Flashy Fiction

(I do beg pardon for the short, flashy post. (Haha, get it?) I’m on deadline for 4 nonfiction pieces, and I’m running out of words!)

Flash fiction is hard work. It isn’t for the faint of heart, either. While it seems to be to short stories what speculative-fiction is to literary snobs, flash fiction takes at least as much work as a short story, and far more care.

So why write it?

Aside from its literary value, it is an excellent training tool. Every single word must count, without becoming overblown.

Proper flash isn’t a scene, or a snippet, it’s a micro-story. Beginning, middle and end. Conflict and resolution. Tension and release. Think of it as that twenty-minute snooze on lunch break: you have to go to sleep, sleep, and wake up. None of those things can be missing for a proper nap. (Bonus nap-points for a nice blanket and good dreams.)

Seeing the entire story on one page tightens up plotting, and allows the writer to judge flow and coherency better. It is a good chance to play with style, endings and surprises.

Flash needs depth, as well as beginning, middle and end.

Flash also allows for a higher output. When I started seriously trying to hone my storytelling, I wrote almost nothing but flash. Piece after piece of it, trying to learn how to put words together more clearly, how to raise the stakes and tension. I was able to keep a short turn-around between writing and editing, so I could also see how the drafts changed. (We won’t discuss the fact that I over-corrected and started writing way too lean.)

Besides that? It’s fun. Setting a challenge of a new piece a day stretches muscles. It’s a good warm-up if you’re working on longer pieces, or a way to get out of the all-consuming novel.

So go for it. Have fun. Write mini-myths for your novel, or an event from a character’s past, or the birth of a new species. Push a boundary, take a few minutes to explore the shadows.

Think of it as a tasting menu of fiction: a dozen stories, each with different ingredients, expanding the palate and mind.

On Research

Writing is make-believe, plucking characters and settings from your head and dropping them onto the paper like Rorschach blots, hoping the reader will see a coherent image. But if you want to write something convincing, your story has to be rooted in reality. And if it’s a reality you know nothing about, there’s only one thing to do about it—research.

Oh, hey. I’ve got this, you say. Pull up Wikipedia, copy and paste, and voila.

Not. So. Fast.

The internet is a wonderful thing and it makes research easy, but according to Merriam Webster, the definition of research is: careful study that is done to find and report new knowledge about something.

Careful study.

That implies a little more than copy and paste, doesn’t it?

This isn’t to say that you can’t use the net, but you have to be willing to dig deeper than the first link you find, to pick through the mounds of information and find the good stuff, the right stuff.

(Did you know that the first seven astronauts did their survival training in the Nevada desert? Before I wrote this post, I didn’t. Thanks to some research, I now know that those seven astronauts were left for four days with a spacecraft mockup, a parachute, and a survival scenario. Pretty cool, eh? And yes, I got that information from the net; however, I’m pretty confident I can trust www.nasa.gov.)

If you want to write a story about a cellist and you know nothing more than the music the instrument makes is so beautiful it makes you cry, you better do research because you can bet that at least one person who might read that story will know more and will spot your errors a mile away. That isn’t to say you need to root everything in truth. Maybe your cello is a space cello with magical wormhole properties. In that case, you have a little more leeway, but still, you can research how instruments are played in space and wormhole theory. At least I hope you would.

But research isn’t just to make that one reader smile and nod and say yes, this author got it right. If you’re writing a story about a cello, why wouldn’t you do research? Why wouldn’t you want to know the lowest note a cello can play? (Two octaves below middle C.) Why wouldn’t you want to know that when Yo-Yo Ma plays, his instruments of choice are a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice and a 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius? Even if you’re not a fan of the cello, you have to admit that a musician using a 300-year old instrument is pretty damn interesting.

You might spend days researching, slipping from one rabbit hole to another, picking up bits and pieces of information along the way. And maybe you won’t use those things in your story. Maybe you won’t even finish your story.

That isn’t the point.

