5 lessons I’ve learned about writing flash fiction — Author Toolbox

When you try something new, your expectations are set quite high. Some people give up on the new thing when it becomes too difficult or when the high expectations they set for themselves aren’t showing.

Last year I decided to join in on the first #FlashFicHive challenge (hosted by Anjela Curtis). This month-long event challenged writers to create flash fiction stories based on all sorts of topics and prompts.

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I’ll admit, I didn’t do so well at keeping up that month or in the following challenges (every other month, which is set to change to a weekly hashtag event starting February 1, 2018).

However, I did learn a lot about writing flash fiction (other than the 1,000-word limit). These skills, which I’m going to share with you, are continuing to help me as I attempt to hone flash fiction in a new goal this year — #52weeks52stories challenge (hosted by Hollie Hausenfluck and Avrin Kelly).

Lesson 1: Start in medias res.

Do you remember this term from high school English class? For some reason, I do. I’m not sure what it was in regards to, but I do remember hearing it in class.

In medias res is Latin for “in the midst of things” — English for “in the middle.”

A flash fiction story most often starts in the middle of the story — at the beginning of the conflict. There aren’t enough words allotted in flash fiction to start with a bunch of fluffy exposition, so the best thing to do is show your character gearing up for the climax.

Lesson 2: Write first without concern for word limits.

It’s true: flash fiction has a word limit. If we wrote the first draft with a limit in mind, then we’d end up missing key pieces to our story.

Therefore, the first draft should be written without any thought to the 1,000-word limit. You can worry about that later when you revise and edit.

Lesson 3: Sometimes you will need to tell instead of show…

*Picks up writer’s notebook to hide behind before going on…*

Of all the advice we writers hear day in and day out, “show don’t tell” resonates the most. We’re always trying to create the perfect image in our reader’s mind.

One-thousand words doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for pretty little descriptions and extensive characterizations. Sometimes a character is simply an old man with a cane instead of the paragraph or two it would take to describe him.

“I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well.”

-Stephen King, On Writing

With flash fiction, sometimes we need to let the reader do a little work… Let the reader imagine what the old man looks like.

Lesson 4: Dialogue can leave clues.

A flash fiction story will likely hold clues for the reader throughout, clues that many readers won’t catch until their second read-through. A great place to stash those clues is in the words spoken by the characters.

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Not only does dialogue help the writer leave clues, but it’s another way for character building. What they say in combination with what they do can help the reader better understand the story and relate better.

*Challenge: I challenge you to read “On Her Birthday” and find the clues!*

Lesson 5: Seriously consider the hook, the title, and the last line.

The hook is an obvious necessity in any kind of writing. You want your reader to keep reading, after all.

The last line should echo out to your readers, becoming like a song they can’t quite shake. It can show the growth of the character, the theme of your story, or leave the reader thinking about what might happen next.

The title is probably the hardest task of all. You’ve probably lost sleep over titles before, but a title in flash fiction is another part of the story. It’s one of those clues we talked about earlier. It’s a part of the bigger picture. The meaning of the title should be evident by the time the reader thinks about it again, but it shouldn’t give anything away.

Your turn, so tell me…

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Do you write flash fiction? What have you learned about the genre?

If you’d like a prompt to work with, I’m finding this one from Rowan Fortune to be quite fun!

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Resources

During the last year, I’ve come across several resources for writing flash fiction. You can pick and choose what helps you:

Author Toolbox

This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop (hosted by Raimey Gallant), which is dedicated to helping writers become stronger and more confident in their craft. Click here for more information, to continue hopping through other posts, or to join in!

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“On Her Birthday: A Meeting with Death” — Flash Fiction, week 1

The man laughed. “Oh, Sonny, everyone worries about me, but it’s useless. I’m going to do my own thing no matter what anyone thinks or says about it.”

Not too long ago, I joined a writing group on Facebook (Voices of the Darkly), and they hold a regular flash fiction competition within the group. The theme of the first contest this year is “meeting with death.”

Flash fiction, for those who are new to the genre, is a fictional piece written in under 1,000 words. (Click here for more information about it.) This particular contest required a story between 500 and 800 words.

