Our Notes From The Slush series is a discussion among Masters Review editors about what they saw in their most recent submissions. In the discussion they examine what was working in the stories they accepted and some of the challenges they saw in the pieces that were declined. Today, editors Kim Winternheimer and Sadye Teiser, take a closer look at stories from their flash fiction contest, which wrapped up earlier this year.
K: It was so wonderful hosting a call specifically for flash fiction. You and I have always loved the form, and our library has quite a lot of it, but it was so great focusing on, and specifically offering a platform for these small stories. For me, flash fiction isn’t directly comparable to a story that spans several thousand words. The intention of the story is different. So is the economy. Writers have to be specific with their choices, both in terms of word choice but also in terms of narrative arc. What works for flash fiction doesn’t always work for a short story and vice versa. Do you agree? What kinds of things in your opinion work for one form and not the other? What makes flash special in your mind?
S: I agree with you that it was an absolute pleasure to read for this contest. We had been wanting to do a flash award for years, and we read so many little stories that were full of compact energy.
I also agree that the parameters by which we judge flash fiction are different than those we use for stories of a more traditional length. The wonderful thing about flash (as in any fiction) is that there are no rules, but you can take risks in a flash piece that might not pan out in a longer story. For that reason, I don’t want to be too prescriptive. But I can say that two craft choices really stood out to me this round: one held otherwise strong flash stories back; the other propelled stories to the top of our list.
A lot of the stories we discussed were impressively sweeping in scope, but never seemed to land anywhere. While they were well crafted, they were still unsatisfying because there wasn’t an emotional takeaway. There was one piece that chronicled onlookers’ reactions to a suicide at a resort, but didn’t ultimately go as deep as we would have liked. There was another that explored a child’s relationship with an abusive father but never quite got to the heart of it. I could imagine these stories being quite successful if they spanned, say, twenty pages in length, and really leaned into the complexities that are only hinted at in their current form. But what yields a full, deep story of a traditional length can easily feel gimmicky in flash.
However, the majority of stories we accepted had one thing in common: they contained an emotionally layered, complex scene that had implications beyond the action described. In our winner, “Out and Out,” a Muslim woman and her father go to a beach in Spain where most of the women are topless. The protagonist’s father is not judgmental of the nudity, but it’s clear that he is uncomfortable. The protagonist herself is embarrassed by her own unease. In “The Grocery Store Miracle” (title edit pending), a woman with a chronically ill father takes a spin around the store in his wheelchair, and the other patrons mistake her for the patient. There’s so much more to these scenes than what I just described; they have layers upon layers packed into them. But you can see how rich and specific they are.
What are some things you noticed about the pieces that we gave very serious consideration to, but ended up declining? Were there some common characteristics holding them back?
K: As with any contest, we saw some really great work that we just couldn’t accept, and a lot of it was very promising. It was certainly one of our tougher editorial meetings! In the end, we chose work that was, as you put it, emotionally layered, fully formed, and met the challenge it set for itself. Whether it was successful at its particular point of view or pushed its unique premise to reveal or enhance its character’s journey, all of our winners and honorable mentions are thoughtful, and subtly complex pieces.
For me, the most memorable aspect about the stories we seriously considered that didn’t make the cut was that they were filled with emotional potential but lacked focus or thematic specificity. Essentially, I wasn’t sure what the story was trying to say and there was an emotional bulls-eye that was missed. In the end, these stories were close, but ineffective at generating a target for the reader’s focus. The result is a story that lacks impact. When you’re talking about flash fiction, you have to consider economy. Making these stories longer to generate space to explore what is really happening around an event or character could help, but I thought in a lot of instances we saw strong work that focused too long on the premise, the voice, or event, instead of how it was affecting the characters in the story. Therein lies the challenge of flash fiction: to be effective and powerful in such a small space.
On a more basic level, I was surprised to see unnecessary language and detail in stories that are so restricted by word count. We saw a lot of stories that spent time in the wrong areas. I’d suggest for anyone reading flash to really consider what is necessary in the piece and what isn’t. If you were giving one piece of advice to flash writers, what would it be?