Better to do the research and not need it than leave your story full of holes you should’ve filled. You owe it to yourself; you owe it to your readers; you owe it to your story.

Guest Post: The Road to Clarion: Allowing Myself to Say Yes

Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian fiction writer, blogger and reviewer with a background in Marketing and SEO, who currently operates as a freelance writer. Generally off-kilter, but most pleasant, you can find Markov sitting somewhere with fingers on some sort of keyboard. You can find him rambling at his blog The Alternative Typewriter and on his Twitter at @HaralambiMarkov.

This year, I made a promise to myself that I’ll stop denying myself my dreams. I promised I’d do something crazy. Try my hand at a real adventure. Allow myself to shoot for the big bright stars even if I didn’t have all the coordinates figured out; even if I didn’t know how I’d launch myself in space first.

It was a silent promise made on New Year’s Eve, when so many others like it are being born and then soon forgotten. Yet, where other promises faded, this one took root and didn’t let go. I found myself hungry for doing something for myself. Something that would make me happy rather than play to someone else’s satisfaction and I have nothing but time and ability as I’ve said goodbye to higher education (for now) and the freelancer gig isn’t going that bad.

Enter Clarion, the ability to enroll and the possibility to be accepted.

I didn’t put any serious thought into applying until two weeks ago and I’m going to walk you through my thought process, which at one point led to seriously binge watching TV shows to get my brain to shut up:

“Why not? Wasn’t I published in a couple of great places last year? But how am I going to get there? I don’t have any money. It would be such a waste to put so much effort and then not go at all. I shouldn’t. I really shouldn’t. But I know so many people who went there and urge me to go! I should. Yeah, as if anyone is going to accept me. I didn’t write at all last year. I have nothing to show. I have learned no new skills. I can’t even sell my backlog of finished pieces. Nope. Not going to do. I’ll spend this year writing and I’ll apply next year, ya know. God, but I want to. But I will fail. I’ve failed in just about everything I’ve tried. This will be a glorious failure for everyone I know to learn.

“But, but, but… It’s the VanderMeers, Catherynne Valente, Nora Jemisin and Gregory Frost and Geoff Ryman. Holy fuck… I’d get to meet them. I’d get to discuss my writing for once. Learn so many things. But it might not happen. I’m bilingual. I’m fake. They’ll know. These people WILL know. It probably will never happen. So what? Lots of things never happen. I’ll just do it until I get in or I die in the process.”

That’s actually the most difficult part of the application process for me. Allowing myself to say yes and overcome the mentality that limits me with what’s reasonable and what’s viable and what’s most likely to happen. My life has been about doing what’s right, what’s expected and what’s reasonable. Going to a writer’s resort for six weeks halfway across the world is so far removed from my reality it took so much pushing and mustering courage to actually make the first step.

I’ve just gathered all the critiques for both stories I’m submitting and I really can’t thank my friends who have taken their time and put so much effort to show me how I can be better. It’s empowering to hear people I admire like Angela Slatter, David Edison, Jonathan Wood, Jaym Gates, Natania Barron, Jacques Barcia and Theresa Bazelli say so many positive things about my writing and think I can do it, I can get in.

It’s proof I’m not fake, even though I’ve been discriminated against in the past just because I did not grow up in an English speaking country and therefore my writing is subpar. The road to Clarion is hard on my mind as I find myself wrestling with demons I thought I’d won against, but I’m doing the work. I’m editing my stories, gathering information and hoping for the best.

The Birth of an Anthology

Travis Heermann has been a freelance writer since 1999. Publishing credits include dozens of magazine articles, role-playing game content for both table-top and online MMORPGs, short fiction. He is the author of five published novels to date, with the latest being Sword of the Ronin from Red Bear Publishing. For more information, check out his website: www.travisheermann.com.

Back in March this year, I got bitten by a very strange bug.

