stories that are able to create the duality of subtext underneath a story that on the surface seems absurd. And I love what you’ve done with the figure of Jesus, putting someone so symbolic and archetypal into the unpleasantry and awkwardness of modern relationships. Did you know that Burroughs claimed 40% of his material came from dreams. Free inspiration, all night long!

But let’s look at your ending, which is still a bit shy of the mark. Let’s consider cutting it back, seeing if your ending is really in your middle. To do that, I looked for what felt like a final ringing moment within the middle of the story, and I landed in this paragraph:

Finally He breaks the silence. “Remember when you wanted to marry me and live in a convent and wear the holy face all day? Remember how you balanced on that slippery rock that glistened under a waterfall in Tannersville, naked? And that time behind the bushes in a park, when the stranger moaned you’ll remember this forever. And you said, I will?”

My hunch is your ending might be hovering around here—there’s something about this moment in the exchange that feels the most rich with opportunity. The characters are heading into some potential final knife twist—maybe you haven’t nailed the exact wording yet, but it feels like it’s just a phrase or two away from the “whoa”. Because here’s the problem with humor—as soon as we “get” it, we’re over it. Comedy—like drama—consists of an ever growing escalation of surprises. In this story, we love the novelty and parody of Jesus in such a non-Jesus situation. But the humor needs to continually change or else it will be like the same joke is stretched too far. So maybe in these final moments the story goes into another level of weird. Or maybe it stops and becomes incredibly poignant. Or maybe it gets outrageous. Perhaps in these final moments one last thing is revealed. Or perhaps it happens in the silences.

What currently follows—the spot on the dress and the idea of singing karaoke—that’s funny, you can keep it if you choose—but rearrange it to come earlier rather than leaving it in the privileged final slot.

The good news about endings is the work is often just excavating and shaping—and realizing that the perfect ending may already be there, fully formed, right in front of your eyes.

Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

Thanks again to Brenda Morisse and to all the writers who have shared their work-in-progress so far, including: Peter Cowlam, Diane Klammer, Cath Barton, M, Rosemary Royston, Nicholas Michael Ravnikar and Ellen Orleans. I believe the difference between an amateur and a professional is the professional writer’s willingness to always be a beginner, and each of these writers has been incredibly generous with their process—thank you.

(Do you have a  flash fiction piece in progress you’d like to submit for a future conversation? Email me at or find me on Facebook.)


Mixed Up with Jesus

By Brenda Morisse

There’s been no dancing since the flood because the earth is still starved and quick to tug at my tango. So when Jesus waltzes into my dream, I try not to worry, even though death seems to follow my callers and suffering through another Good Friday waiting on God’s travel arrangements is more than I can bear.

I nonchalantly check for stigmata, offer cocktails. “Make yourself at home, at least take off your gloves,” I say. He shakes His head no, but after reading my mind, He shrugs. “Believe what you want to believe, I know who I am and I like to dance, too.” Before I can demand references or a parlour trick to raise my dog, Tallulah, from the dead, He asks if I can Hustle.

“The Hustle? I didn’t do the Hustle when I did the Hustle. You should know that!” I scold. I roll my eyes at Him and then He rolls His eyes, and I roll my eyes back. “You’re funny.” He laughs. “I’ve always known you’d look like Anthony Quinn,” I whisper. He tells me that I’ve never learned how to let things die.

“You would have given the canary mouth to mouth and what if you had swallowed its head? Even the soap. Look at how you tape all the other last breath slivers together. And your new habit of spitting on old words.”

“True, but you’re the one who won’t die.”

“Relax your grip,” He says. I inch my vintage opera gloves up over my arms. “Lovely.” We small talk until dinnertime when He snoops around in the kitchen for a snack. “Sorry I haven’t cooked since the disaster,” I say.

“Want to grab a bite?”

I ask, “Like on a date?” And He says, “Sure. How about the Dominican restaurant across the street?” We’re seated at the darkened table in the corner with first date awkwardness crowded between us, so I glance up and notice that the patrons and waiters are staring at us. I look at Him and He’s glowing, and then check my reflection. I’m glowing too. So there we sit, glowing face to face into each other’s eyes.

Finally He breaks the silence. “Remember when you wanted to marry me and live in a convent and wear the holy face all day? Remember how you balanced on that slippery rock that glistened under a waterfall in Tannersville, naked? And that time behind the bushes in a park, when the stranger moaned you’ll remember this forever. And you said, I will?”

We only pick at the fish dinner but we drink wine until we’re tipsy and the wineglass tips. I ask Him to clean the spot on my dress. He says, “Just because a god rises from the dead doesn’t mean He’s at your beck and call Him when you need the laundry done.” I change the subject with a sigh and then read the sign at the bar, aloud. Karaoke esta noche.

“Do you know the words to it?” He asks.

“Yes! Do it. Do the hustle. Ooh. Do the hustle.”