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Metaphors for Flash Fiction, with ‘Sex’ Substituted for ‘Flash’

Last year when we opened up application submissions for the Kathy Fish Fellowship at SmokeLong Quarterly, we asked writers to send a brief essay about why they like flash fiction and what they hope to get out of the fellowship if they win. We got a lot of really great responses to this question, and many many metaphors for what flash is like. After reading hundreds of these essays, though, my brain started to fire in different ways—namely in that ‘twelve-year-old-boy-sense-of-humor’ kind of way.

We’ve done away with that question for this year’s round of applicants, replaced by a few other more targeted questions. But in homage to all the great responses we got last year, I present to you excerpts from a few essays with “flash fiction” replaced with “sex”:

  • Sex provides pressure, a quick release of energy.
  • I thrive in these tight spaces.
  • Sex appeals to me because I can do so in one sitting, on a device like a laptop or smartphone, and because I often find that it makes me think about the nature of storytelling.
  • I love that sex is palpable, always in bite sized pieces and how it never leaves me with a sense of wanting more or less.
  • I like sex that is quick, visceral and unapologetic.
  • My strongest sexual encounters have been the ones where I didn’t sit down with a plan and a goal.
  • Sex is a bursting blossom from a poetic bud.
  • The kick in the teeth lures me as much as the wonder I experience when I have sex.
  • With sex, a single word can make or break the emotional tone overall.
  • I’ve had an appetite for sex since I was fourteen.
  • In the same way the straw wrapper winds up an accordion on the diner’s table or my wife touches each knob on the stove exactly once before leaving, I have sex.
  • One of the best parts of sex is knowing I can enter someone’s reading space, tell them a humorous anecdote or swiftly punch them in the gut, and then leave them comforted or haunted long after I’ve left.

There you go! By the way, application submissions for the 2017 Kathy Fish Fellowship open on July 15, 2016. For more information on the prize and guidelines, check out this page.

*Photo by Juhan Sonin and used via Flickr Creative Commons.

The Rumpus Saturday Interview and a great reading at Politics and Prose

This weekend was a writer’s dream! My chat with the wonderful Tyrese Coleman was published in The Rumpus on Saturday. Q&As seem pretty easy to conduct, and we see a lot of them around. But conducting a really good interview is an art. It’s one thing to send some generic basic questions to an author and let them ramble on. It’s another to do research, read their works, and craft really interesting questions that would be of interest to someone who has read the book as equally as someone who hasn’t read the book. And I thought Ty did an excellent job with it. I so appreciate her efforts here, and I hope you’ll also go check out her writing as well. She’s a force.

Speaking of a force, Politics and Prose is one of the best independent bookstores in the country. I had an event there on Saturday afternoon with novelist Michael Landweber, and it was fantastic. Kudos to the professional and kind event staff at P&P who make you feel very welcome and who know how to draw in a crowd. It was a pleasure to hear Mike read from his new novel Thursday, 1:17 PM, about what happens to a teenage boy when time suddenly stops and everything is frozen except him. Thanks so much to everyone who came out to hear us read. It was truly a pleasure.

Author Elizabeth Hazen and publisher Andrew Gifford at the Grubb Road Book Festival.
Author Elizabeth Hazen and publisher Andrew Gifford at the Grubb Road Book Festival.

On Sunday, Santa Fe Writers Project hosted the first annual Grubb Road Book Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. Local book publishers including Paycock Press and Possibilities Publishing were on hand to chat with readers and sell some books. It was a beautiful summer afternoon.

So…a whirlwind book weekend! I continue to feel fortunate in so many ways.

Bring your babies to book launches

My husband Art Taylor and I have been bringing our son to literary events since he was a baby. Last week, I had the pleasure of writing about this for Publisher’s Weekly. It’s not always gone smoothly, and it hasn’t always been pleasant, but we are pretty excited that Dash thinks that book launches are regular weekend events to attend. Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

When I was a kid, I remember how endless Sunday Mass used to feel, listening to the priest talk about things I didn’t understand. I had to sit still and be quiet. And yet I was aware that there was something important going on, something special and significant, and it was nice to be part of that.