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Not only do I want to participate in the Facebook competition, but I also decided to attempt #52weeks52stories this year (hosted by Hollie Hausenfluck on Twitter), a year-long writing challenge.

Without further ado, here is my flash fiction piece that will fulfill both goals in one fell swoop!

On Her Birthday (PG – for those who need a rating)

“I already told y-” Eric held the phone back.

“What?” Gram’s voice echoed.

He smiled and sighed. “My car broke down, Gram. I don’t have time to-”

“Your car?” She yelled again.

“It’s…” he paused, checking his watch. “Gram, I’m almost at the bus stop.”

“Eric? Are you there? I can’t hear anything out of this da-”

“I love you, Gram. My bus’ll be here soon.”

“Oh! I hear you again! What bus?”

“See you soon.” He hung up and considered going back, but the next bus wouldn’t run for another two hours.

“Forget something?”

Eric turned. “Pardon?”

“I didn’t mean to listen in.” He moved his cane closer. “But I’ve been waiting here for over an hour. Can you believe that no one else has shown up?”

“What? Over an hour?” Eric sat down, shivering a little. “Someone should’ve told you what time to be here so you wouldn’t have to wait in the cold.” He could feel his blood boil as he placed Gram in this man’s position. Who told him to be here so early?

“I need the fresh air. I have a mighty difficult journey ahead of me, so I wanted to clear my head first.” He pulled a lifesaver from his exposed shirt pocket. “Want one?”

“Thanks.” Eric placed the proffered mint into his coat pocket. “Isn’t anyone worried about you being out here?”

The man laughed. “Oh, Sonny, everyone worries about me, but it’s useless. I’m going to do my own thing no matter what anyone thinks or says about it.”

Eric sat back. “You sound just like Gram.” He pointed down the empty road. “I’m on my way to see her for her birthday.” He checked his watch and tapped it. “Honestly, I don’t visit often, but they-” He took a deep breath. “They said she only has a couple months left.”

He followed Eric’s gaze. When he turned back, the smile from moments before was missing. “A couple months?”

“Yeah.”

“And it’s her birthday today?”

Eric smiled. “She loves birthdays. She-” He laughed. “She used to say, ‘Eric, the best thing about growing old is birthdays. You never know what weird stuff people will give you when they think you already have everything else.’” He laughed again. “So I try to get her something weird every year.”

“Weird? Hm. What’re you bringing her this year?”

“Well…” Eric tapped his watch again. “I had my eye on a couple oddities at the bazaar, but I ran out of time this morning.”

“Ran out of time?” He pointed toward the oncoming headlights. “Because of the bus?”

“Yeah. And my car. The gears wouldn’t shift yesterday. I thought they’d have it back this morning, but they said they’re working on unfreezing the something-or-other.”

“Ah, car trouble ruins the day. Too bad they don’t have a loaner.”

“Of course!” Eric jumped up. “Jerry knows Gram… Maybe he’ll lend me one for the day.” Eric turned to go, then turned back. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

He stood up. “You don’t need to worry about me, either.”

“Have a safe trip.” Eric held out his hand, but dropped it when the man turned and boarded the bus.

***

“Gram?” Eric knocked once and entered her room, the colorful glass gift in his hand. “Happy birthday, Gram.”

“Eric? Oh Eric!” She swooped in for a hug. “We’ve been so worried!”

“What are y-”

“The news…” The nurse, Nancy, pointed to the television. “We thought you were on that bus. We’ve tried calling and calling.” She prodded her finger into his shoulder. “You should know better than to do that to this dear woman.”

“But I… What? The bus?” He read the news ticker – no survivors – and fell back onto the couch. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t know.”

“We called you every two minutes,” Nancy accused.

Eric finally saw Gram’s red eyes. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, which had died, and the mint. “The man-”

“Since you’re alive, we’ll watch something more upbeat.” Nancy changed the channel. “We need cake.” She turned to leave. “You,” she said, pointing at Eric, “don’t do that to us ever again.”

“Yes ma’am.” He placed the mint back in his pocket, making a silent promise to the man. “Gram, let’s open presents.”