I was attending a workshop on professional anthologies put on by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. There were roughly thirty attendees, plus two Kris and Dean and two editors, John Helfers and Kerrie Hughes. The objective while there was to write stories for two live anthologies edited by John and Kerrie; How to Save the World and Hex in the City,—a hard SF and an urban fantasy anthology, respectively, that were part of the Fiction River publishing launch year, each of which also boasted its own list of invited pros.

Over the course of four days, we got to watch four editors at work; John and Kerrie, plus Dean, wearing his Pulphouse editorial fedora, and Kris revisiting her Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction editorial chapeau. This was not a critique workshop; it was four editors discussing whether they would buy a given story for their particular publications, each of which has very different audiences and expectations. Those stories that got picked (my story “Deus Ex Machina” was selected for How to Save the World) would be published in the two anthologies. They discussed each story in front of the class, their reactions to it, where they may have stopped reading, etc. This was a huge lesson and an eye-opener for many in the class: to hear an editor react to one’s story in real time, and hearing where the rejection happened.

One of the things that I found most interesting was how my own opinions of each story jibed with theirs (or didn’t). In the end, I came away with the feeling that my own assessments were generally spot-on with theirs.

And I came away with one other thing: that weird bug.

I wanted to try it myself.

So for about five months, my brain percolated on various anthology ideas, from horror to science fiction to weird westerns. Maybe you’re familiar with that morass of amorphous ideas that just squelch around inside your skull, like something waiting to solidify.

I also started thinking about the kinds of stories I would love to read, the kind of stories I’ve been missing in science fiction and fantasy over the last 10-15 years. And that is, in a nutshell: fun stuff. That sense of wow and wonder that set my little writer brain on fire when I was a kid. I sometimes think that the SF/F fields have been trying so hard to become “legitimate,” “literary,” and “serious” that we’ve forgotten what inspired us. That sense of whiz bang, the kind of story which at the end leaves you thinking, “Now that was cool.”

As an editor of this yet unformulated anthology, it was my role to decide what I thought was cool, with the idea that there might be plenty of people out there who agree with me. So this led to an inventory of the things that really excite me, that make great stories, great drama, and great heroes and heroines. Mad Max, Maverick, The Dukes of Hazzard, Death Proof, The Road Warrior, Casino Royale, The Wild, Wild West (the TV series, not the awful movie)—these were the things going around in my head.

I’ve always loved muscle cars, hot rods, and sports cars. I grew up at the small-town racetrack in the summertime. My brother is a dirt-track race driver, and I’ve done a few races myself behind the wheel with my foot to the floor. There’s nothing in the world like it.

I’m a poker player. I discovered how much I loved it in 2006 and started playing tournaments. I grew up playing cards with my family. I also had a ten year stint playing collectible card games like Jyhad, Legend of the Five Rings, and Warlord, among others. I am fascinated by the Tarot.

I’m a history buff, fascinated with both black powder firearms and the super-advanced tech being developed today. I’m also fascinated by the way firearms have had such a profound impact on civilization and history. I’m a guy (i.e. twelve-year-old boy). I love to feel the recoil and concussion. I like to blow shit up.

One alliteration later, I had the title and the concept: Cars, Cards & Carbines.

The next step was to find an experienced editor to show me the ropes. For that, my first choice was John Helfers. In addition to the story he bought from me for How to Save the World, I had worked with him when he was at Tekno Books when he bought the first volume of my Ronin Trilogy, and then again with the second volume I indie-published earlier this year. I ran into him at DragonCon this year, we had a discussion over an adult beverage, he thought the concept was pretty darn cool, and just like that, an anthology was conceived.

Between the two of us, we have assembled an incredible line-up of award-winning and best-selling authors who also think the concept is pretty darn cool.

Nevertheless, while Cars, Cards & Carbines has been conceived, it has not yet been born. We need you, yes, you personally, dear Reader, to help us bring this anthology to life. Please support our Kickstarter project. We have until December 19, 2013, to make this happen. Thank you!

Cars, Cards & Carbines – Multi-Genre Fiction Anthology