I don’t equate readings with church (although good ones can be a spiritual experience in their own right), but my husband and I see Dashiell picking up on the specialness of the events we take him to. During one reading, a woman recited a long poem while Dash parked his cars in the back of the room. But when she started firing off a list of names in a rapid succession, he looked up and started laughing at the rhythm of the words. Another time we were at a friend’s reading, sitting in the children’s section flipping through picture books, when he looked up at me and whispered, “She just said ‘son of a gun’! That’s not a nice thing to say.”

You can read the rest of the essay here.

And, to put my money where my mouth is, Dash traveled with us this weekend to Pennsylvania where I had my Bystanders hometown launch at the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Dash sat in the front row and handed out Bystanders bookmarks to everyone in attendance (and photo-bombed some of the pictures, as you can see.) It was a really lovely event at a beautiful library, and I was so pleased to be able to read at a place I loved to go as a child myself. Circle of life?

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This weekend I get to fulfill a dream I’ve had since I started graduate school at George Mason University in 2002. I’ll be reading at one of my very favorite bookstores in the world–Politics and Prose. I remember seeing some very fabulous writers read there over the years–Alan Cheuse, Susan Shreve, Paul Auster and Richard Russo, to name a few. It’s truly an honor to get to stand at the podium myself!

I’ll be there on Saturday, June 25 from 1 to 2 p.m. with novelist and friend Michael Landweber, whose book Thursday, 1:17 p.m. was released on May 1, 2016. Please come join us if you’re in town!

Blah. Word Thieves.

I’ve been bummed out this week after hearing about the massive plagiarism accusations against B. Mitchell Cator, including several pieces from SmokeLong Quarterly that were apparently lifted and published in a book under different titles. For now, Cator has been largely silent, except for a few emails he’s sent to some of the writers and journals that he stole from. We have not heard from him at SmokeLong.

This makes me angry, and it also makes me sad. Angry because many of the writers I know are struggling to find time to write and publish in between other jobs and family obligations, and hardly getting paid anything for their work. Angry because flash fiction, especially, is a form that is brilliant, but largely misunderstood—each time I do any sort of presentation on the form, inevitably someone in the audience will say it’s the first time they’ve even heard of it—and plagiarizing these stories for profit seems like an even bigger ‘FU’ to me for some reason. Now, I say ‘for profit,’ perfectly understanding that chances are Cator’s self-published book on Amazon wasn’t selling like hotcakes before the news broke anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if his total royalties were less in dollars than the fingers I have on my hands. But even if he made 5 cents on the book…WRONG. But it’s also sad to me that he felt the need to put this much effort into plucking stories, paragraphs, sentences from other people and collaging it together to call it his own. I’ve seen many comments along the lines of: It probably would have been easier to just write his own book. But he didn’t. Why? Can we find some sympathy in this situation?

I’ve heard from lots of writers and editors, and we’re all sort of reeling in puzzlement. What makes someone do something like this? How could he think he could get away with it? And the thing is, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this issue is much more widespread than we think. Perhaps not to the systematic, serial level that Cator conducted, but smaller violations. Stories previously published elsewhere, contract violations, lines and phrases lifted, even unintentionally, from other places. The online journal writing world, the flash fiction writing world, is a small one, and one that I feel is bound together in some ways by trust, collaboration, and support. Many journals, operating with small volunteer staffs and little to no budget, don’t have the time to extensively scour the Internet to verify stories accepted are the works of the author and don’t appear anywhere else. Editors are overworked, under-thanked, and usually juggling a million other things, and they trust that writers are going by the honor code. It’s not an excuse, but it is often the reality. Clearly that can easily be taken advantage of.

At SmokeLong, we’ve been discussing this issue and trying to decide what actions to take. I believe in the next few months we will be changing our editorial process slightly to give room to vet stories accepted and ensure as much as possible that we are publishing the highest quality and original works by writers. To my knowledge, we have never discovered plagiarism in any of our published stories, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen or hasn’t.

