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How and Why to Write Flash Fiction

Last time we talked about the differences between a short story, a flash fiction, and a microfiction. To recap, microfictions are a subset of flash fiction, which is itself a subset of short stories. But why would you want to write a tiny story in the first place?

From the reader’s perspective, we tend to have short attention spans nowadays. Some days we love to sink into a novel, but other times we just want something quick and bite-sized to digest. Maybe your reader is in the middle of ten other projects and doesn’t have the mental energy to devote to a longer story, or maybe they have three kids and only five-minute snatches of time to read. Whatever the reason, tiny, bite-sized stories fit that need.

From the writer’s perspective, writing flash fiction can help you sharpen your prose. To tell the same story in 500 words that you just told in 2,000 words, you’re going to have to make sure every word is that much more carefully chosen. Instead of describing the sky as “a pale blue flecked with green like a Caribbean sea when the light catches it,” maybe you’ll simply use the word “turquoise.” You’ll have to figure out which parts of your story can be condensed and what can be figured out from context rather than being explicitly stated. Maybe that entire subplot with the twin sister isn’t necessary; maybe we don’t need to see the scene where the character is at the hospital, and this can just be mentioned in passing. In short, it’s a good exercise in learning to be intentional with each word you put down.

I don’t mean to imply that with longer fiction you should use that extra space to convey superfluous information. The truth is, you want to choose each word with care in any piece of writing, regardless of length or genre. Maybe that subplot with the twin sister is absolutely vital to the plot, or maybe it tells us something about our main character that we wouldn’t know otherwise. My point here is that the brevity of flash fiction can be helpful in forcing yourself to be more deliberate with your prose.

That’s why someone might want to write flash fiction. The how of writing it is a little harder to quantify.

Many of the same things that apply to writing longer fiction will still apply. You’ve probably heard the oft-repeated edict: “Show, don’t tell.” One common mistake is thinking that in flash fiction you have to resort to telling in order to summarize large chunks of story that you aren’t able to show. But with a story of any length, showing rather than telling is still good advice. Similarly, you’ll still want to make sure you have good characterization, conflict, setting, etc. And like I mentioned last time, flash fiction stories still need to be complete, with their own story arcs of a beginning, middle, and ending.

Another common mistake is “running out” of words and rushing the ending. A helpful tip here is to write the story out as long as it wants to be, and then figure out how to make it fit within the 1,000-word limit once you’re revising. Especially for writers new to the shorter form, trying to write a story that will hit a certain word limit in the first draft can feel impossible.

It may be helpful to keep in mind that flash fiction always starts in media res, or in the middle of the conflict. This is common in most popular fiction nowadays, but until the past couple decades, it was typical for novels to start with a slower buildup, describing the scenery or the time period before centering on the main character(s). Even nowadays, some genres and writing styles still prefer this kind of measured, gradual opening. But in a shorter piece, we don’t have time to describe the countryside, then the farm where our characters work, then the field they’re standing in, before coming to rest on the characters themselves. We don’t have the space to describe the years of animosity between our characters, or the way Character A has always been jealous of Character B. Instead, our story is going to start the moment Character A flings a clod of dirt at Character B, and we’re going to have to figure out our characters’ long, complicated history together through the ensuing action or dialogue, while at the same time seeing how they handle this new conflict.

Another important thing with flash fiction, particularly microfiction, is that you need to hook your reader even more quickly. In a longer story, you have a little more leeway to build up to what’s interesting. (With the caveat that, in any story of any length, if your opening doesn’t intrigue your reader, they’re going to stop reading.) But in a tiny story, since each word carries more weight, your initial hook is even more critical. It’s also a bit more complicated, since the opening line has to not only hook the reader, but also still function as a necessary part of the overarching story because of your limited number of words.

It can be hard for novel writers to rein in their words and focus on brevity, but it’s a worthwhile challenge that can help you sharpen your prose. But be forewarned: flash fiction can be addictive! Some writers like the challenge so much, they get hooked on writing flash fiction and never go back.

