Tag Archives: Flash Fiction

Keep it Moving, Just Not too Much

I complained once about flash fiction. I don’t remember which post it was, except to say it hasn’t been all that long ago. Call me old-fashioned, but I like a story that I can invest in. Since flash fiction is so short—generally less than a thousand words—I feel like I’m just getting settled in and figuring the character(s) out when it’s over.

Reminds me of eating cotton candy when I was a kid: it looks so sumptuous, but then you take a bite that feels like flavored air, and it melts in your mouth and is gone before you really taste it.

Fluff.

But there’s something to be said for flash fiction: it moves.

I bring this up because of two books I’ve encountered this past week and the realization they brought with them: a story needs to move, but please oh please don’t tell me every movement it makes.

Let’s start with making the story move.

I’m trying out a British author (there’s a clue for ya) named China Miéville, and the book, which I’ve just started, is Perdido Street Station. It shows promise, if you’re into speculative fiction. I’m only to chapter four, but it looks to be a grab bag from sf and fantasy: there are several different races of beings, steampunk is present, along with science, chemistry (which he spells chymistry) and God knows what else.

Let’s make this clear at the outset: I realize it’s unfair to judge a book after reading three chapters. I’ve read some that looked absolutely crappy at that point in the story, but kept at them and, by the end, I was glad I’d read them. Miéville’s prose is good, if a bit thick, so it could get better. Story is very important, and it is a long book—the kind I prefer, as a rule. I’ll have lots of time to get invested in the characters. No flash fiction here.

And I’d probably enjoy it thoroughly if not for the fact I’ve read crime fiction, and I’m aware of the kinds of things readers want these days. In both cases, it’s better to stay somewhat sparse on details. Let the reader fill in the details. Just give ’em a good idea of setting and let their imagination supply the rest.

Here’s a paragraph of description of a being from Perdido Street Station: The great creature stood more than six feet tall, on cruel clawed feet that poked out from under a dirty cloak. The ragged cloth dangled down almost to the ground, draped loosely over every inch of flesh, obscuring the details of physiognomy and musculature, all but the garuda’s head. And that great inscrutable bird face gazed down at Isaac with what looked like imperiosity. Its sharply curved beak was something between a kestrel’s and an owl’s. Sleek feathers faded subtly from ochre to dun to dappled brown. Deep black eyes stared at his own, the iris only a fine mottling at the very edge of the dark. Those eyes were set in orbits which gave the garuda face a permanent sneer, a proud furrow.

Whew!

Well, at least we have a full picture of this garuda being. In fact, he goes on for another paragraph talking about the huge wings the garuda has hidden under the cloak and the descriptions of them Isaac has read. It’s not as long a paragraph, and it leaves you with the unmistakable picture of a sentient bird of prey.

This is the kind of thing sf, and British sf in particular, is known for: long descriptions. On the one hand, they’re somewhat necessary. The author has to give the reader a good picture of beings he’s never seen in real life and likely never will. In most cases, he also needs to convey the alienness (I know, that’s not a real word, but it is a concept, so bear with me here) of the being in question. As a reader, you’re becoming acquainted with something that might never have occurred to you.

British authors are more descriptive than American writers. I think it’s the difference between English and American (we do not speak English here. English and American are all but two different languages). It may also be that English authors are still unduly influenced by the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare. Nothing wrong with that per se, but there is a difference in writing styles. Many American Victorian era authors write the same way. I once tried to read The House of Seven Gables, but gave up when Nathaniel Hawthorne spent the first chapter describing the damned house, leaving me wondering when the story was gonna start.

In short, the story itself doesn’t move very fast. I remember reading a review of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, in which the reviewer (and I wish I could remember who it was to give credit) said that one of the things The Hunger Games did that every novel should was introduce the main plot by the end of the Chapter 1. In fact, this might not have been so much a review as an example in a How-To on writing. I’ll say more about The Hunger Games in a bit.

The next book up for consideration is The Buntline Special by Mike Resnick.

