Books Anne has written or has a chapter in.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Writing Flash Fiction, Part 3

Do Try This at Home
These writing exercises work equally well for short stories or short-shorts. Most people find them fairly easy to apply to standard short stories where you may have up to 10,000 words to work with. But try doing these when you only have 600 words to spend!


Focus: Using your senses.

Exercise: Write your opening paragraph from the viewpoint of a blind person or a sighted person in total darkness.


Focus: Putting yourself in some else’s shoes; empathy.

Exercise: Two people are arguing in a public place. The young woman appears distraught but tightly controlled. The man, a little younger than her, is on the verge of losing it.
  •  Identify with the woman and write the scene from her perspective.
  • Identify with the man and write the scene from his perspective.
  • Change it up and write the scene with two men, or two women.

Focus: Getting specific; using setting to define character

Exercise: In your opening paragraph, describe the bedroom or living room of the main character’s apartment. Write your description so that we can learn a great deal about the character just by looking at the place he or she inhabits. You can’t make any direct statements about the character (“Maureen demanded only the best.” or “Cornell lived like a pig.”). Write only what we, the readers, can see.  And don’t forget: streamline!


Focus: Controlling POV – this is critical in flash fiction.

Here’s a quick ‘n dirty POV primer if you need it before you do the activities below.

  • Omniscient: author can enter any character’s mind and reveal thoughts or opinions.
  • Limited omniscient: author can enter the mind of only one (the main) character.
  • Detached (cinematic): author doesn’t enter any character’s mind, just reports. 
  •  Single-character: author tells the story entirely through the perspective of one character.
  • Multiple-character: series of single-character viewpoints, each of a different character, but not occurring simultaneously (as in omniscient).

  • First person:  “I” – “I ambled down the street, wondering if they were following.”
  • Second person: “you” – “You amble down the street. Are they coming? You can’t tell.”
  • Third person: “he” or “she” – “She ambled down the street, alert for pursuing feet.”

  • Present tense:  “Gary ambles down the street, listening for pursuit. Not tonight, he thinks.”
  • Past tense:  “Gary ambled down the street, listening for pursuit. Not tonight, he thought.”

  • Subjective: We perceive only what the POV character can physically see, hear, smell, etc. We’re walking around in his or her body.
  • Objective: We perceive the space around the POV character and how he/she interacts with it, but not what’s going on inside his/her head.

Exercise: Identify the POV style in the following two passages, and then rewrite them a couple of times using different POVs.  After the fourth try, you’ll feel like you’ve done this forever.
  • Miss Walpole watched the gray flakes twitch and crawl. Her eyes shifted. She sat on the very edge of the chair. Her feet were flat on the floor, as if she were about to rise.
  • Chuck went into a bar and I crossed the street and stood under an old hotel awning and looked across the street at the bar and watched him through the glass. He ordered a drink and sat and took his time with it. I started to feel cold. 


Head-hopping is verboten in controlling POV. The temptation to do it is even worse in flash fiction because with the limited space you feel the urge to cram in as much as you can about what the characters are thinking/feeling.  

Exercise: Suppose a story is told through the POV (single-character subjective) of a man named Randall. See if you can find the POV slip made in this bit of dialogue:

“What did you say?” Randall began to sweat.
“You heard me.”  Cynthia silently counted the seconds, watching him.  
She was playing for time, he decided. “It doesn’t matter which you choose,” he said, inhaling her perfume. Honeysuckle.
“Oh, I think it does.” Cynthia smiled faintly, looking down at the table.

ACTIVITY #6   The Ultimate Challenge

Focus:  Story underpinnings – character, setting, situation, emotion.

Exercise: Write an opening paragraph that incorporates all four elements. Obviously they will be undeveloped, but the kernel of each one is there. In other words, locate your story opener in place and time, and identify your main POV character and the issue at hand.  Do all this in just ONE paragraph!

Then polish it until it doesn’t suck (i.e., sound contrived).

Good luck!!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Writing Flash Fiction, Part 2

Strategies for writing flash fiction

If you Google “flash fiction, how to write,” you will get more returns than you can reasonably read and digest in a year, or possibly a lifetime. When I was putting my workshop together, I had my own list of strategies, and after I’d spent some time skimming through all the good advice on the Internet, I started to see patterns and repeats. So, to save you some time and trouble, here’s a distillation of the helpful advice on writing good flash fiction.

  Remember what I said about seating your story into a larger context of meaning? It helps to have an idea of what your story is about, not just what literally happens. I’m not talking about the plot – what I’m referring to is the reader’s take-away.

  That takeaway usually resides as a smaller idea embedded in a larger one. Postcard fiction deals with one event or time period in a character's life, a pivotal moment and its outcome. The keyword here is pivotal. For example, to write about the disintegration of a complex, lifelong relationship, take the triggering event – the discovery of infidelity – and telescope it down to a single event such as finding a strange set of keys in the pocket of your spouse’s jacket while you’re being nice and hanging it up for him or her.

  The opening is critical. You don't have two pages to explain the setting or essential backstory and introduce the cast of characters. At best you have a paragraph and a half.  This is where your inventiveness is put to the test. A few broad strokes, a handful of striking details, and you’re off and running.