So what do you think? Flash fiction: love it or hate it? Let me know in the comments!

What’s the Difference Between Short Fiction, Flash Fiction, and Microfiction?

If I asked you to explain the difference between a novel and a short story, you’d easily be able to sum up the difference: a short story is, of course, much shorter than a novel. But once writers try to drill down further, they often get a bit confused. Is “flash fiction” just another term for “short story”? And what in the world is “microfiction”?

Let’s start with the largest category. A short story can be as short as a few words or as long as 20,000 to 30,000 words—which, you may notice, is a huge range. But most literary magazines won’t publish short stories longer than 10,000 to 15,000 words, and many will want you to stick to more like 4,000 to 6,000 words. Back when magazines and literary journals were exclusively published in print, there was an economic reason behind wanting shorter stories: it cost more to print something longer. But even now that most publications are digital, readers’ attention spans are still only so long. Thus, when submitting to magazines, shorter is often better.

So what’s shorter than a short story? Flash fiction.

“Flash fiction” (sometimes also called “short shorts” or “sudden fiction”) is a term used to refer to particularly short short stories. Simply put, flash fiction stories are typically defined as stories under 1,000 words. You’ll find the odd exception here and there—publications that will allow up to, say, 1,500 words—but by and large, 1,000 words is accepted as the maximum length of a flash fiction story.

Within the category of “flash fiction,” there’s also “microfiction.” If flash fiction stories are typically under 1,000 words, microfiction stories are even shorter. Typically, these are stories under 300 words, though publications will often have their own limits (such as accepting up to 500 words, or only accepting stories of exactly 100 words).

Keep in mind that despite their brevity, these are complete stories with a full arc. The idea is to pack a lot of punch into a very small story.

Consider one of the most famous microfictions ever written: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” (This story is commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but we don’t actually know for sure who wrote it.) With the first two words, the author lets us know that this is a newspaper classified ad. The words “baby shoes” seem innocuous enough until you get to the final two, “never worn.” The author succinctly delivers a gut punch here, immediately conveying not only that the writer of the ad is a grieving parent whose child died, but also that they could use the extra cash. There’s no cliffhanger here, no “but I want to know more”—they told you everything you needed to know, made you instantly aware of this down-on-their-luck parent, and conveyed such a somber tone in such a short space that you’re left feeling a little shell-shocked. It’s a hell of a microfiction.

So far, we’ve gone short story > flash fiction > microfiction. It might help to instead think of short story categories from small to large. The tiniest stories are microfictions, the slightly longer ones are flash fictions, and then longer stories are just plain short stories. Put another way, it’s like squares and rectangles: all microfictions and flash fictions are short stories, but not all short stories are microfictions or flash fictions. And of course, any longer than a short story, and you’ve got a novella or novel.

Hopefully this helps clear up some confusion about “short story” versus “flash fiction” versus “microfiction” for you. Are there any other terms you’re confused about? Let us know in the comments!

What Do Your Characters Want? (Part 3)

We’ve reached the top of the pyramid! Your characters have food, water, shelter, physical safety, emotional stability, a community, self-respect, and external respect. What else could they possibly want?

At the top of Maslow's hierarchy, there's fulfillment and self-actualization:

By Chiquo [CC BY-SA 4.0]

In a general sense, this means not having obstacles (external or internal) between your character and what they need to fulfill their potential. Some people seek to get rid of or overcome any remaining obstacles; others seek to minimize what they need to feel fulfilled, for example through mindfulness and meditation. Where one person may aim to attain more money than they can ever spend to "buy" the freedom to pursue what they want, someone else may work to find contentment with what they already have, or sacrifice luxury to pursue self-actualization (e.g., a writer working a lower-wage 9-to-5 job to have time to write, rather than pursuing a more lucrative but also more time-intensive career that wouldn’t leave space for creativity).

Because this builds on everything else beneath it on the pyramid, what your character needs to find fulfillment is far more complex and individualized than something as basic as "not starving." Still, once your character otherwise has their needs met, striving for this self-actualization will be part of their underlying motivation, whether they realize it or not.

