Monday, September 30, 2013

A Little Bit of Flash

As I've mentioned before, I'm not a fan of flash fiction, at least, not in its current iteration. It's tricksy and false and, usually, leaves too much out. The reason for that is that it's being crafted to be short, and, generally speaking, authors are too busy trying to be clever when they write flash fiction.

And, too frequently, the author has a 3000 word story he's trying to cut down to 1000 words, and it just doesn't work. I suppose what I'm saying is that if authors would let the story dictate the word length, some of these flash pieces, although they would quit being flash, would be better stories.

I do not, however, have an issue with timed writing exercises. These will, due to their nature, lead to what amounts to flash fiction or, possibly, vignettes.

All of that to say that last week I gave one of my creative writing classes a timed writing assignment. We're dealing with setting in that class, at the moment, so their assignment was to take 30 minutes and describe a setting for me. Characters were optional but there was to be no action unless the action contributed to the description of the scene. "For instance," I said, "if you want to describe how a cliff face is crumbly and dangerous, you could do that by giving me a climber and talk about the rocks sliding under his (or her) feet or a handhold giving way or something." Basically, any action had to be about the setting.

It's amazing just how difficult that idea was for the kids. So difficult that one of the kids gave me a total action scene which involved a kidnapping. One of them gave me what amounted to a list of items in a location. One of them wrote up the example I gave, which, actually, was fine. My (younger) son is in that class, and he knew what I meant and wrote up a very vivid description, if short, of a tidal pool (which I'd share with you if I had it available at this moment (but he's at school and I don't know where it is (probably with him in all actuality), so, maybe, I'll share it some other time)). Rendering settings, I can see, will be something we'll be working on at greater length.

Since I had 30 minutes on my hands, I sat down and did the assignment along with them. It's fun, upon occasion, to sit down and see what you can whip out in a short time. And I don't mean how much you can do from a larger work when you only have, say, an hour to write. I mean just pumping out something completely new in a short space of time. So I'm going to share what I wrote. Under 25 minutes. No changes. You're getting it exactly as I wrote it in class. Don't be surprised, though, if this pops up somewhere in the future, because I already have an idea for where this is going, because, yes, what I ended up with was a piece of flash fiction done in the way the name implies: It was written in a flash.

My currently untitled piece:

Leaves rustled and blew down the hard-packed dirt of the trail in the fading Autumn light. Light that was even more dim due to the arching branches of the trees. There were no shadows; it was all shadow with a few scattered patches of light here and there down the path, speckles of light scattered from the hand of some passing giant. Or, maybe, God. Little pieces He didn't need for the unseen sunset.
Up ahead, the path curved to the left and all was dark, the scant light feeding the darkness. Another gust of wind pushed more of the leaves toward me down the path, the rustling and tumbling of the small forms giving them the illusion of spiders scurrying along the trail, brushing my legs as they went by.
Something blew at my face, a leaf caught on the wind, and, ducking, I brushed it aside with the back of my hand, snagging it on my sweater. Although I couldn't feel it, the wind must have been picking up. The limbs of the trees creaked with it and more and more leaves swirled at me down the path. One caught in my hair; I felt it, and I reached up to comb it out with my fingers...
But it wasn't a leaf. It was a spider. A spider as big as my hand. They were all spiders...


  1. That is a daunting task -- 30 minutes?!

    I had never heard the term "flash fiction" before. And I am still a little confused... it's just quick? I don't think I'd like that as a whole, I'm fond of a plot and character development. Unless I misunderstood.

    I think that's great you teach creative writing. Such a wonderful outlet for kids and adults alike... And your spider story creeped me out a bit :) So, good job, sir!

  2. Leaves into spiders - very creative.
    I don't believe I've ever written flash. Coming from the man of few words, that probably surprises you...

  3. Oooohhhhh I like it, especially for the season.

  4. Yuk, spiders, not leaves, very evocative. Enjoyed it.

  5. I agree with you. I almost never write shorts and flashes, because I hate writing what I call uncontained stories.

    If the length can't take a full story, including characterization, conflict and action, I write a longer story until it's done.

  6. I should have 7 pieces of flash fiction being published in November. I think one of Elmore Leonard's rules on writing was to limit description, so he'd have probably thrown your exercise away and just written a bunch of dialog.

  7. Yours was good! I didn't even see those spiders coming and it creeped me out. Nicely done.

  8. I also liked the leaves into spiders switch.

    Fun exercise.

  9. Jean: Flash fiction is the current term being applied to fiction that is under 1000 words long. It has also gone by the terms "short fiction" (appropriate) and "micro fiction," among others. To be a piece of "flash," it should be an actual story in that it has some sort of plot arc to it (as opposed to a vignette, which is is just a scene (no plot arc)).

    Alex: Actually, that doesn't surprise me at all.

    JKIR,F!: Yep, that's what got me going on those lines.

    Jo: I'm glad.

    Misha: What I hate most about most flash is the 300 (or more) word info dump most of them have so that they can deliver any kind of actual story. If you have to info dump to make it understandable, it just needs to be longer.

    Pat: And that's what's so great about nearly every bit of writing advice out there: it's all wrong.

    Anne: Thank you!

    TAS: It was actually fun. And kind of funny to see the looks of panic when I say, "You have 30 minutes. Write something."

  10. oh yeah that's a bad one. I hate when a flash piece actually just reads like an excerpt.

  11. I've read some good flash fiction, but it was also highly edited, so...

    I love your description. "They were all spiders..." Ugh!

  12. Misha: or a prologue...

    Jeanne: There is some good flash; I just find that it is a disproportionately small amount compared to the love that it gets.

    And thanks!

  13. Boy, I wish I'd had a teacher like you in school. The closest I came to a creative writing teacher in high school was my Brit Lit teacher who, when I submitted a sonnet for the literary magazine contest, said later "I saw your attempt at a sonnet." HA HA IT WON, JERK.

    In college, I took a creative writing class. My teacher was very supportive but didn't offer much in the way of lessons or help. It was fun, though. I wrote a few of the stories in my "Just Exactly" collection in that class, actually.

    Anyway: your piece is excellent. "Little pieces He didn't need for the unseen sunset" is GREAT: like the world is a stage and God's going to strike it soon.

    I don't like the phrase "flash fiction," as it calls to mind too much of what people complain about: hasty, plotless fiction. I started my 250=1 stories as a way to practice writing, and I've tried to make each every bit as whole of a story as my longer stuff. Then again, I'm swinging away from labels as anything other than a way to give the people an idea what the feel of the work is -- so a novel would be anything too long to read in one sitting, and a short story the opposite (using Poe's definition), while a "poem" would be any sort of short fictional piece that focuses on something other than plot.

    YOU ARE WELCOME, literary world.

  14. Briane: I did actually have a creative writing class in high school, but she didn't really teach us much. Mostly, we just read and wrote. So we did get assignments to do particular types of writing, but there was very little actual writing instruction in the class. You might actually be seeing one of the things I did in that class sometime soon. Maybe.

    Hmm... no comment about the spiders. I actually thought of you when I put those in, but, then, maybe you're growing immune to spiders since you've been having to do so much writing about them lately.

    I'm sure the literary world thanks you.