  Because you don’t have space for a typical preamble, you’d best start in the middle of the action. What do you see when you crack the story open?   Find a powerful image to kick things off. Paint a scene or a face in vivid color or emotion. A child is running flat-out down a dirt road…is it from fear, anger, exhilaration, panic? A woman sits at an outdoor cafĂ© in Paris savoring the taste and scent of the fine wine invading her palate as she picks out individual sounds of the city street and interacts with the waiter – only at the end do we discover she’s gone blind. Hone those descriptive urges down to the bare bone, giving the reader just enough to fill in the larger fatty context as you go along.

  Keep the number of characters down to a bare minimum. This should be obvious. If you’ve got more than two or three people talking, you’re asking for trouble. Stick to a main character, someone he or she interacts with to move the story to its inevitable (and possibly unexpected) conclusion, and just allude to others as necessary.

  A little mystery goes a long way. I’ve seen this advice over and over, and I think it’s true. Your reader may feel lost at the beginning, but that's fine. If you’ve crafted that handful of details you started out with carefully and built on them judiciously, readers will be compelled to carry on to the end. A word to the wise: don’t disappoint your faithful reader by failing to pay off those expectations.  

  Let’s go back to what I said about alluding. Making reference to commonly known events or places or people is the quick way to get your exposition out there – it’s what I call “express exposition.” Referring to Howl as the latest rage amongst the literati puts you in the 1950s and probably San Francisco.  

  Pulling things to a conclusion is likely going to be the most chewed over paragraph in your story. You don’t have to be an O’Henry to pack some punch at the end of the tale. Flash fiction is a great vehicle for the surprise ending or abrupt shift in POV because you don't have enough time to create the buildup that longform fiction allows. Flash fiction is streamlined – you’re at the conclusion almost before you know it. You may or may not want the reader to see the depends on the dynamics of the tale. You can create a delicious sense of dread if you don’t mind the reader guessing what’s coming. On the other hand, a sharp unexpected turnaround at the end can make readers want to reread the story to savor the clever (and surreptitious) way in which the ending is the perfect payoff to the events of the story. It may even reveal a new take on some greater truth.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some workshop activities you can try at home without hurting yourself.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Thoughts on Flash Fiction

Recently a short-short story of mine - a piece of flash fiction - got accepted into an anthology of horror due out in March. Although I prefer to write longform fiction, I've had good luck with shorter pieces, so I thought I would share my notes from several conference seminars I've given on writing flash fiction.

 Flash fiction isn’t anything new. Think Aesop.  It goes by many names: micro-fiction, postcard fiction, flash fiction, hint fiction. The short-short form rises to prominence in cycles. We are currently in an upswing  in popularity that started gathering momentum in the 1980s and is now a recognizable tsunami.  Its current appeal is due in large part to a readership used to swallowing their entertainment in short, pungent bits and bites - hit-and-run literary graffiti. Adding to its popularity is the use of handheld devices that accommodate stories that fit on one page. 

For most editors, "flash fiction" constitutes a tale between 300-1000 words long. It's longer than micro-fiction (10-300 words) but shorter than traditional short stories (3000-8000 words preferred by most magazines). Flash fiction is usually a story of a single act, sometimes the culmination of several unwritten events that sit within a larger, silent but implied context.Whatever you call it, it's a distinct genre that has its own markets, typically online zines and collections that publish stories under 1,000 words. Notice that markets define the genre differently in terms of word count, narrative style, and subject matter, so before you submit your work, be sure to check out each publication carefully. Read samples of what's been published and you'll see how wide the range is.

 "Flash" fiction has been too quickly dismissed by those who consider it easy, lazy writing that hardly requires the writer to break a sweat. But the fact is that any writing you do is a chance to extend your skill, especially if it involves reaching beyond your comfort zone. If you've tried your hand at writing these tasty bon mots, you'll know in a flash that there's nothing lazy about crafting a story of this size.  In fact, you may find yourself polishing and tweaking and revising it in an endless loop until you must force yourself to let go of it. In long fiction you can occasionally get away with a paragraph of prose that's less than stellar, but in a short-short, every word, even the articles and conjunctions, count and bear weight. Sometimes substituting "a" for "the" can change the entire sense of a paragraph.

 Remember Polonius, that guy in Hamlet? He's the one who claimed "brevity is the soul of wit." Flash fiction is nothing if not pithy and fairly begs to get turned into a setup for a one-line joke. A common misconception, though, is that the shorter the story, the easier it is to tell. Of course, as writers we know better. Mark Twain said it best: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." It's extremely challenging to capture the essence of character, setting, and plot in just a few pithy paragraphs.

