Just in time for the close of our Flash Fiction Contest, we’re excited to share this new essay from Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of War, with some advice on how to approach revision. Apply these steps to your own flash manuscripts and submit them before the 31st!
It’s one thing to tell readers that your protagonist lives in a war-torn country and it’s rare to relax long enough to gaze at the stars. It’s another thing entirely to say that the sky looks “star-pocked” (as opposed to “twinkling”), and the difference goes back to that age-old advice about show don’t tell.
As an author who reviewed submissions for four different publications and edited three fiction anthologies (including BITE: An Anthology of Flash Fiction), I’ve rejected countless stories that were one draft away from publishable. Doing so was my least favorite part of the job.
Writing may be a solo sport during actual toosh-in-chair time, but knowing when to take a step back and apply critical, technical craft revisions to your work is essential to finding publishing success. If that means taking a class, hiring a developmental editor, or forming a skilled critique group, do it.
In the meantime, here are three tips I wish I’d had the time to share with every writer whose work I rejected. Since I primarily teach, critique, and publish flash form, I’ll stick to that, however, all prose writers can apply these techniques to stand-alone scenes or chapters comprising their longer works:
- Scrutinize your word choice: This has everything to do with choosing the right verb or descriptor, to avoiding subtlety. In flash (or peak scenes in full-length memoirs or novels), every word counts. “The star-pocked night sky” is not the same as “The twinkling night sky.” One implies a bit of violence, while the other implies ease. Which does your story need? Which most effectively captures your character’s worldview and deepest desires? Choose the word that gets the job done. Then, do the same thing in the next sentence. And the next. And the next…until you’ve revised your piece so that the words speak to one another beyond surface meaning. In short, revise with such precision that as many words as possible function double-time.
- Tell a story that transcends the basic actions of the plot: If you’ve done your work with word choice, there’s a good chance your plot has improved as well. Because of course, in literary writing there’s the story…and then there the story. You’re telling both at the same time; action alone isn’t enough. Whether your story portrays a teenager who can’t sleep at night or a high speed shoot ‘em up, plot is so much more than “what happens”—even in flash form pieces that are only one page. The action needs to raise questions in the reader’s mind, and your lines/scenes/chapters that come later need to answer those questions (while often raising another). In this way, plot is an accordion slowly opening and closing, revealing different notes each time, until the song is complete. Is our plot missing a note? Is there an incorrect chord?
- Fully inhabit your protagonist’s worldview: By now, you can see that these three things are interrelated; if your word choice is precise and revealing, your plot will start to work beyond the level of action, and how your protagonist sees the world will rise to the surface. It’s one thing to tell readers that your protagonist lives in a war-torn country and it’s rare to relax long enough to gaze at the stars. It’s another thing entirely to say that the sky looks “star-pocked” (as opposed to “twinkling”), and the difference goes back to that age-old advice about show don’t tell. What that advice really means is this: understand your characters deeply enough to know how they see the world, how they react under pressure, and what they most keenly desire. Because if you know that, showing comes easily. From there, worldview becomes the same as word choice and plot, and your writing takes on a quality of originality and depth any editor would be thrilled to publish.
So how do you begin? I personally think that getting grounded in your body and slowing down enough to feel whatever needs to be felt is a necessary step. When we rush ourselves in our own lives and tasks, we can rush our writing, too. Part of revision is re-visioning. To do that, slow down first. Be kind to yourself. Be honest and fair to your characters. Proceed methodically if that feels right to you, going step by step. Or proceed intuitively, stepping back later and taking stock of changes you’ve made or insights you’ve gained.
When it’s all said and done, to take a walk or sleep on it. (Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a few years!) Come back and read your work out loud from the printed page. Go slowly. Listen and feel again. Is it time to reach out to beta readers? Time to submit? Time to learn another skill through a small, supportive class? Decide and take action. And most of all: good luck! This approach is truly rewarding the more you bring it into your writing life. May your words and your characters thrive!
Katey Schultz is the author of Flashes of War (stories) and the forthcoming Still Come Home (novel) both published by Loyola University Maryland. She is the founder of Maximum Impact (as featured on CNBC), which provides transformative online curricula for writers so that they can articulate their most authentic work and get published. To learn more about flash form writing, Katey’s work, or to explore free resources like the 5 S’s that will help get you published, visit www.kateyschultz.com and explore her spring classes now.