My FFC column this month is inspired by this post by Thomas Kearnes, where he discusses his five favorite and least favorite titles. I think we all struggle with finding the right title for a story at some time or another. The title is the story’s first impression and there are naturally feelings of pressure around it.
Even though this seems to be a universal struggle, there’s very little advice out there for story-titling. Even though a story’s title must be unique and specific to the story itself, I still think it’s possible to look closely at what other authors have done and learn from them.
I looked through a couple of books of flash fiction and tried to pull a few techniques that might help us get past our “title-block.” For most of these, the title itself functions as an example (though I certainly recommend reading the stories; they are all excellent). If you need to look at the whole story for the title to make sense, I’ve found stories available online and linked to them.
- Title your story after an important image. A lot of flash fiction is driven by image. If you’re struggling to come up with a title, the central image in your story is a good place to look for inspiration. Some examples, Rosenbaum’s “The Orange,” Church’s “Bullet” and McCuaig’s “The Wallet.”
- Use the title to draw the reader into your story. Sometimes a longer title is more effective. Got something really interesting going on in your flash? Advertise it in the title! Be honest, could you possibly resist reading any of the following stories: Galef’s “My Date With Neanderthal Woman,” Monson’s “To Reduce Your Likelihood of Murder” or Carlson’s “Bigfoot Stole My Wife”?
- Title the story after one of its important lines. Raymond Carver is famous for this and it works well in flash, too. Using a line in the story as a title also adds emphasis to that that line when it appears in the story. Bonus! Examples: Homes’ “Things You Should Know” and Hazuka’s “I Didn’t Do That.”
- Use the title to save some space in the beginning of your story. We all know how important efficiency is in flash fiction. As an example of this technique in action, check out Keret’s “Crazy Glue.” Because the title tells us what the couple is talking about, Keret can drop us into the middle of the characters’ conversation. No need for an awkward tag, like, “he said, gesturing to the tube of crazy glue in her hand.”
- Or to save room at the end. Likewise, in specific cases you can put the story’s resolution in the title. For me, as a reader, there’s great pleasure in the sudden contextualization in an otherwise mysterious title. Randall Brown does this brilliantly in “It Doesn’t.”
Among the challenges presented by writing in first person point of view, one of the toughest (for this writer at least) is describing your first person narrator. Offering details about a character’s age, physical appearance, and clothing is a great way to build that character, but there are only so many times he or she can walk past a mirror in a single story. I’ve looked through some of my favorite first person stories to find examples of how other writers have attacked this challenge.
Age is probably the easiest character trait to mention. In my opinion, the best way to dole out this information is in a simple declarative sentence. Sometimes writers try to bury it awkwardly in phrases like “my nine-year-old hands,” or “my experience as a forty-two year old.” They are working too hard and the machine of the story shows through clearly in these moments. In published stories, I usually find the narrator’s age stated directly, often right next to the age of another character, like this: “She was twenty-five. I was thirty-three” (Gaitskill, “Today I’m Yours”); “I was eight, and small for my age. Tim was seven” (Tartt, “The Ambush”); “I was eleven that summer, and my sister, Lila, was thirteen” (Swann, “Secret”). The lesson here? Don’t over-think it. If we need to know, just tell us.
Slightly more difficult is describing your character’s physical appearance (what he/she looks like or how he/she is dressed). One effective way to convey this information is by having your narrator compare himself to another character and point out the similarities, like Percy does in “Refresh, Refresh”: “Like me, my father was short and squat, a bulldog.” In other instances, you can point out differences between characters. Here’s an example from “The Conductor” by Aleksandar Hemon: “[He] was misclad in a dun short, brown pants, and an inflammable-green tie. I was a cool-dressed city boy, all denim and T-shirts…”
In special cases, you can describe your first person narrator as part of a group. Russell gives this very detailed description of a pack of wild girls in “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”: “Our pack was hirsute and sinewy and mostly brunette. We had terrible posture. We went knuckling along the wooden floor on the callused pads of our fists…” Englander employs a similar technique in “How We Avenged the Blums“: “…Greenheath was like any other town, except for its concentration of girls in ankle-length denim skirts and white-canvas Keds, and boys in sloppy Oxford shirts, with their yarmulkes hanging down as if sewn to the side of their heads.”