S: Honestly, the one piece of advice I would give flash writers is precisely to the point you just made: know exactly what your story is trying to achieve, and craft it toward that goal. There are no words to waste. You don’t have any time to spend figuring out what it is your story is trying to say. Often, I felt like the heart of what a flash piece was about came at the very end—and I usually wished that the story would have started with that!
I remember us talking about how our second-place winner, “Lions in the House,” excels at accomplishing what it sets out to achieve. This piece begins by discussing the sounds of lions from the nearby zoo, but even this detail is focused on revealing the opposing anxieties experienced by both members of a couple. By the end of this short piece, the reader is left with a distinct sense of the unease in this particular relationship.
Now, I don’t want to muddy my point here, but I’m not trying to say that a flash piece should have no description whatsoever. When I was editing one of our honorable mentions, “Road Trip,” I asked the author to add a few, short visuals. For example, there is an important scene on the beach at the end of the story. It’s written in real time, as a tiny but pretty traditional scene, and I wanted just one line to tell me what the beach looked like. It felt wrong to not include that detail. There really is a very fine line between being efficient and being too spare, and that is different depending on the parameters of each story.
I also think that you touched on a good point about how detail can often feel unnecessary in flash. In such a short story, it can throw the balance off. How do you tackle a flash piece that needs a lot of exposition? Particularly, we saw a few pieces that took place in alternate worlds and spent a lot of time explaining these worlds to the reader. As a result, these stories felt unbalanced. (Though they oftentimes still left us a bit confused.) How do you handle exposition and lengthy description in flash?
K: That’s a tricky question because every story’s needs are different, but I think if you’re asking yourself these kinds of questions about balance, you’re probably on the right track to making a smart edit. I do think there’s a tendency to want to over explain a story that takes place in an alternate world, and oftentimes that kind of exposition is necessary. So to your question: how do you achieve that?
The best flash I’ve read isn’t about a strange world or crazy premise, but about the characters in the story. In this way, I think focusing on the characters and offering context clues about the world of your story will yield the most satisfying piece. If you do need to offer some exposition, I suggest thinking about productive ambiguity vs. general confusion. Offer enough so your reader understands what’s going on, and let your ambiguity work in a way that pushes the piece along or generates “what will happen next?” interest. Of course that’s easier said than done, but spending time with your story and thinking about this balancing act will help you identify where to trim unnecessary details and where your piece needs more clarity. When you’ve got such a short space, that kind of harmony is essential.
Here’s a great example from our library: “All It Took To Get Rid Of You,” from Michael McGriff and JM Tyree’s collection Our Secret Life in The Movies. This piece takes place in a dream, which is a huge writing cliche, but it’s done so well the “cliche” is welcome. Here the writer is balancing information about the backstory of the characters with lines like: “This was unnerving because I was living alone again after the divorce.” And, “I had made fun of you then, thinking it wouldn’t last, but it was actually one of those minor changes, like listening to new music or suddenly acquiring a hobby like knitting, that heralds a breakup.” This story is otherworldly in the sense that the narrator isn’t aware of the reality he is in, but the focus is on the emotional energy between the two characters, not the dream. We’re allowed to inhabit the confusion of the piece with the narrator, because the emotional tenor is so strong. This guides us through a flash piece about a breakup that is also a bit confusion in a way that is satisfying and whole, and a great example of balancing exposition and ambiguity.
Another flash piece I liked recently is “Manatees” by Todd Seabrook over at Smokelong Quarterly. I had the pleasure of selecting it as one of their guest editors. It’s another great example of a strange premise that, in its essence, is a character study and comments on collective thinking while layering groups (manatees and children) throughout the story. And “Manatees” is a piece of micro-fiction! Very well done.
To end, I think we’re both saying that it’s easy to spot flash fiction that is off balance. The stories are so short, flaws can easily outweigh good writing. I will say though, in conclusion, I was blown away by the quality of the work we saw as well as the creativity. I wish we had room for ten or twenty of these very special stories. It’s exciting to me to read such awesome flash fiction.