Another thing to consider is that we don't want to just attain the things on the pyramid; we want to hold on to them. The fear of losing any of these needs will impact a character's behavior, and as you go down the pyramid, that fear will become a more pressing problem. Someone wouldn't be thrilled to be working at a dead-end job (for safety and stability) instead of following their dreams (self-actualization), but they would be terrified to lose access to food and water. A character's behavior will be significantly impacted by the extent of that fear, which circles back to the need to both be and feel secure, as we discussed in Part 1.

Also keep in mind that in all cases a character's motivations don't have to be rational. The motivation has to make sense to the character. Someone who believes their physical safety is in danger will fight to protect themselves, even if the threat is objectively small or nonexistent. Someone with depression may not feel loved and connected to their community, and act accordingly, even if externally that love and community is there. 

Pinning down a character’s motivations boils down to understanding that character's subjective perspective on whether their needs are being met. This is true for every character—villains and side characters are also the heroes of their own stories. One character’s decisions don’t have to (and may not) make sense to another. And don't forget: societies are made up of individuals whose needs and goals may or may not be aligned. 
  • When a large enough group's needs aren't being met by society, we often see revolution, but when individuals are discontented, peer pressure may keep them quiet. Or they may choose to leave their community behind (if that doesn’t risk losing their other needs) and create/find another.
    • Exiled characters aren’t given a choice, but usually someone choosing to leave a community with which they’re disillusioned (like in many dystopian stories) has a choice because there’s an alternative community waiting, so there’s hope of having their needs met elsewhere. But as I said in Part 2, rare characters (e.g., hermits and recluses) may be comfortable without a traditional community.

Once you've figured out which needs aren't currently being met for your characters, you'll have a stronger sense of what their immediate goals are, of what's driving their decisions and behavior. So it will be easier to know what choices they would make in every situation they face.

Developing new characters can feel daunting, but by traveling up the pyramid one section at a time, you can create layered but cohesive characters—and complex casts of characters—that your readers will love.

What Do Your Characters Want? (Part 2)

Last time we talked about the basic needs of our characters: food, water, shelter, physical safety, and emotional safety. For many characters, these will be a given. They may not be living a life of luxury, but they aren’t constantly worried about literally starving or being physically attacked. So we move up the pyramid to psychological needs:

By Chiquo [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The first of these is a sense of community and belonging. Rare characters may feel completely at ease when entirely separated from others, but most often people desire and seek emotional connections, with family, friends, or a larger community. Being entirely ostracized or physically cut off will impact your characters psychologically. So will feeling cut off, like in situations where they can't express themselves honestly to those around them, e.g., needing to keep a big secret, or even having to keep all their private thoughts hidden 1984–style. Your characters will seek out ways to connect (including but not limited to finding romantic love) and to maintain those connections, which plays a part in the drive to protect those they care about.
  • Keep in mind: Once a community already exists, loved ones become part of the central “unit” discussed in Part 1, influencing how your character evaluates whether the needs lower on the pyramid are being met. But a character without those ties in place will think first about physical needs, then about security, and only then about developing emotional connections.

This is why people bond over things like following the same sports team—they're inclined to find a reason to connect. But it's also why peer pressure and patriotism can be so impactful. We don’t want to end up disconnected from our community, which can mean anything from family to country. So we do what those around us want, even if perhaps we don’t agree it’s the best choice. This impulse is partially driven by the lower levels of the pyramid since losing our community can also mean losing physical and emotional safety, or even access to things like food and water. This is why banishment is considered such a serious punishment.
  • Similarly, in some cases characters will band together—form a community—for the sake of safety. Their community becomes a tool to ensure their security. In dystopian stories, for example, you’ll often see people who don’t particularly like (or even trust) each other forced to work together for survival. This is still about the physical need of security, and only after that security is assured will those characters consider the psychological need of community, in the sense of emotional ties. In some cases, they’ll have developed an emotional connection with others in the forced community—remember, people are complicated and inclined to connect—but the original community would arise out of the physical need, not the psychological one. This distinction will of course impact any given character’s choices.