I hope these ideas help you give your readers a picture of your narrator without dramatizing her getting dressed in the morning!
**Note: My very sharp copy editor/husband informs me that all of these examples are in past tense! I didn’t even notice this coincidence as I was writing the column. Perhaps it’s easier to write a first person story in past tense, to add a bit of narrative distance. Or perhaps the past tense lends itself more easily to descriptive moments like these. Or perhaps this is another column all together!
In my English classes in high school, I was never one for sonnets or villanelles. I found them to be a bit too restrictive and concluded that I must be a fiction writer, because fiction writers like their space. So you can imagine my surprise when the students in my flash fiction class in the fall almost unanimously reported that our unit on fixed form narratives was their favorite.
A fixed form narrative is basically a story that has rules that dictate its structure. Think of them as the prose equivalent to poems that have prescribed lengths, rhyme schemes, etc. In prose, these fixed forms can be “organic” (like a story that masquerades as a series of Facebook status updates), or “abstract” (built around specific criteria, like word count, sentence count, and so on).
The more I thought about my students’ attraction to fixed forms, the more it made sense. Writers love writing prompts because they help generate ideas. But rather than offering students an idea to respond to, fixed forms help shape their work stylistically. This kind of play allows them a chance to be adventurous, forces them to try on new types of sentences, and refuses to let them settle for the first phrasings that pop into their heads.
In class, we tried out a few forms from Bruce Holland Rogers’ list (which is great, and can be found here). Then I asked the students to group up and invent their own fixed form narrative, complete with a name, a list of rules, and an example written by their group. Each group presented and we tried them all on for size. I wrote along with them and found my old fear of rule-based writing melt away.
I don’t know of any magazines that actively seek fixed form narratives (anyone?), so for now the added challenge of taking on these forms is that the resulting stories have to be brilliant in their own right, not just as examples of the form, since editors may or may not even know what you’re responding to. But fixed form narratives are also great for generative play. Once you have the idea and a few lovely images or sentences in hand, you can knock out the scaffolding and re-write the piece sans constraints.
I’ve got my eye on fixed form narratives as something I imagine we’ll be seeing more of as time goes on. Do hop over to Rogers’ website and try a few out on your own.
First of all, very glad to even be able to type the word “metaphor” today. On Saturday, I poured a very full glass of water directly into the keyboard of my shiny new laptop. It was mostly fine, but not all of the keys recovered. I had to spend the next 24 hours using the cut and paste function whenever I need an “m” or an “n”. Needless to say, that got old pretty fast, so I walked it into the Apple store, saying, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one…”
But on to metaphor. I think the best metaphors are the ones that do a thousand things at once. The best way to explain this is probably by example. So here are a couple of examples of metaphors that work brilliantly:
- From Benjamin Percy’s Refresh Refresh: “a no-neck linebacker with teeth like corn kernels and hands like T-bone steaks.” That’s a lot of information and description packed into a slim 13 words. “Corn kernels” not only tells us about the size and shape of the linebacker’s teeth, but also their color. “Corn kernels” also implies something soft, like maybe his teeth are rotten. “T-bone steaks” likewise gives me a sense of size and shape, but also density and weight. It casts the linebacker’s fists as being dumb or without agency, just pieces of meat. And both together tell us a fair bit about the narrator, as well as the person he’s describing. Narrators should always use descriptions that are within the realm of their experiences. From this line, I glean that this narrator is a “meat and potatoes” kind of guy. I feel like I know a little bit about what he eats, and can extract from that some information about social standing, income, etc.