He loved her laughter and her enjoyment of all the strange gifts she received. He could still feel her last bear hug as he walked out the front door.

“Forget something?”

Eric spun around. “Pardon?”

“Don’t worry, Sonny.” The man pulled another lifesaver out of his pocket. “I wasn’t here for her.” He walked to the car stopped at the stop sign and got in on the passenger side.

Eric watched it drive away. Then, he turned around and walked back inside.

***

Comments

Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

Why I Write…

People write for all sorts of reasons every single day: send a text or email, leave or make a note, finish something for work or school, jot down a recipe, send a letter, balance a checkbook, make a grocery list, etc.

I, too, write America. As a writer and teacher of writing, I’m also excited about the National Day of Writing, which was created by the National Council of Teachers of English and adopted by the Senate every year on October 20th since 2009.

While following #TeachWrite on Twitter for their first Monday of the month chat this week, I saw Margaret Simon’s challenge to share #WhyIWrite.

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1. I write because I enjoy it.

I have so many reasons to write, but this is my number one reason: I enjoy writing. Yes, I’m a writing teacher. Yes, I’m in the middle of writing my first book (revising, actually). Yes, I sometimes have to write.

However, I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t truly enjoy writing.

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I keep a writer’s notebook, and I fill it with my ideas. I love to write in it, and I love the feeling of needing a new one when I’ve filled the current one up!

I enjoy the feel of a colorful pen in my hand, and the gentle sound it makes when it touches the page.

2. I write because I have ideas.

“Where did that idea come from?”

“What are your sources of inspiration?”

There are countless others that writers are asked, but those are probably the top two. The great thing about writing is that ideas can come from anywhere. You can look at a blank page sometimes and start writing.

Some places I search for ideas:

  • past brainstorms
  • songs
  • poems
  • gifs
  • photos
  • life events
  • writing prompts
  • first line prompts
  • quotes

The photo below is from a prompt that said to use a song as inspiration. #FlashFicHive is a month-long flash fiction writing workshop hosted by Anjela Curtis on Twitter. I’ve used her prompts to inspire several pieces of flash fiction, and she has an event all this month!

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3. I write because I read.

It’s true. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand (ask any writer).

Writing about the books you read often help inspire others to read those books, too. I don’t write book reviews often, but I should! I outline them first in my notebook, which helps me show my process when I’m helping my students.

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For the final copy of this outlined review, click the following link: Book Review: Chasing Eveline. Maybe my writing will inspire you to read Leslie’s novel and write a review, too!

4. I write to help and inspire my students.

Speaking of helping my students, I also write with them. We recently worked on a personal narrative, so I wrote one in order to show them how to incorporate the skills we talked about.

As you can see, I purposefully added a lot of “to be” verbs (which is a lot harder than you think) as part of our lesson on incorporating better verbs. Unfortunately, not all of the changes were to stronger verbs, but we’re taking it one step at a time.

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Before we wrote our personal narratives, we created a “Treasure Map” of ideas. This map inspired students to try another narrative in their own writer’s notebook using a different “X” event.

Students are more likely to try something new when they have a model to use. They’re especially eager to try it when they see the teacher trying it, too!

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5. I write because I can.

What better reason to end this blog post? I write because I can. I am capable of writing, and sometimes it’s pretty good.

I can write stories for fun, narratives with my students, or poems because they help me cope with whatever it is I’m feeling.

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We gain freedom when we write, so why wouldn’t we want that?

Why do you write? What is your favorite form of writing? Share with me in the comments!

Resources

National Day of Writing — NCTE link

Join the #WhyIWrite Blog Hop — Margaret’s link

Book Review: Chasing Eveline

As you may have guessed from previous posts, I love Twitter. I have found wonderful writing communities, teaching communities, and people who share my interests, too. Every now and then, interesting tweets will pop up via one of the daily hashtags, and you will have no choice but to acknowledge them.

One such tweet entered my feed in early April from a new author (who also happens to teach and share a similar last name to mine): Leslie Hauser.

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Leslie went on to add: “I place a cupcake in every novel I write!” (Intrigued, yet?)

About a month later, Leslie was asking for readers: a free copy of her novel in exchange for an honest review. Her novel, Chasing Eveline, would debut a few months later (July 2017).

