In this month’s column, I want to address two things at once. The first follows naturally on the previous topic of how short flash fiction can be: How long can we make flash fiction? And because my answer to that question is odd and peculiar and won’t be to everyone’s taste, I also want to write about a variety of narrator who is well suited for telling a story in very few words. The link that holds these two subjects together is this month’s sample story.
Wanting to make flash fiction long may seem like a strange desire until you consider the variable demands of the literary marketplace. Some editors don’t want to see fiction submissions under a given word count. What is a writer of thousand-word stories to do?
Certainly the answer is not to pad. A story that works at a thousand words (or three hundred) achieves an effect suitable for that length. Adding words probably isn’t going to turn a short-short into a short story. It’s just going to make it flabby.
My favorite way to make a longer work out of flash is to write several pieces that belong together, either because they are thematically related, pass story elements between stories like cells swapping genes, or are complete stories that also form a larger story arc. In the first case, the stories might simply explore similar subject matter from different angles and then be arranged together under a common title. If the total collection still amounts to only a few thousand words, then you have a piece to be submitted to magazines or anthologies as “a story.” If the total collection runs to tens of thousands of words, then you may have a book that, although a “collection of short stories” (a weak publishing category these days) might benefit from being a collection of related stories. Finally, if the collective work is long and has a unified arc that moves through all the stories of the collection, you have “a novel in short-short stories,” which for marketing purposes you would probably be wise to simply call a novel.
You can do your own research into novellas and novels constructed out of flash fictions. I don’t know of very many, but I can at least suggest Mark Budman and Roberta Allen as writers who’ve had some success with this approach. I’ve never tried it myself. What I want to focus on instead is a special case, my favorite case, for building a unified work from an assortment of flash fictions: the symmetrina.
A while back, in introducing the “word loop,” I wrote about constrained writing, an approach to writing that imposes artificial rules on the writer for no reason other than some writers find doing such things fun, and some readers enjoy the resulting work. The mostly-French group Oulipo, a loose confederation of mathematicians and writers, is perhaps the best-known proponent of such literary games. The best-known Oulipian is probably Italo Calvino, but the writer who was most persistently and successfully “constrained” was probably George Perec, who wrote the novel A Void without using the letter e, wrote a novella in which e is the only vowel, and won the Prix Médicis for Life: A User’s Manual, a novel built on too many constraints for me to name them all here. I’ll just note that that the pattern of a knight’s movement on a chess board provides one of the rules.
Some constrained writing is more interesting for having successfully followed its rules than for the story it tells, and to me, such writing fails. I want a story created with constraints to be read and enjoyed by readers who perhaps intuit that something strange is going on, but enjoy the story anyway even if they never figure out what that something might be. The symmetrina is a fixed form that is on one hand loaded with rules and on the other hand open enough that the stories are still running the show, not the rules.
Here, then, are the rules of a symmetrina. It consists of an odd-numbered series of stories. Each story must be able to stand alone. All of the stories are written to a common theme, which must be named in the overall title. Ideally, though, the title names the theme in an oblique or sly way.
Each constituent story is written to a set word count. The word count for each story is either the number n (which is any positive integer of the author’s choosing) or a multiple of n. The number must appear somewhere in at least one of the stories. For example, in a symmetrina where n=238, a character might be holding two .38 Specials, might check his watch at 2:38, or might have plans for the twenty-third of August.
The word count of stories will start at n and grow bigger with each story until the middle story is reached. Then the stories will grow shorter in the opposite sequence until the last story is n words long. As for the pattern of growth, that’s up to the writer. Any logical sequence can be used. I’m fond of the Fibonacci numbers, which are 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on, adding the two previous numbers to get the next one. So a Fibonacci symmetrina with an n of 238 might have stories of the following word counts: 238, 238, 476, 714, 1190, 714, 476, 238, 238. The title of each flash does not count toward its word count.
Finally, the first and last stories must be written in the first person (I or we). The second and next-to-last stories must be written in the second person (you). The other stories must be in third person (he, she, Bill, Rachel).
That’s it. According to these rules, a symmetrina must be at least five stories long, but there is no upper limit. Instead of the Fibonacci numbers, a writer could double n each time, or use the series of square numbers.
This is a fun form to use as an excuse for creating with other writers. I collaborated with five other writers to put together a collage of stories on the theme of protest for an issue of Indiana Review. But I like writing symmetrinas as solo efforts and have published them in a variety of magazines and anthologies.
The sample story for this month comes from one of the first-person stories that made up the Indiana Review symmetrina. I hope you’ll find that it stands on its own. And it’s also an example of a point of view that I think is well suited for flash: the collective narrator, or the first-person plural. We.
There are some longer stories that use a collective narrator. William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily is such a story, but the “we” telling that story soon fades into the background, and the reader easily forgets that “the whole town” is telling this story, or at least one person who is speaking for the whole town. And I think it’s a good thing that the reader forgets. Like so many techniques that can work for a brief time, I think that a “we” narrator grows tiresome if the reader is reminded of it. Soon the reader is liable to be distracted by thoughts about just who “we” are, and how often does any collective speak for long with a unified voice? “We” swiftly becomes an awkward device.
But in a story of only a few hundred words, there isn’t enough time for the collective voice to become awkward. It can, in fact, become strangely powerful. With that, I give you “We Stand Up” and ask you to consider what other collectives you can think of that have a story worth telling in such a voice.
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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