- From “Kavita Through Glass” by Emily Ishem Raboteau: “The pieces of colored glass were smooth and flattish and oblong, shaped like teardrops roughly the size of robin’s eggs.” Again, “the size of robin’s eggs” does not just tell us about the size, but also shape and texture and fragility. This image combined with “teardrops” makes me think of the color blue. “Teardrops” implies that they are translucent and glassy. It also impacts the mood of the piece, bringing in a sense of sadness.
I could go and on, but I think you get the idea. Good metaphors do a lot of work for the little space they take up on the page. The other side of this, of course, is that the least successful metaphors are the ones that do nothing. I will occasionally come upon a draft that has a line like, “It sounded like a thousand Cheerios being flung forcefully against a trampoline.” I don’t know about you, but I have absolutely no idea what that sounds like. Rather than doing the one thing that metaphor sets out to do (give me a sound image), it instead obfuscates the tenor even more. I now need another metaphor to explain the metaphor meant to explain the original sound!
So take your cues from the authors above. Never limit yourself to illuminating just one aspect of the thing you’re describing. Instead, make your metaphors work hard and save yourself some precious real estate.
I consider myself to be primarily a prose writer, but I have dabbled a bit in poetry. It’s fun. It’s short. And publishers can fit more of it on the same number of pages, so I’ve found it to be easier to market (not “easy,” just “easier”). Plus, it’s good to be versatile: Sometimes something will “come to you” as a poem. When it does, you want to be able to write it.
Consider the following to be my poetry-writing cheat sheet. Obviously, it takes more than this to write a really stellar poem: inspiration, talent, magical puppy-bunnies. But I’ve found I can write a pretty decent one by doing these four simple things:
- Remember that poems can be tiny stories. The idea of writing poetry used to make me itchy. All those adjectives, the lyric language, THE RHYME SCHEMES. But then I started reading poets like Billy Collins and Tony Hoagland and found out that (gasp!) poems can be little mini-stories. In poetry-land, they call these “narrative poems.” They are awesome.
- Line breaks are your friend. When you’re used to prose conventions, breaking a paragraph mid-sentence can seem weird. If you’re not sure where to break or why, do what I do and just fiddle with the line breaks until your reader could just read the break words—the last words in each line—and get a sense of the mood of the poem, what it’s about, or it’s central metaphor. For example, in this Joanna Fuhrman poem about architecture and longing, the first handful of break words are “cries,” “says,” “can’t,” “outer,” “tears,” “house’s,” and “beautiful.” If you click through, you’ll see how perfectly those words capture the tone of the poem. When in doubt, break on an action or image word.
- Use mood words to add tension. If you’re writing a poem about something sad, you can throw in some words with pleasant or happy connotations to complicate it a bit. And vice versa. Billy Collins does this masterfully in his poem “Snow Day,” which seems to be about a day off from school (hooray!), but he adds tension by throwing in lots of negative words and words connected with revolution. Words like “flag,” “smothered,” “government,” “blocked,” “fallen,” “prisoner,” “sympathizer,” “anarchic,” “cause,” “hide,” “plotting,” “riot,” and “queen” make the reader wonder what the poem is really about.
- Finally, don’t be afraid to lie. We fiction writers are, by nature, liars. I used to suffer under the misconception that poems had to be non-fiction. False! Turns out a poet can take on a “persona” the same way a fiction writer takes on a point of view character to tell her (fictional) story.
You can hop over to my Writing page and click on the poetry links to see the cheat sheet in action.
I’m very happy to be co-leading a workshop for this year’s Dzanc Day, a day when writers, editors and teachers donate their time and talents to raise money for some of Dzanc Books‘ more charitable endeavors. These include the Dzanc Prize, which recognizes one writer annually for literary excellence and service to his or her community, and their Writer in Residence Program, which places professional writers into classrooms to provide creative writing instruction to public school students who could not otherwise afford it.
To help support these programs, Dzanc Day workshops are held simultaneously in various states across the U.S. The one I’m leading in Colorado Springs is about Generating and Publishing Experimental Writing and it’s going to be awesome. If you live in Colorado—sign up! If you live somewhere else, find a workshop near you and sign up for that one.
