Review: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction
Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of the twelve-tone musical system, told his students, Don’t compose in my method. Learn my method and then just compose.
The contributors to the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, edited by Tara L. Masih, seem to have the same attitude. They want to hit writers with new ideas, like little meteors striking earth, and see what unique sparks fly. Instead of formulae, they offer perspectives, exercises, and strategies to help new and experienced writers address the unique problems of the short-short form.
As an object, the book is a wonderful way to receive ideas: a modest-sized perfect-bound text printed on bright paper, big enough to feel good in the hands but small enough to fit in a purse or backpack, with clean typography and clear illustrations. Rebecca Saraceno designed a delightful artifact.
Inside are twenty-five essays. You couldn’t ask for better contributors: They are editors who define the genre, prize-winning writers, and educators, with each contributor fitting into more than one of these categories. Every essay ends with an exercise and a story that illustrates the exercise. Additionally, Masih herself contributes a thorough and thoughtful 28-page introduction (about four times longer than the average essay) that describes the history of the short-short story; it’s well worth the time.
The content is all over the map, both in style and in content, but in a good way, and Masih lends structure to the whole.
Pamela Painter begins the collection with a defense of the exercise, likening it to forcing your butt onto the piano bench and practicing. Ron Carlson begins the collection’s ending with this call to arms:
Okay! I thought. I will! Now!... Just as soon as I finish reading this essay....
Vivid moments abound along the way: Carlson goes on to say, “Key to all fiction, long or short, is to remember that the wolfman did not want the moon.” (I would buy this book for that one sentence.) Pia Z. Ehrhardt turns literal structure (she’s renovating her century-old home) into literary structure (her essay is subtitled, “Tapping Your Story for Load-Bearing Sentences”). Stace Budzko’s “essay” details his interactions with inner-city high schoolers in his role as writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art-Boston; it’s as much of a story as any of the stories are.
In fact, many essays reminded me of the educational power of a good story. Vanessa Gebbie’s description of what flash means to her, ultimately encapsulated in the words, “You blink. But no — it is not over,” is a tiny story that makes you want to write something that reaches her — reaches anyone — like that. Steve Almond’s essay, subtitled “How Writing Really Bad Poetry Yields Really Better Short Stories”, made me laugh; and his advice may not be applicable to everyone, but I wanted to try it just to see if it worked for me.
These things will stick with me. They are, for me, the heart of the book.
Sometimes the essays show how immature flash is as an art form — despite its long history. This won’t help you write flash, but it might help you interpret the industry.
For instance, the contributors talk a lot (more than I’d prefer, sometimes) about publishing such-and-such an early volume, or how so-and-so told them that their stories weren’t stories. I don’t believe we’d see those anecdotes in a volume about traditional poems or ordinary short stories.
At other times, the essayists grope for definitions or assert them with great authority; they debate the difference between prose poems and flash fiction, not even agreeing among themselves; they discuss whether plot is a factor or not.
This latter point interests me, and the answers are gloriously inconsistent. Kim Chinquee tells us, “this genre is not excused from plot.” Robert Olen Butler asserts, “A short short story, in its brevity, may not have a fully developed plot, but it must have the essence of a plot, yearning.” Nathan Leslie approvingly analyzes “The Sock” by Lydia Davis, noting that “nothing really ‘happens’ per se.” Sherrie Flick, as she advocates “Writing Outside of Time’s Boundaries,” avoids plot altogether and provides a wonderful plotless image of Oklahoma Men.
Don’t learn to write flash fiction based on these definitions. Learn these definitions and then just write.
Having said that, this particular question seems academic. (The term does not imply insult.) If an author wants to find a publisher for something she’s written, she has to find a market that fits her piece; whether the publishers think of it as flash fiction or prose poetry or a short-short story is immaterial. Similarly, as a publisher, I’ve created submission guidelines that tell authors that I want a plot, and I’ve rejected many perfectly good pieces of short-short fiction because they lacked plots. Fit for a given market can only be determined by observation. And if an author doesn’t care about publication, why care about definitions?
For readers looking for more practical advice — this is a “field guide”, after all — there is plenty to be found. Examples:
There’s more good stuff to discuss in the volume, too, but if you’re still reading this then you probably just want to go buy the book.
To return for a moment to the immaturity of flash: Masih contacted Rose Metal Press about this book idea in November 2007. I was building infrastructure and conducting market research for Flash Fiction Online at that time — our first issue was December 2007 — and a lot has changed since then. “Flash Fiction” as a term has gathered a lot of momentum among mainstream and genre magazines, as opposed to only literary ones. Every Day Fiction and 365 Tomorrows publish a story every day. Writers among the Twitterati are organizing around the #fridayflash hashtag. Some online ‘zines have changed to flash-only formats.
Is this a problem? Not at all. If anything, the market looks more like it did fifty years ago, as detailed in Masih’s introduction. However, this book feels like it was conceived for literary writers and publishers, and those who want to write flash for more commercial or genre markets may find the examples to be a bit outside their comfort zone.
To those writers, I’d suggest that the book can still be valuable if they adapt it to their own writing style. Adapt it, but don’t make it comfortable. After all, you need friction to create sparks.
Paperback: 208 pages
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About the Author
Jake Freivald lives in New Jersey in a house that teems with life: a wife, eight kids, two dogs, two cats, and ten fish. They’re all being neglected right now, so he’s going to stop writing this.
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