The Buntline Special is a Weird Western, and Mike Resnick is an old hand at sf. I learned of him back in the ’90s with his book Paradise, a novel of an Africa-like planet and its exploitation. Mr. Resnick is, as a rule, the kind of author who starts right out with action, and The Buntline Special is no exception. The central character is Doc Holliday, who is traveling to Tombstone at the behest of his friend Wyatt Earp. In this alternate reality, the US stops at the Mississippi River due to the strength of the Indians’ magic, and because of Geronimo and Hook Nose, a Cheyenne medicine man, in particular. Both are exceptionally strong, though they have yet to join forces.

It turns out that Tombstone is the only country in the world to have electric lighting, thanks to Thomas Edison. However, it seems that Geronimo is afraid Edison will find a way to counter his magic, so he has put Edison’s life in danger by motivating the Clanton gang, called the Cowboys, to kill him. The Earps have called in Holliday and Bat Masterson to help them, but Masterson ends up being a liability when Geronimo puts a curse on him.

It’s an interesting concept. Weird West tales are gaining in popularity, and I picked up this book partly because I’d like to write a Weird Western, partly because I’m a Resnick fan.

Unlike Perdido Street Station, The Buntline Special (yes, Ned Buntline is also in the book, but I didn’t want to get too detailed in my synopsis) moves. Description is sparse, just enough to give you the setting without weighing you down with details. Until, that is, the author starts telling you what his characters are doing. Time after time, we’re told in detail what they’re doing. Here’s a short example: Morgan got up, walked to an adjoining room, and returned a moment later with a chair.

Isn’t that nice?

I hate to be sarcastic, especially toward an author who’s won numerous awards and been in the business longer than I’ve been alive. But couldn’t he just say Morgan got a chair from another room or Morgan went to the next room over and retrieved a chair, something like that? Why do you have to tell me he got up, walked to the other room and returned with the chair? Isn’t that implied in my renderings? I realize mine are rough because I composed them on the fly, but they get the point across.

If this was the only or one of the few times Mr. Resnick does this in his book, I wouldn’t complain, but he does it numerous times, telling me in one instance that a character walks through the kitchen, out through the parlor, and onto the street. Why not just tell me he went out to the street? I’m smart enough to know he has to go through the kitchen (the room he was already in, by the way), across the parlor and out the door to get to the street. I’ve left a house, too, you know.

I mentioned before that long description—and lets’ face it, Mr. Resnick’s are long descriptions, even if they’re short sentences—is a forte of sf. I think many sf readers revel in the stuff, and since I’ve started reading crime, I’ve become somewhat impatient with it. One thing to keep in mind is the different conventions genres use. What’s acceptable in one will never fly in another.

The Hunger Games finds a comfortable niche in between these two books. In fact, it argues for some sf authors maybe taking some lessons from YA writers. Hunger Games is Young Adult but, like the Harry Potter books, is appropriate for adults. It doesn’t weigh you down with description, and you’ve got a good idea of the world and the plot by the end of the first chapter, as I’ve mentioned. You don’t know all the details, of course. If you did, the rest of the novel would be a waste of time.

The Hunger Games takes me back to what I consider good science fiction: an intriguing setting that lends itself to the story, rather than a weak story that’s there just to take me through loving descriptions of the setting. Unlike the paragraph I quoted above. Ms. Collins doesn’t use 124 words to describe a single character. She gets on with the story.

And isn’t that why we read in the first place? Isn’t that why authors should write, to tell the story? Why get wrapped up in words? If you want to do that, go write poetry. That’s what poetry’s all about, in a way.

Make your story move, just don’t tell me every move it makes.

Later,

Gil

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Uh…

All right, just so you know, this one’s gonna be another rant. A language rant, this time, though it edges into the political, in a way. I think the title probably gives it away: the word uh.