It’s been a sad week for writers, but also a good wake-up call for us as well. Here’s hoping it will make us better, more original, and more vigilant with our words.

How Michael Czyzniejewski can cure the book blues

For whatever reason, I’ve been feeling a little blue this week about writing and whatnot. Which is odd, since it’s the week that my book is officially released out into the wild. But, I suppose, wherever you are in your writing career, there are always new challenges, doubts, and worries, and you never know when they’re going to sneak up on you.

Which is why I was so pleased to see Michael Czyzniejewski ‘s write-up of “The Monitor,” one of the stories in Bystanders, on his awesome Story366 blog this morning. In case you’ve missed it so far, Mike is writing about a different short story every day for the whole year. Ambitious! Awesome! Check it out.

His review of “The Monitor” is great, and much appreciated. But more than that, it got me thinking about the way that writing friendships work, and the way that encounters and generosity and a little bit of luck open up opportunities and connections and friendships.

Way back when in grad school, I would read Mid-American Review. Mike was the fiction editor then, and a damn fine one with a stellar reputation. The publication was on my bucket list. I sent him anything I vaguely thought might be worthy, and got a lot of rejections back. Some with handwritten notes, others not, but trust me, I remember those little scribbles. They were a sign of an actual person behind this mysterious process.

When I finally got a story accepted by him, it was like I’d made it. I remember dragging my coworker to the bar in the middle of the afternoon for a sneaky celebratory drink.

Later, that story was included in my first collection. Later, I met Mike in person at AWP. I became the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, and actually got to publish some of his stories. Then he read for us at an off-site event in D.C. (The picture with this post is us, circa 2010! Look how happy we look!) We chatted occasionally on social media.

A few years ago, Mike interviewed one of our authors for the quarterly issue, and the interview was so great that I jokingly told him he should just be our interview person. Not only did he say yes, but so did his amazingpants wife Karen Craigo. And so goes the weird, crazy, wonderful, sometimes frustrating but always interesting circle of writing life: the faceless editor I used to spam with my work in grad school now works with me on a publication.

This is not a particularly unusual or special story. I’m sure most every writer has a similar experience to share, probably dozens of them. But I needed to reflect on it this week in particular, when it seems like the writing world is too big. That there are too many of us trying to do the same thing, that it’s hard to write and even harder to get that writing in other people’s hands.

All of that is true, but it’s precisely those reasons why its worth it as well. Yep, there’s a lot of us. But that’s all the more to “get” what we’re trying to do and sympathize. It’s all the more to meet and learn from and have beers with. It’s all the more who spend what little free time they have to write a review or send you a quick note or slog through submission queues to publish your work and give you a voice.

So thank you, Mike and all of my other writing pals out there–too many, thankfully for me, to name–for your friendship and for all the opportunities you’ve provided to me throughout the years. And thank you for being amazing writers and editors and support groups. I feel quite lucky to have you all and to be able to call you friends.

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And speaking of awesome writing people, I wanted to give a quick shout-out to Chris Irvin, Paul Tremblay, and Erin Fitzgerald for making our panel at the Newburyport Literary Festival this past weekend look good. We chatted about violence in literature (and the occasional movie), and I really enjoyed it. I also enjoyed Paul’s reading later that afternoon–which was given to a SRO crowd. If you haven’t checked out A Head Full of Ghosts yet, you need to. Just don’t read it late at night.

 

Flash Fiction Prompts and Readings–Handout from Conversations and Connections DC 2016

I had a lovely time presenting at this year’s DC Conversations and Connections conference with Tyrese Coleman, editor of District Lit, and Abigail Beckel, publisher at Rose Metal Press. Our panel, The Long from the Short: Turning Flash Fiction Pieces into a Series or Novel, was so well-attended that we ran out of handouts! As promised, I’m posting our tips, prompts, and further reading list here.

Also, here are some relevant links:

District Lit

Rose Metal Press

SmokeLong Quarterly

Also, thank you to the folks who asked about Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons. I should’ve mentioned the book is currently out of print, although it is being re-released in early 2017 by Santa Fe Writers Project. You can still find it on Kindle right now if you’d like to check it out.

