Wednesday, May 14, 2014

GUEST AUTHOR MADELINE MORA-SUMMONTE on HOW FLASH FICTION UNFURLS


The People We Used To Be
Many people think flash fiction or micro fiction is easy to write because it’s so short. After all, how hard is it to write a 50-word or a 100-word story?

Well, at least for me, it’s harder than it looks. I usually go through draft after draft, cutting words and slicing those “throat-clearing” phrases as if my pen was a scalpel, attempting to uncover the heart of the story, to bare its bones, sharp and hard, on the page.

I thought the best way to illustrate my process – such as it is – is with an example. Here’s an early draft of my story, What’s Eating Xavier?

The rest of the landscape crew was up the block. Xavier was alone at the house at the end of the street.

His machine cuts into the concrete porch like teeth chewing and tearing at flesh and bone. The machine bucks, its gears gnashing, its motor burning hot then dying a cold death. Xavier curses. He prods at the bushes, feels his way along the wall, feeling for gouges in the concrete. Maybe, if it’s small enough, he can let it go, arrange the bushes over it so no one will be the wiser and he wouldn’t get in trouble.

His fingertips press against the crumbling concrete. He measures it, smiles. Not too big, not too bad at all. He would be okay.

Then something inside the crack reaches out its tongue and licks him.

Hmm…I see some good stuff buried beneath that flabby prose. Shorter, tighter sentences and more intense, vigorous words would accentuate the creepy factor. I also ask myself - what does the reader need to know for the story to work? In this case, a few things: Xavier is working alone near a supposedly haunted house; he’s disliked by his coworkers; and, he’s cocky and willing to cover up his mistakes rather than take responsibility for them. Armed with all of this information, I go back to work and, after a few more drafts, come up with the final version of What’s Eating Xavier?

Xavier works the old Dudley house alone. The landscape crew sniggers, says its haunted. They give him the hardest jobs, the crappiest equipment. They’re just jealous – of his youth, his good looks.

He’s daydreaming of being rich, famous when the mower rams into the house’s foundation. The machine judders, its gears gnashing. The motor burns hot then dies a cold death.

Xavier curses. He finds the hole – a small, dry mouth edged with soft, crumbling teeth. He can hide it, no problem. He smiles.

Until something inside the hole unfurls its tongue and licks him.

You can see the difference in the last sentence alone. By slightly changing the words and their order, and replacing “reaches out” with “unfurls,” the ending now slides off the page and into the reader’s ear, just like that tongue.

Give it a try. Dig deep to find the kernel of your story. Hone your prose. Hunt for the best word possible.

Writing flash fiction is a challenge, but one well worth undertaking.

BIO: Madeline Mora-Summonte reads, writes, and breathes fiction in all its forms. She is the author of The People We Used to Be: A Flash Fiction Collection. 

 

105 comments:

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    1. You bet. I appreciate your helpful article.

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  2. It can be an interesting process indeed. But i just rhyme away at my feed haha

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    1. I've not done much of either, but I might try it some time. :-)

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    2. I would definitely give it a go. If nothing else, it stretches that creative muscle.

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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    3. Yeah, I sure could use that right about now. It was a long weekend, and I'm not over it yet. :-)

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  3. I certainly don't think it's easy. A blurb is easy, because that's not the whole story, but to write an entire story in a hundred words? Tough.
    Madeline excels at it though!

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    1. Yes, she does, and she packs such a great punch in it.

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  4. I love Madeline's blog. Thank you for hosting her Debi! I don't have a process per se, I kinda just let it flow :)

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    1. Well, it's good that it comes to you. I can't say that I could do it.

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    2. Thanks, OE. I always appreciate you coming by and reading. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  5. And Madeline, you're a pro. =) I've written flash fiction, but I'm still a bit green. I think those 50 or 100 words are some of the hardest writing I've ever done. I love it though.

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    1. Me too, but I can't think in such compact terms. :-) Thanks for stopping by, Crystal.

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    2. Thanks, Crystal. I love writing flash fiction, too.

      I only wish my thoughts were as compact - my mind wanders all over the place. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  6. If it looks easy, it's because the writer is great! People who are great at something make it look easy.

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    1. I've noticed that too. So, I'm wondering why none of my stuff 'looks' easy. :-)

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    2. Usually when something looks easy, there's a lot of hard work behind it. Like those "overnight successes" who took years to get where they did. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  7. Wow-this was quite good and very informative actually. I would definintely think that writing such a short story would be very difficult. The first one made me think there was a doggie hidden away but the 2nd was actually much creepier with just the slight changes and gave more information about the man-great! Now i want to know what happens next

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, and yes, Madeline is a master at evoking strong sensations from few words.

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    2. Hmm, I guess it could have been a dog…if the dog was like Cujo. :)

      Glad you enjoyed the article, Birgit.

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  8. Interesting what a difference a well chosen word and sentence structure can make. Very informative post. And your final draft is super creepy!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Nick, and for the follow. I agree--she did make great changes and with only a few revisions. Very interesting, indeed.

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    2. It was super creepy enough to make me shudder. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  9. Agreed! Sometimes short works are tougher, because every single word counts. Great example!