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Having already been interested in her writing, I agreed! Although I didn’t share how many times cupcakes were mentioned when I reviewed her lovely novel, I will share the review I wrote:

Book Review as it appeared on Goodreads

(I received a free copy of this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review. I do not know her, nor have I ever met her personally.)

Book Review: Chasing Eveline by Leslie Hauser

Single parent. New best friend. Lost identity. Ivy Higgins has a lot to learn in Leslie Hauser’s new YA novel Chasing Eveline.

Ivy, a 16-year-old who still doesn’t know where she wants to go for college, is lost after her mother walks out of her life. She seeks answers in the lyrics of her mom’s favorite band, “Chasing Eveline,” a (fictional) 1980s Irish rock band.

After seeing her dad slowly become a new person these last two years, Ivy decides that she must reunite the band if she wants to find her mom, which she hopes will also reunite her family and help her father.

Ivy draws you in with her determination to put her family back together, a determination that drives her spontaneous decision-making. Some choices she makes are only half-heartedly supported by her new best friend Matt, who is still obsessing over his former girlfriend Charlotte.

One of Ivy’s wild ideas leads the duo on a dangerous path through the Internet, a place that isn’t as safe as she thought. Their adventure takes you on a spontaneous ride, complete with 1980s music and movies, tears you don’t see coming, and laughter, specifically at a hilarious – albeit slightly disturbing – zoo fundraiser.

Hauser hooks you from the first moment Ivy speaks of finding her mother, and she keeps you reading throughout Ivy’s journey of self-identity and discovery.

I recommend Chasing Eveline to readers who love to be surprised, who love music and movies, who are making new friends, and especially to readers who are trying to find a piece of themselves when a piece is missing.

Connect with the author:

I hope you get a chance to find all the cupcakes in Leslie’s new novel! Here are a few ways to follow her, too:

Website and Blog: “Writer of YA Novels”

Twitter: Leslie Hauser

Goodreads: Author Page

Facebook: Author Page

Have you read Chasing Eveline? Tell me about it in the comments!

5 Steps on the Journey to the First Draft — Author Tool Box

What can I share for this month’s Toolbox? What can I write about that could be even slightly helpful to other writers?

I’ve been trying to answer this question for a few weeks in preparation for this post, but I still didn’t have an answer until recently. Someone suggested I write a brainstorm about zombies… Well, zombies aren’t on the agenda this time; however, brainstorming was a great idea!

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This month’s toolbox will be dedicated to brainstorming, plotting, outlining, and all the little details that go into planning for a first draft — that is… if you’re not a pantser (someone who dives into the first draft without prior planning).

I’ll walk you through the planning process I took with my (yet to be published) first novel. Planning, like the writing process, is recursive — the appearance of linear steps doesn’t necessarily equal a fluid process, but a few steps do help…

1. Start with an idea.

No matter what your next step is, the first step is to have an idea. This idea can come from anywhere. You may have seen a cow while driving down the road or heard lyrics that spoke directly to your imagination. Maybe you were talking to your best friend during lunch and something at that moment stuck out to you.

Grab it! Take hold of that idea. See where it leads. My idea came from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poem asking a question.

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2. Take that idea and see what shape it takes…

That would make a great novel! I have an amazing story idea!

How many times have those words come out of your mouth? How many times have you remembered your idea over the next few days before it faded into the everyday world that is life, into the abyss?

Don’t waste any time! Write it down! Take that wonderful idea to your writer’s notebook, and see what you’ve got. Free-write as much as you can about all the possibilities swirling around in your mind at that moment. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous they sound — write them down.

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That is just what I did. On October 12, 2014, I wrote down the story idea that was zig-zagging its way around my brain.

Would I use everything I wrote on this page? No. I have no idea who “Darren” is anymore since he’s not part of the current round of revisions I’m on, but he was important at one time, which is all that matters. The idea is written.

3. Choose a direction… a path…

Now what?

Do you get stuck on this step? I did. I had never written a novel-length draft before, which meant that I had definitely not planned for one, either. How in the world was I supposed to do that? What was I supposed to do next?

Research.