Cheers!

Tips for Writing Flash:

Start at the flashpoint—by definition Flash begins at the moment of conflict, when all the action is nearly complete.

Focus on the powerful image(s)—Find one or more powerful images to focus your story on.

Hit them where it hurts—Go for an ending that offers an emotional impact. Play against expectations with a sense of narrative mystery or devastating twist, a poignant implication or declarative last sentence that leaves the reader breathless, and going back for more. Not an “aha” moment or a punchline. An ending more nuanced than that.

Strive for the concrete.  Eliminate the word “thing” or “something,” for example.  Replace that word with an actual concept, image, noun, etc, that explicitly participates in the image you are portraying.

Write the whole story, then eliminate useless words.

Stay away from punchline endings or “joke” flash fiction.

 

Some Flash Prompts:

Fictionalizing a true moment: Start a flash piece with a specific memory of your own grounded in the five senses (touch, smell, feel, seeing, hearing) – For example: the feel of an aunt scratching your scalp or the smell of your child’s bedroom. This memory should be specific enough to work into a moment. Find the story from there.

Use pictures, paintings, or music to inspire a flashpoint.

Tell the story backward or play with the idea of memory and nonlinear time in a story.

Think of writing a flash piece as a scene when working on something longer, say a longer short story or as a novel chapter.  Flash is inherently raw with emotion. When wanting to draft a pivotal moment, take the time to draft a flash piece – with a beginning, middle and end — to represent that moment between your characters.  Break down the action to its bare essentials for more impact.

 

For Further Reading:

Narratives-in-Flash

Matt Bell, Cataclysm Baby

Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, and Aaron Teel, My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form

Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha

Aaron Burch, How to Predict the Weather

Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

Evan S. Connell, Mrs. Bridge

Lily Hoang, Changing

Tina May Hall, All the Day’s Sad Stories

Lance Olsen, Anxious Pleasures

Lance Olsen, Architectures of Possibility

Kelcey Parker, Liliane’s Balcony

Mary Robison, Why Did I Ever

Matthew Salesses, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Madeleine Is Sleeping

Jean Toomer, Cane

Lex Williford, Superman on the Roof (forthcoming Aug. 2016)

 

Flash Guides

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction edited by Tara L. Masih

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore

A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction edited by Randall Brown

 

Journals That Feature Flash

Smokelong Quarterly

Brevity

matchbook

Monkeybicycle

Nanofiction

Necessary Fiction

District Lit

The Collagist

The Short Form

The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts

Wigleaf

Whiskey Paper

Links to flash stories/examples of flash forms:

How to Sit by Tyrese Coleman: pankmagazine.com/piece/sit/

If the Woodcutter Were a Junkie by Tyrese Coleman: queenmobs.com/2015/11/if-the-woodcutter-were-a-junkie/

Liner Notes for the Debut Album From the Band We Never Formed by Amorak Huey: brevitymag.com/nonfiction/liner-notes/

The Heiress by Tara Laskowski: matterpress.com/journal/2015/03/02/the-heiress/

The Cage in the Woods by Joe Lucido: wigleaf.com/201509cage.htm

Narrative Flash:

Cravat by Roseanne Scott: www.smokelong.com/cravat/

Conjugation by Jen Michalski: www.smokelong.com/conjugation/

Dialogue-only flash:

Bartleby Snopes contest (2000 words or less): http://www.bartlebysnopes.com/bartleby-snopes-issue-14.pdf

Flash with long time span:

Transplanting by Lisa Smithies: http://www.smokelong.com/transplanting/

Present-tense flash with amazing drive:

Dive by Dawn West: http://www.smokelong.com/dive/

Good microfiction:

Marriage by Anna Lea Jancewicz : http://www.matchbooklitmag.com/jancewicz.html

How to Write Killer Flash Fiction

Crime flash fiction is hard to write! But when it’s good, it’s oh so good. I talk about this in a blog post “How to Write Killer Flash Fiction” over at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Here’s a sample:

“Stay away from surprise or punch-line endings. Your story’s only purpose should not be a surprise reveal at the end. That leaves the reader feeling cheated.”