In extreme forms, this need to belong can get dangerous—think hazing rituals, blind obedience, or participating in the perpetration of genocide. But this also plays into everything from giving to an office charity drive to choosing what to wear (e.g., no business suits on the beach; no bikinis in the office). This desire for community is also why people who feel disconnected from those physically close to them feel such joy when finally finding “their people”—in a special club, an online forum, or even with just one person who understands them.

Ostracized or isolated characters may also invent a surrogate connection to fill this need. This can mean everything from anthropomorphizing inanimate objects (think Wilson from Cast Away) to creating imaginary friends and overidentifying with fictional characters. Or developing long-distance connections (like a pen pal), if the option exists.

Overall, people need to feel understood and valued. Even characters who externally take pride in being unique or the “odd one out” will still try to find where they belong, as well as friendship and (platonic and romantic) love.

Next we come to self-esteem and self-respect, which are frequently but not always tied into external respect and recognition, as well as social definitions of achievement. This is closely intertwined with the need for connection and belonging, since often our markers of success and achievement—things that lead to both external respect and self-esteem—come from our loved ones’ and/or our larger community’s values.

So this, too, plays into things like peer pressure and patriotism, both because our community’s opinions can impact our self-esteem (easy example: body image issues) and because what our community has pressured us to do may not sit well with us, challenging our self-respect.

Self-respect being impacted by external opinions also explains why some characters will pursue goals set by someone else (like a high-paying career, or the more ambiguous ideal of honor) rather than prioritizing their own dreams. Or they may need constant adulation from large groups to feel valued. Others will intentionally work on separating their sense of self from external factors, on finding their own definitions of accomplishment. For example, a middle-aged character who lived their life according to society’s values (e.g., a home, a career, marriage, children) may feel driven to leave all that behind and reconnect with themselves, to figure out their own priorities so they can find freedom from social pressures and thereby improve their self-esteem.
  • Ideally they would do this without losing their community and sense of belonging, or they would likely need to find a new community along the way.

In general, two needs being at odds like this is what creates conflict. Many stories explore the consequences of a character’s self-respect (adhering to their moral beliefs) being at odds with another need (food, safety, community opinion), but this is the case with any two needs (e.g., community opinion vs. food). Maslow’s hierarchy can help you understand why a character would make a specific choice when forced to decide. Remember: the lower on the pyramid, the more important the need. So a character may very well choose community over self-respect. Similarly, the more scared they are of starving, the more likely they’ll choose food and water over most anything else.

Next time we’ll discuss the last segment of the pyramid and some final tips. Meanwhile, don’t forget to check out Part 1 here if you missed it, and post any questions or comments below!

What Do Your Characters Want? (Part 1)

When developing characters, we often talk about understanding their motivation. While people—and well-developed characters—are complex and unique, when broken down to the fundamentals, the same basic things motivate all people, whether your story is set in our contemporary world, in another time, or even in another world you create from scratch.

Some fundamental motivations include: survival, fear, and desire. While the way your character acts as a result of a given motivator will depend on things like personality and ethics, being aware of these common underlying motivations can help you understand which choices your characters would make and why. It can also help your characters be compelling and relatable whether they're heroes, villains, or somewhere in between.

One easy way to put your characters' motivations into perspective is to consider Maslow's hierarchy of needs:

By Chiquo [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Today we’re going to focus on the base of the pyramid, labeled in the image above as “Basic Needs.” These basic needs will often take center stage with poorer characters, dystopian and post-apocalyptic scenarios, or any other situation where resources are limited. When these fundamental needs aren’t met, everything above them on the pyramid becomes irrelevant.

The foundation of the pyramid concerns physical needs: food, water, shelter. Without them, we can't survive, so if your character doesn't have access to these, their actions will be all about getting them. That could mean stealing, scavenging, finding whatever income source they can, or even revolution or war. Of course, it can also mean using or developing survivalist skills, and possibly making desperate choices (like drinking urine).