There. I said it. This isn’t the kind of research you’d expect, though. It’s research into different planning processes for building up to your first draft. If you don’t know how to get there, the best thing to do is see how someone else did it. Right?

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So I did. There are so many different ways to plan a novel. Did you know that? Out of the numerous ways I found, I decided to choose Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method because it seemed the most straight-forward for a novice (and it was free…).

It took me quite a few tries with his first step, a one-sentence summary, because I couldn’t decide how old my MC (main character) was going to be.

More research.

Have I mentioned before how much I actually enjoy research? I really do! (Is that weird?)

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Around the time I was starting to plan, I’d read a new YA (young adult) dystopian novel, Rite of Rejection by Sarah Negovetich.  Because of this novel, I thought about my MC… Maybe she should be a young adult… Maybe she should live in a dystopian world… Maybe…

After my research, I decided Macy should be a teenager, but she wouldn’t live in a dystopian world. Instead, she would be the star of an epistolary novel, an idea that came to me during another free-write for ideas (see that recursive writing thing?).

I finally had “step one” of the Snowflake Method.

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4. Start outlining… possibly scene-by-scene…

The snowflake method will eventually lead you through meeting your characters, discovering their motives and end goals, and figuring out why each of them is important to your story.

I didn’t know most of this before I started plotting scenes, however.

Don’t tell, but that means that I didn’t follow this method to the letter. You should know, if you don’t already, that you are not obligated to follow anyone’s method verbatim. You are a writer, different from other writers, which makes your process unique to you. Keep that in mind as you continue.

I did keep a small chart of characters handy, though…

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Anyway, back on track… I did like the scene-by-scene outline. Randy suggested using a spreadsheet, which I love because it allows you to move things around in the future, but I didn’t. This particular time, I used my notebook.

And I started over several times when the story changed somewhere in the middle… See why the spreadsheet would’ve been helpful?

See how many times it changed in such a short amount of time? I even started color-coding after awhile for POV (point-of-view).

I have encountered writers who don’t like the scene-by-scene outline (or chapter-by-chapter as I’ve seen some others do) because they feel it inhibits creativity. I am of the opposite mindset. The scene detail only states what will happen. It doesn’t state the why or how of the situation.

The only downfall to this outline is when characters start changing your story (trust me, they will) — then you’ll find out just how important an editable outline truly is. But don’t worry about that now… This is only the planning stage.

5. Leave a little room for whatever comes along.

Even if you plan, the whole basis of the story could change if one ornery character decides he doesn’t like the backstory you gave him. Or, in my case, he doesn’t want to reveal his backstory to you until you are well into the first draft.

As stated above, characters will change your story for you. They will let you know when something is working or not as you’re drafting, so keep an open mind while you’re planning. Try not to get too specific.

Write down your thoughts as you come to them to see if they get answered during your first draft….

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A great help may even be to write down a list of all the questions you have about your idea: the characters, the main and sub-plots, the action, etc. Keep a running list of things that are important and things that could change.

Sometimes you can even take a break from planning and learn some new words that relate to your idea: MC’s job lingo, vocabulary related to setting, etc. Since my idea revolves around nightmares, I dove into a couple terms related to that, which may end up having nothing to do with my novel in the end, but they’re good to have anyway.

What if I get stuck?

Don’t worry! Is it writer’s block that has you worried? Or do you simply need some ideas to push you toward the next step? I don’t have all the answers, but I can offer you a few methods that could help:

  • make lots of lists: characters, plot bunnies, settings, conflicts, etc.
  • draw a plot diagram: where do you imagine the story going, where is one particular character’s story going, etc.
  • free-write: whatever comes to mind, a scene you’re eager to see on paper, a letter from your character to you, etc.

What about you? What do you do when you get stuck? How do you plan for a first draft? I’d love to see what your strategies are in the comments below!

Author Toolbox

This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, which is dedicated to helping writers become stronger and more confident in their craft. Click here for more information, to continue hopping through other posts, or to join in!

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Resources:

Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson

“The 8 Habits of Highly Successful YA Fiction Authors” by Noal Feeny

Parental archetypes in YA fiction

Camp NaNoWriMo