    Thanks for visiting my blog, Debi. :)

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    1. Thank you for the return visit, Melissa! So good to meet you.

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  10. Great examples, here - it's so helpful to see the changes from one draft to another! And I definitely think flash fiction is tough; I overwrite EVERYTHING, lol :)

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    1. Me too, and then I have to trim, trim, trim. It's like putting my stories on a diet.

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    2. I was a little anxious putting that draft out there - since it was so unfinished. I'm really glad it worked!

      And Debi, love the idea of putting the stories on a diet. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  11. It's not easy to tell a story in a few words, and make it have a meaningful impact on the reader. A most admirable talent. Took me a hundred drafts to write a 500-word story. :) Wonderful examples here. It certainly sounds a worthy challenge for the author, and that's always great to see.
    Silvia @
    SilviaWrites

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    1. Definitely a worthy challenge. I can do an 800-word story, but any shorter and I get a choked feeling. I have written short poems though, but not necessarily good. :-)

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    2. I think that challenge is one of the things I enjoy most about writing flash fiction. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  12. I'm very wordy, but have posted three or four "Flash 55" stories to my blog, just to prove I could do it. :)

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    1. That's a good reason. I admire that. a couple stories I wrote just to prove I could wound up published. Submit away!

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    2. Excellent for you both! Keep going for it. Don't stop now!

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  13. Verb choice is always important but you show it to be really important.

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    1. I've always heard and believed it's the engine of the sentence.

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    2. I find myself paying so much more attention now to the power of the verbs and the specificity of the other words in the story. Every word counts, especially in flash.

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  14. That reminds me of the old story about someone saying they were sorry for the long letter--they didn't have time to write a short one. It is much harder to be concise than to write something long.

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    1. I want to say it was Mark Twain who said that but don't quote me. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  15. I love seeing how your story evolved. Agreed that it is waaay harder to write concise sentences than long flowery ones. I always end up cutting several thousand words out of my manuscripts.

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    1. I bought Madeline's book, and she packs this same kind of strong writing in each of her stories. It's amazing.

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    2. Shell, when I write longer stories/novels, I'll often use three long, flowery sentences to describe something in the early drafts. It's in the revision process that I sharpen and tighten that up.

      Deb, thanks so much. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  16. Thanks, Madeline. Thanks to you, too, Debi for hosting this entry. I've been toying with flash fiction myself and find it difficult. This is a useful piece of advice and I will definitely use it as I continue my writing.

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    1. I'm so glad you found it helpful, Chuck. I'm going to be using her book as my own teaching tool so that someday I can put out flash pieces too. More and more publishers are looking for them, and I'd like to react with a flash idea rather than a shudder. :-)

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    2. So excited that this article was helpful and that you're both continuing and getting into flash!

      Another book you might want to check out is THE HINT FICTION ANTHOLOGY (W W Norton, 2011.) I never thought in a million years that I would have a story in the same book as authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Tess Gerritsen and many big names. It would be a great tool for learning and seeing different flash fiction styles and voices. (The link is on my blog and on my Goodreads page but just you can just Google it and it should come up easy enough.)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  17. I never used to like flash fiction, but then I gave it a shot and think it's kind of fun. Definitely NOT easy though! I love how you took us through yours! Perfect way to show us! Great post!

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    1. Right. She ought to be a teacher.

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    2. And that was only one draft. Believe me, there were a number of others. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  18. I like writing flash fiction and thought this post offered good advice on making it work. Shorter tighter sentences with more effective words is what I always try to aim for most times. This is a great post. Michelle @ http://www.writer-way.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks, Michelle. I think Madeline did a great job with it.

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    2. Thanks, Michelle! Sounds to me like you already know what works. Keep at it! :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  19. I agree, flash fiction is just as difficult to write as every other kind of writing. Not everyone can effectively pull off a story that short!

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    1. Now if only I could write and publish/get published something longer, like a novella or a novel…. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  20. I haven't tried to write any ff stories yet. Yours inspire me, but I just haven't taken the time to think about it.

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    1. Her writing always inspires me, too. Thanks for stopping by.

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    2. You guys are making me blush! :)

      Don't over think it. Jot down a few ideas and see where they take you. I've got lots of notes that haven't developed into anything…yet.

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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  21. Hello Debi,
    I have nominated you for the Quintet of Radiance Award. Here is the link to my blogpost about the award. http://writer-way.blogspot.com/2014/05/quintet-of-radiance-award.html

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    1. Thanks so much! I'll get over there sometime today.

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  22. Love this insight into honing flash fiction! It's all about knowing when and where to cut and which concepts to highlight! Great example, Madeline! You rock!

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  23. Excellent advice Madeline. It is certainly not easy. Thanks for the practical tips!

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  24. Hi, Debi, Hi, Madeline.

    Wow... that second version is GREAT. I love flash fiction an write a lot of it. This is a terrific, concise, and compete flash piece. I really enjoyed it.

    Thanks for sharing it with us Madeline...

    Thanks for hosting, Debi....