Yeah, I know. People use it a lot when they, uh, talk. But not as much as so many of the talking heads, from Obamanation on down. I can remember thinking, back when the man was campaigning, that one of the crappy things about him winning would be at least four years of listening to his every uttering broken every few words by that pause, followed by, “…uh…” I mean, it was bad enough that I really don’t like the sound of the man’s voice. Something about it gets on my nerves, and it ain’t got to do with the fact I think he’s a crappy president. He could be anybody and I’d get tired of listening to him talk real fast.

But this ain’t about Obama. It’s about language, and our politicians’ apparent lack of skill in same. I don’t really remember noticing it all that much until the last presidential election, and once I did, I noticed a lot of them use it. Now, recognizing that I get most of my news from NPR—a news organization for whom this equation is true: Obama=Jesus Christ—it seems to me that Dems are worse at it than Republicans.

Now, I figure there’s two ways of looking at this, and if you can come up with another, I’d be interested in hearing—sorry, reading it. The first reason that came to mind is that the Dems are so afraid they’ll offend someone, anyone, that they choose their words carefully. We are talking about the party that champions political correctness to the point that it’s an art form for them. Whereas the Republicans speak more directly because they’re already an offense to the vocal minority and don’t have to worry about offending anyone merely by speaking. All it takes is knowing they have an R after their name.

The other possibility is that the Dems are more intellectual than the opposing party. They think deeper and therefore choose their words carefully. The Republicans are less smart and closer to the average person (I challenge anyone to show me an average person) that both parties only worry about every four years or so anyway.

Whatever the cause, our politicians end up sounding like idiots. I don’t hear leaders from other countries injecting so many uhs into their comments, whether rehearsed or off the cuff. It’s an alarming trend that I throw in the bin with the tendency to start statements with the word so, whether it fits or not, and then ending every sentence in that statement with a lilting of the voice that makes it sound like a question.

Are we so unsure of ourselves that we need to talk this way? Have we spent too many years pandering to the lowest common denominator and, as a result, are becoming illiterate?

This is a very real concern for me. Forget the politics. I use the airhead politicians because they’re the most obvious example: we see and hear from them every day, whether we want to or not. But let’s consider something else along with it: flash fiction.

I’m sure you’ve heard stories on how articles posted online are getting shorter and shorter because people these days won’t take the time to actually read the printed word. What’s scary is that I find myself doing the same thing. Someone who shall remain unnamed said my letters to him/her were welcome but needed to be shorter, that if he/she sees they stretch out to more than a page or so, he/she loses interest (I’m not being PC here, just protecting this person’s gender).

I started out on epics like Lord of the Rings: big, heavy works that take not just hours to read, but days. At least for me, they do. The trend to flash fiction—stories of less than a thousand words, preferably somewhere around 600—disturbs me. Do we want even our entertainment to be fast and uninvolving? I spent several years working as a heavy equipment operator, building roads and such, and one of the things I wondered during that time is Are we trying to do too damn much? When you count dirt moved in the hundreds of yards a day, it’s a legitimate question.

When you count how entertained you are by now many different types you can digest in a day, maybe it’s time to slow down or even stop and take stock. If everyone becomes like the person I mention above, what’s gonna happen to society?

And more importantly, where am I gonna get my large, doorstop epics to read?

I’m not dissing flash fiction in and of itself. Stephen King has often lamented about the disappearance of the short story as an art form. Writing a self-contained story that short isn’t easy—I have yet to even get up the courage to try it. Hell, I can barely define even one character in 600-1,000 words, much less tell you an entire story. I’ve wanted to tackle the monthly story in Writer’s Digest but I’ve never been able to come up with something you can read while the commercials are on.

I did manage to write one of those six-word stories one time, which I reproduce here: He tripped, fell down, and died. It’s got it all: a complete story, some suspense, and an ending that makes sense and keeps the story self-contained.

Just don’t expect me to make a habit of it.