It’s going to be big, so don’t get left out!
I wrote the brief craft essay below, about common traps that keep writers from writing well-plotted flash fiction, for Flash Fiction Chronicles.
I’m currently teaching a flash fiction course and my students and I have spent a fair amount of class time discussing the borderlands between flash fiction and prose poetry. While I agree that there’s a fair amount of overlap, for me what makes a piece “flash fiction” is the story, the plot.
One thing this course is teaching me is that there are many, many ways to avoid writing a plot. The following are some common traps I’ve seen my students fall into that get in the way of the plot.
- Focusing all of your energy on rendering a static moment with beautiful, lyric language. I love lyric language as much as the next reader and there’s certainly a place for this kind of descriptive writing (it’s called prose poetry). But in my class, you have to push beyond just writing lovely sentences. I need to see something important shift in the course of the story. Read your piece from beginning to end and ask yourself “What changes?” If you don’t have an answer, you don’t have a story.
- Writing a really quirky interesting character and showing us how quirky and interesting he is. This is one I see a lot. The story is a long, detailed account of an obsessive compulsive earthworm salesman going through his day. The details are strong, the writing is compelling and the character is fascinating, but there’s no plot. No matter how interesting your character is, you still need a plot. Don’t just show me an ordinary day in the life of a quirky character, show me the day when everything changes for him. If you happen to find yourself in the bottom of this well, there is good news. You’ve already got an interesting character! So if you can find the right plot for him, you’ve got a recipe for a successful flash.
- Revealing something at the end of the story that the character knew, but we didn’t. This is an especially tricky one because there is often an epiphany involved, the problem is that the epiphany is for the reader not the character. So you get to the end of the story and it turns out, the whole thing is being narrated by a plastic snowman inside of a snow-globe. Whoa! the reader thinks. I didn’t see that coming. In this way the story acts as kind of a joke, meant to surprise the reader. But is it a story? Not yet. The snowman knew his situation the whole time, so nothing has changed or been revealed for him. Surprises are fine in stories, but you must make sure the surprise isn’t covering up the fact that there’s no plot.
- Something huge and life-changing happens to the character, but the character has nothing to do with it. Passive people make great, low drama friends, but passive characters make boring stories. Say your character is a low-income mother of four desperately trying to pay for her youngest son’s lung transplant. In the final paragraph of the story, she receives a phone call informing her that an anonymous philanthropist has donated the money for the surgery. Sure, something changes, but our character had nothing to do with it. Make sure your protagonist has some agency in the story and that she acts. In this example, perhaps the more interesting point of view character might be the philanthropist. How did he find out about his woman? What made him choose her as a benefactor for his good deeds? We want to know about him because he’s active in the story, even if he never actually appears on the scene.
There are countless ways to avoid writing plot. And it’s a difficult task, especially in flash fiction where you have limited space. Be on the lookout for these four common traps and you can avoid falling into them.
Doug Nufer’s book Never Again has only just come to my attention, despite being published in 2002 (apparently). As the title hints, Nufer uses any given word only once—never again. I only read enough of the book to see how this constraint would work, and I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised.
Most of Never Again‘s narration has a kind of dreamy, stream-of-consciousness feel to it, not least because of the inability to use any pronouns more than once. And there’s a clear reliance on synonyms, especially during dialogue exchanges. I imagine Nufer did most of his writing with a thesaurus handy.
I tried a much, much smaller version of this exercise—Nufer’s book is 163 pages—as a writing prompt in my flash fiction class. The students didn’t seem to think it was so tough to do for a paragraph or two, but I was really challenged by it. As my scene got longer, I had to continuously cannibalize sentences I’d written earlier in order to keep writing. I would ask myself, Do I really need that “is” in the third sentence? Could I use it better down here?
While I can’t recommend the book (having only read a few pages), I can highly recommend the exercise. It makes you think very carefully about word choice, and keeps you from automatically assuming that the first word to pop into your head is the best one.