The way your character responds to a lack of basic needs will depend on the specific situation—on what obstacle stands between them and the nourishment they need—and what experience your character has dealing with scarcity. A city girl will make different choices than one who grew up fending for herself in nature, even if you strand them on the exact same island. Whatever the circumstances, if access to things like food and water is denied or threatened, getting those will be the priority.

Once their physical needs are met, your character can focus on safety, which includes both:
  • Physical safety: reasonable certainty that your body is not in danger of injury or severe illness.
  • Emotional safety: freedom from things like emotional abuse, but also feeling secure that your physical needs and safety will continue to be assured. 
    • Financial security comes into play here in many societies, and so will things like knowing you have access to medical care if you ever need it.

Decisions made for the sake of establishing or holding on to safety can include things like taking self-defense classes, staying in an otherwise miserable job for the paycheck, hoarding resources (financial and otherwise), or literally trying to escape a dangerous situation.

Keep in mind that emotional security depends on the character’s perspective, not necessarily the reality of their circumstances. In other words, they have to both have (physical) and believe in (emotional) the stability of their environment.

Bringing it back around to the fundamental need for food: someone who’s always had to fight for every scrap will approach sharing very differently than someone who’s always had enough, even if they’re dropped into the exact same circumstances. One will approach the situation from a place of emotional security while the other will not. If they find themselves in a place of scarcity, the former character may seem naïve, reckless, or wasteful while the other seems practical. But if they’re in a place of abundance, the first will be comfortable and unconcerned, whereas the other may seem paranoid, e.g., hoarding food though there’s plenty to go around.

One more thing to keep in mind when developing your characters and societies is that human beings are complicated, and we’re influenced by our relationships. So it helps to think of a character and their loved ones as one unit: if their significant other or child doesn’t have enough food and water, that may be equally pressing to the central character’s needs, depending on the character. So when creating your characters, consider your MC and the people they love and/or for whom they feel responsible (if any) as one entity. If there isn’t enough to meet the entire unit’s needs, then there isn’t enough.

This need to provide for loved ones ties into the “psychological needs” categories, which we’ll talk about next time!

Click here to read part 2.

2019 Writers For Hope Auction for @RAINN!

No, it's not an April Fool's joke: The sixth annual Writers for Hope Auction is happening this week! Each year, editors, agents, and authors contribute amazing auction items to raise money to combat sexual assault, and 100% of the proceeds go to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the United States' largest anti-sexual assault organization.


There are over 100 items being auctioned off this year. Whether you're looking for a critique opportunity, new books to read, or a great gift for a friend, this is a wonderful chance to get what you need while also standing up against sexual assault and supporting a wonderful organization that fights back. Bids start at only $10!


Don't forget: this year the auction goes all week, and bidding closes at 8:59pm EST (5:59pm PST) on Friday. Watch out for those last-minute bidders!

Touchstone Editing Turns 4!

I can still remember it like it was just last week. It was the middle of one of the worst droughts in California's history, yet the day Anya and I planned to meet for coffee, we got caught in an absolute downpour. I made a run for it from the car, but it was no use. I got soaked.

Anya and I had kept in touch online for years, but I'd just moved to California, and it was our first time living near each other since college. We were excited to see each other and decided to meet halfway. We figured, what do extroverts do? They meet people for coffee.

I don't drink coffee, but I knew I was in the minority—most of the world is completely addicted to the stuff. Surely Anya was one of the normal people who loved coffee and drank it all the time.

So we both showed up to an adorable coffee shop in Redwood City, found each other inside, and... assumed the other would order some coffee. Cue baffled laughter:

    "What do you mean you don't drink coffee?"

    "What do you mean you don't drink coffee?"

Once we'd finished laughing at ourselves, each other, and the situation, I ordered a hot chocolate and Anya got tea. We'd only planned to meet for an hour or two but ended up curled on one of the coffee shop's couches for much longer catching up. Then we got soaked again in the parking lot as we said our goodbyes.