Or enjoy reading them much. They’re too much like wanting a stake and getting cotton candy instead: just not that satisfying. I can’t sink my teeth into them, sit down on a rainy day and lose myself in them for hours at a time. Some of the ones I’ve read are clever. They have to be, considering the limitations. But, see, with the word be in the previous sentence, I passed the upper limit, and I’m still going strong here. Which probably means many of you aren’t even reading these words. You stopped after I dissed Obama. That’s fine.

For those of you still with me, though, I want to wrap this up with one last matter: the word alright. I’m not sure if I’ve brought this up before or not. I know I’ve complained so much about it to so many people that I’m no longer sure where or when. Now, last I knew, that’s not a proper word. It should be written all right. If I remember correctly, already, which is proper, used to be two words that were finally combined into one at some point. I understand that language evolves. If it didn’t, we’d still be writing to-morrow and to-day, along with several others. But as far as I know, the proper form is still all right. Two words, not one.

And yet, I’m seeing it more and more often in published works. I’m reading an otherwise very well written sf novel entitled The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin & Eytan Kollin, two brothers from the LA area. For those of you who are sf fans, I recommend it (so far) because it’s reminiscent of older Heinlein. But it’s published by Tor, not exactly an up-and-coming publishing house, and yet they let the word alright through. There’s a member of my writing group who will throw a book across the room if he sees this. I’m not that bad (and their use of OK instead of okay rubs me the wrong way, but those are both correct, as far as I know), but it still throws me out of the story. My version of Word calls alright a non-standard word, grouping it with ain’t and irregardless. That means it’s okay to use it informally, but not in text.

So, has alright become a proper word? Or are our editors getting that sloppy and ignorant of the language they’re working in? If it’s the former, well, okay, maybe I can accept that, though I doubt I will ever write it that way. If it’s the latter, though, that’s worrying, to say the least. Editors are the people who are supposed to weed out that kind of thing, make a writer’s work look even better. Sure, it’s our responsibility to make it right in the first place, but it’s understood that we’re human and prone to typos (I sometimes feel like my fingers have turned into toes).

Editors tell us how to make it sound better, and copy editors tell us how to do it correctly. I understand from some of my reading that at least a few houses have combined the two jobs, which might explain some of this. Unfortunately, that’s a little like putting the boy down in the mail room in charge of IT: he’s good at the general stuff, but he’s not suited for such a technical job. Editors are readers while copy editors are technicians.

Anyway, since I’ve gone over fifteen hundred words, I’d better truly wrap this up. Hopefully I haven’t offended anyone, but don’t expect me to say uh to keep from doing it. Me speak my mind.

Later,

Gil

Changing the Way We Write

I’m a dinosaur. I admit it freely. While I don’t predate the computer age, I do predate the personal computer age. Computer classes were just starting to be offered during my high school years and, like the CEO (I can’t remember his name right now) of Tandy said when IBM came out with their PC in 1980, I looked at them this way: They’ll never amount to anything.

Good thing I’m not in the prophecy business.

But, thanks to computers and the “gotta have it now” mentality they have helped inspire, I have witnessed a substantial change in how writers, especially unpublished writers like myself, have to ply their trade.

Of course, fads in writing come and go. I can remember when having at least one sex scene in your book or story (let’s just shorten that to the word story, shall we?) was obligatory: if it wasn’t there, you were lacking in something important. Didn’t matter if it moved the story forward or not, or even needed to be there. To be a modern author of commercial fiction, put the sex scene and stretch it out. Ditto with profanity. At least some of your characters should swear like sailors or worse, whether they needed to or not.

These were fads, though. I’m talking about things like description, flashback and back story. And I might be able to think of a few others along the way.

I go through spates of trying to read classics, the books a lot of us were forced to read in high school and  college, whether they were relevant to anything in real life or not. Books like Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans and others of their ilk. Now, I’m not going to make some blanket condemnation of these books, even if a lot of us have had to practically OD on some kind of stay-awake pills or multiple pots of coffee to get through the things. That’s beside  the point. What I’m trying to put across is what makes these books boring to modern readers: pages and pages of description and back story. Especially description.

