Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Flash Fiction and Short Stories

If you've been following along on this blog for a while, you'll already know about the flash fiction I post here on the weekends. I don't get to it every week, and some weeks what I do get to is total crap, but I have built up a semi-decent collection over time.

I like writing the flash fiction pieces. They give me the opportunity change up the routine for the creative side of my brain and to actually finish something with some regularity, which can be desperately necessary when I'm in the middle of trying to force myself through the long hard slog of a novel.

Plus, since they're so short and the time commitment isn't huge, there's less risk involved in writing something unfamiliar. I try to write them outside my comfort zones, experimenting with different voices and POVs and genres, which quite often teaches me what I can and cannot (yet) do as a writer.

And every now and again I'll write something I think is really good, and then I get to show it off and preen a little. Preening is always nice.

I've also gotten much better at tightening my prose. When you're trying to tell a story in 500 words or 1000 words or even as few as 50 words, you learn to take a good hard look at which words and characters and plotlines you really need, and which ones have to get cut.

I've never been good at cutting. This post alone probably serves as a pretty good example of that. I think in big long complex thoughts and I write in bigger ones.

But there's no room for that kind of nonsense in flash fiction. Or, there is, but you have to really want it. You have to be willing to give up a lot of other things for those bits of snarky banter or angry diatribes or vivid descriptions. And learning to make those trades took me quite a while.

I'm still not fabulous at it. Sometimes the words will run off when I'm not paying attention and cutting a piece of flash fiction down to size will take me two or three or ten times as long as writing it in the first place. But I'm getting better at keeping under control while I write. And I'm getting faster at spotting the places where I wandered off when I do lose track.

That's a good general skill to have in the toolbox as a writer, but I've really gotten to get some practice at wielding it as I've been writing "Fishwife". Since I've struggled in the past with writing short stories, because they always blow up into long stories on me, I decided to treat "Fishwife" more like a way-too-long piece of flash fiction and less like a way-too-short novel.

I plotted out this short story to be about 7000 words. The scene list I originally made called for five scenes. Right off the bat, I knew I had to cut one, because it was really more about introducing a future character than about telling this individual story. If I was planning out a novel, maybe I wouldn't have been so strict and I would have kept it. But the flash fiction skillset demanded the unnecessary scene get pulled down off the corkboard and shoved in the "ideas for later" folder. Away it, and its associated hot selkie, went.

The flash fiction mindset has helped during the writing stage as well. For example, at one point I had two characters walking the crime scene and they rambled off down this bunny trail of discussing what kind of material could have been used to tie up the victim. Nope. Sorry, my flash fiction brain cut in. We don't need to know that. She was tied up. Rope, net, line, whatever it was, it doesn't matter. Cut it and move on.

Am I going to have to pare things down and cut things out when it comes time to edit the story? Sure. Have I already noticed spots where the transitions are a little too jumpy and the Inner Editor is going to have to work overtime to smooth them out? Yup. Does a part of me really want to bring back that other scene so the Muse can take that hot selkie out for a spin? Absolutely.

But by using the skills I've learned writing flash fiction for this blog over the last year, I'm much more likely to end up with a short story I might actually be able to do something with, instead of just getting bogged down in another false start. I knew this blog was going to be good for something!

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