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the final version of the story, Michael. It even gives me the creeps. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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    2. I love that second version too. I could just read it over and over.

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  25. Hi Debi .. and Madeline ... we all need to hone our writing craft and cut the verbiage .. just would rather the tongue stayed hidden! A licking serpent or .... cheers to you both .. Hilary

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Hilary!

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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    2. Hmm. I absolutely love the licking serpent line. :-)

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  26. we do like that second version! As a book translator I do always have to hunt for the right or better words :)

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    1. Those "right" words really can - and do! - make a story sing.

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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    2. Thank God for my thesaurus. :-)

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  27. Great post! I really struggle with conciseness so have had little success with flash fiction. I agree, though, that it's a brilliant exercise for honing our writing and being super selective with our word choices--I contemplated this at my original blog when by some miracle my first Twitter-fiction attempt got selected at Nanoism (all subsequent efforts failed! Wah-waaaahhh...): http://thefallenmonkey.com/2010/07/02/the-levity-of-brevity/. I should really get back at it, as I think my writing's gotten flabby again. So thanks for your insights and example--I feel inspired!

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    1. Go for it, Rumer! I've only had one piece accepted over at Nanoism - tough market to crack so good for you! :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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    2. 'm glad you found inspiration. Madeline's writing has that effect on people.

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  28. Good idea, Debi, having Madeline over. Great stuff here. I would love to be able to write flash fiction, but I think my problem begins earlier on, at the stage of generating a story idea. I always think I’m starting with a bite-sized/workable idea, but during the process of writing, it turns into way more than a mouthful. I’m late to the party, but if anyone’s still around, I’d be interested if anyone has any thoughts on what part skilled idea conception plays in a great bit of flash fiction.
    Miss A

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    1. I think most of my flash fiction, while stories all on their own, also have the potential to go bigger, go longer, grow more layers and complexity. It's almost a matter of capturing one moment on the page, one heartbeat, one kernel of story-truth.

      And not every idea is meant to be written as flash fiction. Some need room to stretch into a longer story, a novella, a novel. Maybe some want to be a poem or a song or displayed in a different way as piece of art. The story will usually tell you want it wants to be…we just have too listen. :)

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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    2. I agree with Madeline. While I haven't had anything fewer than 750 words published (except for children's stories), I have attempted flashes, and I always go for 'a moment' in someone's life.

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    3. Excellent feedback you two! Before I'd read your replies, I'd been pecking away at a trial flash using my idea with Madeline's Xavier flash as an example, and I’d got down to the knowing that it's got to be as simple as a boxer’s one-two combo. But when you both used the word "moment," that really brought it all home. And the "Aha!" I got cancelled out my daftness! I'll post my flash once I perfect it, then I'll party, and then I'll go on a flash spree :-D
      Miss A

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  29. I too struggle with Flash Fiction. Apparently I need a lot of "throat clearing" to get to the point. Great post!

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    1. I read a quote a long time ago that mentioned that idea of 'throat clearing" and I loved it so much that I haven't forgotten it. I forgot where I read it and who said it, but that phrase has stuck with me. :)

      And keep going with flash fiction! It's a great way to work that creative muscle.

      Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

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    2. Thanks for stopping by--a great place to clear your throat. :-)

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  30. I love flash fiction. I don't write it often, but it forces me to tighten my writing. Then I can transfer those skills to longer works.

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    1. I try it in my longer work, too, but sometimes I go for short. Just not as short as Madeline's. Too hard on my mushy brain. :-)

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  31. I see Flash Fiction just a notch easier than poetry and two notches easier than Haiku. I love it. I find it challenging to write.

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    1. I don't really find any of them easy to write. :-)

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  32. I'm with you, writing flash fiction is hard. It has to be so crisp, so lean. As you illustrate very well it's a great exercise to improve one's writing though, straight and to the point!

    By the way, I love the last sentence, the image of that tongue, great piece of flash! :)

    Also just to let you know I nominated you for a Liebster award. If you want to accept it and play along pop by the blog for details. I've been meaning to get to it for a while (I'm suffering from post April blogging deflation) and since I received my award you've managed to blow the 200 follower mark out of the water - so well done you! I'm bending the rules though and nominating you anyway, because I've really enjoyed your blog so far -glad to have found you through A to Z!

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    1. Thanks, Celine. Glad you stopped by.

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  33. It's amazing how much different you can make it. How much more information you can get in when you dissect it and choose your words carefully.

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    1. I know. Every word change can affect the meaning. It's wonderful.

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  34. Great post! It is amazing how word change can make such a difference.

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  35. What a great and effective example thank you!

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  36. Hi,
    I read this and enjoyed it. I so agree with the author and can say that I too have many drafts before there is one that I really like. When I know that it is saying exactly what I want it to say.
    Shalom,
    Pat

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  37. Great guest post! There is nothing like an active example like this to show how its done. Really appreciate what you've done and how you tightened it up for all of us to see. Maria,
    Delight Directed Living

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  38. I like writing flash fiction as a break for my novel. It fits into the tiny chunks of time [and brain] I have available at the moment. :) SD
    http://www.sandradanby.com/

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