In my mind, what sets well-executed flash fiction apart from near misses is that it avoids being just a terse character sketch or a quick glimpse into a scene. A classic fault is taking a short story and editing out all its flair in an attempt to create a flash story. The thing that makes it worth reading is not the clever language you crammed into 700 words, but how well you were able to seat those 700 words into a larger context of meaning. The best of flash fiction delivers that literary punch to the gut or tug on the emotions that you expect of longer fiction, but with more concentrated oomph. When the larger implications of the flash hit the reader, there's an aha! or oh fuck moment you didn't quite see coming. In the hands of a true prose stylist, these little stories can be jaw dropping or guffaw inducing, or both. Look no further than Robert Olen Butler's published collections Severance and Intercourse

Well, that's a start. Tomorrow I'll post some techniques and guidelines for crafting flash fiction that's sellable, because of course you want to publish that little gem you've labored over. Don't you?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


A misguided piece of legislation written by people
who do not understand its far-reaching ramifications.

UPDATE:  Congress withdraws flawed SOPA/PIPA bills:

Monday, January 16, 2012

The art of pilling a cat

When recently faced with the doom of giving our cat a pill, I naturally turned to my daughter in Seattle, a licensed Veterinary Technician who has seen it all and then some...

Her advice was spot-on and delivered in her usual dry sardonic voice, which begs to be shared, so I will. April's ninja cat-pilling technique follows: pilling is an artform.  I used to have a hilarious account of "How to Pill a Cat" that had steps like "Retrieve pill from underside of couch" and "Remove cat from curtains."  It was posted on the volunteer board in Pasado's Kitty City where I was pilling dozens of cats on a daily basis...or worse, administering eye drops or giving fluids daily!
[At the Center for Bird & Exotic Animal Medicine where she works now] We give our patients their first dose and at the same time instruct the owner in how to give it, so they can see exactly how to give the medicine as we are giving it and ask any questions.  Considering what a chore cat pilling can be if you don't know what to do, it helps to have some visuals.  It's not that hard if you know what to do and do it with confidence.  If you are wishy-washy at all in your technique, the cat will win.  If you are calm, confident, and FAST, the cat will be pilled every time.

This is going to be difficult to explain over email, but I'll give it a shot.  It works much better in person where you can see how the hold works and where, because positioning is everything and above all, you want to go quickly.  Fast, fast, fast, before the kitteh can figure out an escape plan and wriggle out of your grasp.  It helps to grow a third arm. 
Make sure you have the pill out on the counter and ready to use BEFORE you catch the cat.  There will be no time to fumble with opening bottles or sorting out pills once you have caught the cat. Set out the pill on the counter, make sure anything you don't want knocked over is removed from the space, and catch the cat.  You're going to want to put him/her on a counter top or table top so that you have leverage (humans work best when they are standing.  If you try to do this sitting or on the floor, you won't have enough leverage).  Tuck her rump under your arm, against your side and chest.  I would recommend doing this on your left side if you are right handed.  Pull your elbow in toward your body (kitty's first instinct will be to back-peddle when the pilling starts--if you don't block her with your elbow, she will slide out from under your arm).  Using the left hand, grasp over the top of the head firmly gripping under the occipital arch. (There is a place where the bones of the eye socket connect to the skull--it slightly indents. It's sort of below the ears, behind the edge of the eyes. This is the place you want to grasp.)  If you are in the right place, you will have a firm grasp of her head, out of the range of any moveable parts and below the actual eye, so there is not any pressure on the soft tissue.  It should feel bony.  Tilt her head back (nose pointing upward). 
The construction of a cat's jaw prevents them from being able to firmly close the mandible in this position, which means her front teeth will slide slightly apart, giving you room to place your finger.  If the hold is correct, you will have control of her head and she will not be able to bite you or exert enough force with the incisors to matter.  Using your right hand, pick up the pill (between thumb and forefinger), and pull the lower jaw open enough to poke the pill into the back of the mouth (use the middle finger to lever the mouth open, and poke with forefinger).  Aim for the throat, not the oral cavity.  The further in it goes, the higher the chance she will swallow it.  If it is in the center of the mouth or near the front of the mouth, she can use her tongue to push it back out.  You want to do this QUICKLY, in a swift, fluid movement and then close your hand around her muzzle gently to keep her mouth closed.  Keep the head tilted upward and either brush against her throat with a downward stroke or blow very gently on her nostrils to induce swallowing.  The moment you feel she has swallowed, let go of the cat and back up so she can explode away from you and not through you.

If you do this quickly and hold kitty as I've instructed, she will not be able to get away from you or maneuver to bite you in the process.  Be firm and don't let go until you're done.  If your grip loosens, or you are unsure of yourself and you let go, she will be gone and she'll be 10X harder to pill the second time around because she'll be anticipating it (AND anticipating that if she fights hard enough, she'll get free!  Don't let her learn that as an option)!  Each time you do it, make it quick so that it's over before she has a chance to realize what just happened.  If you give her time to realize, "OH! We're doing THIS again!" it will become a fight. If you just scoop her up as if it's nothing and then pill her quickly and let her go, she'll be over it just as fast, and it won't be such a big deal for cat or humans.
Yes, she's right. This works every time if you are fast enough and bold enough. A moment's hesitation or indecision and all is lost!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dragon Year poetry coming!

Oh boy, this is such Dragon Year material!

Coming your way this Memorial Day...

A tour in Iraq, followed by a tour in Afghanistan. It was suggested to Jon Shutt that he seek counseling for his PTSD symptoms. Instead, he wrote poems.