Touchstone Editing was conceived at that coffee shop, but it was another seven months before the company officially launched. There was a lot to be done, after all: a website to create, a company philosophy to iron out, and endless delightful conversations about editing minutiae the likes of which only other editors would enjoy. And somehow, in the blink of an eye, here we are four years later.

Balloons

To celebrate Touchstone turning 4, we're participating in the Build A Better Author Career Giveaway, hosted by Love Kissed Book Bargains. Anya and I are each giving away a FREE editorial letter. 


Be sure to check out the other offerings from all the participating author service providers, too.

We're also giving ourselves our first raises since we started the company: rates for developmental and copy editing are now $60/hour.

Finally, we wanted to do something exciting. Something intimidating. Something we've been working on behind the scenes for months. We decided to overhaul the entire website to make the overall aesthetic more modern.

I thought it would be fun to show you some before and after pictures to show how far we've come, so let's start with the homepage. The new version no longer has our testimonials, but you can still click over to the Testimonials page to read them all. We are by no means graphic designers, but we still had a lot of fun creating the images that you see on the homepage now.

Before:

Homepage screenshot

After:

Homepage screenshot


On other pages we've introduced cute, thematic header images. On our About page, in addition to the new header image, we've added the story I just shared with you of how Touchstone got started.

Before:

"About" page screenshot


After:

"About" page screenshot


And on the blog, as you can see, we've gone for a two-column look.

Before:

Blog screenshot


After:

Blog screenshot


Take a look around! We'd love to know what you think. Love the new look? Think the new header images are fun? Have ideas for more improvements we could make? Let us know in the comments here, or feel free to shoot us an email with your thoughts!

That's all for now. Thanks for being a part of our celebration!

Your First Manuscript May Be Holding You Back

Speculative fiction author Alexander Mazin recently wrote a detailed post (available in the original Russian here) on how heartbreaking it can be to watch writers waste their potential on endlessly trying to wrangle their first manuscript into something worth publishing (or more importantly, worth reading).

The main upshot is this: it's important to know when to let go. Often, the first manuscript someone writes is the example used because it is likely to be in the roughest shape. This isn't to say that it can't have an interesting premise, or potential within the characters. Rather, the amount of work necessary to shape that first draft into a story that lives up to the potential may be better spent elsewhere. Sometimes the best way to bring that initial idea to life is to extract the few good pieces and start over with a blank page. And sometimes the best thing you can do is tuck it in a (possibly virtual) drawer and move on to something new.

There are exceptions, of course. A first manuscript can (with plenty of revising) go on to be a huge success. Indeed some writers actually give up too soon, unwilling to put in the work required to transform a first draft into a finished work. Instead, they keep writing first drafts, possibly polishing the grammatical/syntactical errors, and expecting the result to blow readers away—or giving up on writing entirely when that isn't the case. As with most things, discernment is key.

But as Mazin wrote, clinging to a specific manuscript may be strangling your potential as a writer. This is actually true whether the project is your first or your fifth, though it's a safe bet your fifth first draft will be in better shape than your first, especially if you're taking time to study your craft alongside drafting the stories. By the time you write your fifth project, you'll likely be better able to see if the story is worth pursuing—and have an easier time letting go if not.

It's more difficult to have perspective on your first project, especially when it's your only project—the bearer of all your hopes and dreams for your writing career. That first manuscript holds a special place in your journey, and therefore in your heart. Even after having written, revised, and published other works, authors can be drawn back to that initial idea, that first story. You want to make it work.

Nevertheless, it's important to take a step back and assess the scope of work a manuscript would require to reach both its potential and your potential as a writer, whether continuing to spend your limited resources of time and energy on reshaping this material will be worth it.* When your first manuscript is no longer your only manuscript, it's much easier to accept if the answer is "no."
    * This is something an editor can help you evaluate.

It all comes down to not letting determination become blind stubbornness that traps you in endless revisions. Letting go, moving on to a new project when the current one just isn't working, is neither failing nor giving up. In fact, it may be the saving grace of your career.