Check it out in its entirety here–and thanks much to editor Janet Hutchings for asking me to participate. Also remember to check out the May 2016 All Nations issue of EQMM for my story “States of Matter.”

First-place win in KYSO Flash

So pleased to learn that my flash “Ladies Night” won first place in the KYSO Flash Triple-F Writing Challenge. The challenge was to write a 500-word or less story or poem that uses the words flicker, fierce, and fool. I usually get paralyzed by word writing prompts, but somehow this one worked. Thanks to Clare MacQueen and the editors at KYSO Flash for all their kind words about the piece. You can find my story and the other winners, honorable mentions, and finalists here. 

 

*Photo courtesy of unsplash (Sergio Alves Santos)

 

Flash Fiction Story Accepted by Ellery Queen

Exciting news: My short story “States of Matter” will be appearing in the May 2016 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. What is particularly exciting about this is that it is the All Nations issue, with crime fiction stories from writers all over the globe. My piece will be the American representative in that issue, which is pretty stinking cool.

The story, about a gravedigger and a woman who needs revenge, comes in at just over 450 words, so it’s a tiny little sucker. Look for it on newsstands in a month or two! And thanks much to Janet Hutchings, editor of EQMM, for believing in it.

*Post image used courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Ways I’ve Learned to Survive Winter

I’ve always used one word to describe the winter season: Ugh. I’d much rather be hot than cold. I cannot stand being cold; it makes me miserable and unproductive. I can handle the first part of winter because of all the holiday festivities, but once New Years Day comes and goes, it’s pretty much bleakness through to mid-April for me.

However, the past few years I’ve tried (note: tried) to have a better attitude about the whole thing. If only because there’s no real way to avoid it, save moving south somewhere. And with a better attitude comes a new way of looking at our coldest season. There’s something kind of nice about that first snow day, that equalizing feeling that comes with everything shutting down for the day, of everyone taking a break, slowing down. There’s something nice about warm sweaters and blankets, a cozy fire crackling. Hot chocolate.

So with that spirit, I offer up a few things that have gotten me a little more pleasantly through what is still my least favorite part of the year:

  1. A good coat. Never underestimate the power of a good down coat. What used to be me freezing on the train platform in what I thought was a good warm coat is now me laughing at the old self as I wrap myself in puffy feathers, warm gloves and a scarf. It makes the walk a little more bearable. (A little more.)
  2. Grapefruit. It is best in the winter, and it is a delightful treat. It’s also the kind of fruit that you eat ceremonially. It takes some time. It takes a special spoon. It takes some digging and some work to get it out. And it’s delicious with a sprinkle of sugar on top.
  3. A SAD light. It’s so terrible to arrive at work in the dark and leave work in the dark. I purchased one of those seasonal affective disorder lights a few years ago and it’s made all the difference for me. I use it for 30 minutes a day and I don’t burst into tears quite as often for no real reason.
  4. New Years cards. We haven’t sent Christmas cards in a while, but I always feel guilty about it. I like writing notes to folks, but I just don’t have the time in the mad rush before the holidays. So I’ve thought about doing New Years cards in January, once everything has calmed down and it’s too damn cold to go out anywhere anyway. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll try!
  5. Orion. No doubt about it, the winter sky at night is the best sky. The first glimpse of our sky hunter grounds me, and on a clear night in the winter you can see so much beauty. It’s worth bundling up and heading down to a dark spot for.
  6. Cashmere. It’s soft, unlike scratchy wool. It’s light, unlike heavy wool. It’s warm, really warm, unlike all the rest of the sweaters in my closet. It’s expensive, sure, but it’s SO WORTH IT.
  7. Key lime pie. I have a fantasy of taking a tropical vacation during the winter. Of escaping to Key West for a week at the end of January or in the middle of the worst month of all (February, in case you were wondering) and sitting on the beach eating key lime pie and flipping a big middle finger to the arctic winds and polar vortexes. It hasn’t happened yet, but a girl can dream, right?