I remember one particular endeavor in futility when I tried to read The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Now, I would have to say that the title is a fairly succinct description of said dwelling. But dear old Nathaniel would probably disagree, seeing as how he started the book with something like seven pages of describing everything from the color of dirt in the yard to how each wooden shingle lay on the roof (yes, I exaggerate for effect, but not by much). Needless to say, I didn’t get through the entire description. Good thing it was one of those Walmart two-for-a-buck editions with the price sticker printed on the cover. They put those out for a while back in the 90s (and may still today, for all I know).

Moving up to more modern times (and books I can actually get past the first five pages of), look at one of Stephen King‘s stories. One of the hallmarks of his writing is his characterization and that makes sense. He has stated that his stories tend to start with characters rather than situations, and by the time he starts writing the story itself, he knows a lot more about his characters than ever makes it into the book. And he gets a lot about the character in there. There are long blocks of back story to let us know why so and so does what he or she does. For some readers, these are boring. For me, by the time the story kicks in for good and serious, I’m invested in these characters and I want them to succeed. And, after all, isn’t that one of the reasons we read a story?

But now we’re in the age of the Internet and social networking and short attention spans. Readers want the story and they want it now, and please don’t bother them with things like description and back story. Or flashbacks. Oh, sure, some of those things should be in there, but as Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy state in their book Writing Fiction for Dummies (Wiley Publishing), if you put flashback in anywhere in the first five chapters of your book, make sure you’re willing to pay the editor ten bucks a word for it because it takes that long of the readers to care enough about the characters to be interested in flashback or back story. And, as for description, well, we are told to keep it sparse. Relate enough to give the reader a general idea and move on. Don’t stop the story.

This last has a reason, and maybe a good one at that. There are several points of view that a writer has available to choose from when writing a story, but the most popular these days (in order of how I’m seeing them) are first person and third  person (there are two more categories of third person writing: third person head-hopping and objective. I won’t go into details right now). Both of these views get inside a character’s head and subjective viewpoint, so I can understand not getting too detailed about description. After all, when you walk into a room you’ve never been in before, do you notice everything in the room? I doubt it. We notice the things that stand out to us. So, when we describe things in a story, we’re expected to pick out things that our character would notice, not give a detailed inventory of every object there. That’s how real people operate, so our characters should as well. Let the reader fill in the rest as they will.

To truly care about the character, we must be in his or her (or its, in the case of some sf and urban fantasy stories) POV. That means no more seven page descriptions of  a frickin’ house. Or long discourses on the character’s broken childhood. Drop some hints here and there and keep moving. It’s the 21st Century version of the old writer’s adage “show, don’t tell.”

I’ve heard story after story about the short attention spans we are getting as a result of the Internet. We are told that readers now scan the first few paragraphs of an online article at best and, if it looks too long, we don’t read the rest. I find myself doing the same thing. It’s a bit disconcerting.

There’s a lot to be said for keeping the story moving, and I have to admit that I seem to prefer to have my back story and flashbacks revealed to me in bits and pieces. For me, coming upon these little tidbits is like finding lost treasures: the character is revealed to me a little at a time, just like we get to know people in real life (which is another reason for doing it this way. We don’t get to know one another in huge chunks). On the other hand, I used to enjoy those long, leisurely jaunts through a character’s past. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but I admit I find that I have trouble tolerating long chunks of expository text. Give it to me in sound bites, please. Sad, I suppose, but true.

The Internet is changing how we all read, and it’s led to such things as Flash Fiction and its cousins. That’s okay, I suppose, but I hope we don’t lose sight of what came before. I really enjoyed those long, rainy afternoons with a thick book in hand, the sound of the rain on the roof a pleasant backdrop to my reading.

And on a personal note (hey, it’s my blog!), I find it passing strange that a sf writer like me is griping about what computers are doing to us. Seems counterintuitive to me. But that’s life.

Cheers,

Gil