TITMOUSE AND a finch are both tiny birds, but each is a different species that sings a different song. Likewise, flash fiction (commonly described as a story under 1,000 words) features a small word count, but is found in many shapes and sizes. As a good birder carries his handy reference guide in his back pocket, so too should a writer working in the short narrative form refer to his guidebook.
Until now, no such guidebook existed. When Tara Masih, a freelance editor and writer, discovered that there were "virtually no books devoted solely to the study, writing and practice of flash fiction," she pitched the idea to Rose Metal Press, an independent press focusing on hybrid genres. The publisher agreed based on Masih's vision for the book, one that would: "avoid dryness and technicality ... be brief and accessible ... a book of ideas about and for flash fiction ... its brevity and tone [to] reflect the art of the flash fiction story." The result, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, accomplishes what both editor and publisher desired.
It's smart to call the book a field guide--anyone interested in attempting flash fiction should start here to find out if what she is looking at on her page really is a short-short. Each chapter is written by an accomplished flash-fiction author and organized into three parts: an essay by each master in the form on what makes short-shorts sing, an exercise or prompts created by the author to assist the reader in finding new ways to discover the genre, and a story example often based on the prompts and essay.
The authors in the collection are some of the finest short-short writers today. They range from Pamela Painter to Ron Carlson to Jayne Anne Phillips to Robert Olen Butler, to name just a few of the 25 authors included.
Painter opens the collection with an essay that gives credence to the exercise of writing--like a musician or singer practices, she says, so should a writer. Painter considers writing exercises "a limbering up of your imagination."
Several authors address the issue that flash fiction is hard to define, and several authors discuss length, which varies. Phillips doesn't like the term "flash fiction." She uses "one-page fictions" instead and says she taught herself to write using the brief form. She challenges the writer in her exercises to write one-page fictions using a photo. For her story sample at the end of the chapter, she used her own parents' wedding photo from 1948. "[T]he onepage fiction," Phillips says, "should hang in the air of the mind like an image made of smoke." Vanessa Gebbie adds that "[f]lash stories are far bigger than their minimal word counts might suggest."
Many of the authors in the collection discuss the shape of the story--and how to tell a story in such a compact space. Nathan Leslie gives validity to the term vignette. "Life is ambiguity, not serendipitous plotting," he writes. Jennifer Pieroni explains that narrative arc should be the writer's primary focus. She suggests that a peppering of surprises with image and language is the best way to ensure that the work will be remembered, and she provides an exercise "to make your story noticeable and memorable."
Lex Williford supplies Rorschach inkblots for prompts and describes how short-shorts differ from prose poetry by having a dramatic reversal. Robert Olen Butler adds that "it is a short short story and not a prose poem because it has at its center a character who yearns."
All writers of flash fiction--not just those interested in trying out the form--should own this book. The essays provide inspiration and a variety of perspectives. The sample stories, as a collection, represent the diversity of this genre. The exercises, on the other hand, separate the practical teachers of the bunch from the more esoteric writers who don't know exactly how to explain how they write.
In Masih's introduction, she details the history of the short-short story. It is often said that flash fiction is becoming popular because our attention spans continue to shorten, but Masih's history lesson tells us that the tiny form goes back to the beginning of storytelling so many years ago.
And in Pamelyn Casto's contribution, she dips into our rich storytelling history and asks writers to rethink myths to tell a familiar story in a new way. Her prompts include looking at ancient myths reset in modern times.
The variety of topics, perspectives and instruction from the authors here demonstrates that flash fiction is blessed with an array of species. This field guide will prove useful for identifying the elusive flash-fiction bird by its subtle yet surprising plumage.
Amy Wallen is a novelist, book critic, editor and teacher. She is also the founder of DimeStories, an ongoing series of threeminute stories read by their authors. Web: www.dimestories.org or www.amywallen.com.
Named Works: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field (Nonfiction work) Book reviews
Wallen, Amy. "Flash-fiction masters offer tips on the form." The Writer Dec. 2009: 44. Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Dec. 2009.
Gale Document Number:A210521260
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