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September 18, 2018 Playlists
Listen along to Issue 61’s playlist on Spotify!
Svetlana Beggs ,“The Photo” – “Звезда по имени Солнце” by Viktor Tsoi
Victor Tsoi was a necessary force of nature for USSR high school kids in the late 80s. The two main characters in my story love this song, and indeed know by heart every song by Victor Tsoi.
Janika A Oza, “Gathered Family” – “Garden Prayer” by Anju
Lindsey Baker, “Ourself, Ourself” – “Black Sands” by Bonobo
I like this song because it’s seemingly dramatic, but has swells of something that feels like humor. Or if not humor, whimsy. I think the narrators would enjoy playing it while riding with Jack in his car.
Michael Riess, “Sky Like Concrete” – “Colorblind” by Counting Crows
I chose this song because my story—like the lyrics in the song—describes a colorless landscape and a narrator unable to properly express his feelings.
Megan Pillow Davis, “We All Know About Margo” – “DNA” by Kendrick Lamar
“DNA” is the song that’s playing in the background of my story’s moment. Although Lamar is clearly speaking to the particulars of black cultural appropriation, the song still aligns well with Margo’s character because both hip-hop and the female body are often stereotyped and objectified by white culture; while certainly not identical experiences, the pain and anger that both groups feel has some small kinship. When I wrote this story, I imagined “DNA” as the kind of song my white suburban teen male narrators would play while driving around in their parents’ BMWs, listening only to its beat and completely missing its adept celebration of black history and culture and skewering of whiteness.
Tiffany Quay Tyson, “Now You See Me” – “Someday” by Steve Earle
This song really captures the feeling of being stuck in a particular place through no fault of your own. The narrator in “Now You See Me” is stuck. She hasn’t done anything wrong, but nothing goes right for her.
Steven Grassel, “Weather Person” – “Hopefulessness” by Courtney Barnett
Caroline Bock, “Government-Issued Bunnies” – “Is This the World We Created” by Queen
This song asks is this what we have created? All the hungry mouths we have to feed and all the suffering we breed, where does it lead us? It led me to “Government-issued Bunnies.”
John Mancini, “Swans” – “Poor Joan” by John Mancini Band
Like “Swans,” this song is a story about people confronting change and loss. Joan and Billy live on Back River, which is not too far from where Sherry lives on Stoney Creek.
James Amata, “Shopping ya Shilingi Elfu Tano” – “Ka Nameka” by Tabu Ley Rochereau & L’Afrisa International
Translated from Lingala as WACHA NIJARIBU, (Let Me Try). It was a competition entry at a concert. His band won!
This song so soothes me as it so encourages me to always try.
Lynn Mundell, “Sister Wives at the County Fair” – “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” by Aretha Franklin
We never see more than a flash of Husband, so a love song won’t do. Instead, in honor of the legendary Aretha Franklin, here’s an anthem perfect for sing-alongs.
Rebecca Dashiell, “If the Light, Then the Light” – “Lioness” by Songs: Ohia
I feel like this is the kind of song the filmmaker’s wife would listen to and think this is what love should look like: desperate longing and vulnerability.
Jeff Landon, “Ringo Starr” – “I Don’t Want To Control You” by Teenage Fanclub
Because I love Teenage Fanclub, and I don’t really love Ringo Starr’s music… except
“Photograph… and this song is about the exact opposite type of man as the dildo in my story.
September 17, 2018 News Digests
The SmokeLong Quarterly team are thrilled to have more and more opportunities for celebrating flash fiction writers. A couple of new Best-anthologies are accepting nominations, and of course we’re nominating SLQ stories.
Best Microfiction is considering submissions under 400 words–eight micros per journal!–until the end of the year. We have nominated the stories below but still have two nominations open (and a December issue of SmokeLong yet to be filled).
“Satellite” by Elaine Edwards
“Blemish” by Jessica Cavero
“It’s Over” by Molly Giles
“Taking Notes” by Kerry Cullen
“Safe” by David Lerner Schwartz
“Crossing” by Alice Mercier
Best British and Irish Flash Fiction will be taking nominations from editors until May 31, 2019. We have nominated one story so far but remain hopeful that we’ll publish gobs of British and Irish writers before the deadline.
“I’m Ron McRain said Ron McRain” by Jonathan Cardew
Congratulations to these nominees from the SmokeLong team!
September 10, 2018 Reviews
by Kelly Lynn Thomas
Dana Diehl’s new chapbook, TV Girls (New Delta Review, August 2018), is a collection of short stories based on reality TV shows and celebrities. You don’t need to be familiar with The Bachelor or Sister Wives to enjoy the characters or their struggles, though. Whatever you’ve gleaned from reading People headlines in the grocery store checkout line and from your friends’ Facebook feeds is enough of an entry point. The six stories in the collection aren’t exactly satire, but they aren’t exactly homages to reality TV either. They’re something in between, a chimaera of expectation-skewering, healthy cynicism, fascination with human behavior, voyeurism, and feminist commentary.
The poet Chen Chen, who selected Diehl’s manuscript as the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Series winner, says of it, “Story after story, Diehl discovers fraught vulnerabilities and startling truths in the lives of girls and women confronting the expectations of TV, lovers, family, and one another.” An apt description, as reading TV Girls felt like being an archaeologist from the future, excavating 21st-century life, uncovering its dirty laundry and hidden secrets one by one.
The collection’s eponymous story, presumably based on The Bachelor, explores a group of 25 women “looking for love.” None of the women are named, only referred to with letters, and they drop out of the story one by one as they leave the set, seemingly having failed their quest. But of course, the quest was artificial from the beginning, and the story reminds the reader of this harsh fact over and over again. “The TV girls believe they can find love on national television,” the unnamed narrator states at the beginning. Right from the start, we know it’s a lost cause. What’s more, we as readers and watchers know that the TV girls themselves know it’s a lost cause. “Each TV girl says, he’s really, really the one.”
We know he’s not, but that’s part of reality TV’s charm—we get to watch other people make a mess of their lives from the comfort of our living rooms. The tension in this story comes not from which girl will wind up with the “Potential Husband,” but from the narrator’s increasingly naked desire to see things go wrong, and the more explosive, the more dramatic, the better. That theme comes up again in the collection’s final story, “Conjoined,” a story about conjoined twins Jenna and Lily, who also happen to be the last girls on earth. Before the world ended, they had their own reality show, and now they live in abandoned TV sets in Los Angeles. Their lives were always scripted, and even with no audience left, it’s as if they are performing, struggling to maintain appearances. “When everyone was already looking, there was no point in trying to hide,” the girls muse.
Because of course, Diehl’s stories are as much about the people who watch reality television as the shows and celebrities themselves. They push and pull against that base desire we all feel to watch the train wreck, mouths agape at the rubble, the blood, the fire. As a culture, we’re obsessed with reality TV because it allows us to indulge in fantasy and drama, not in spite of it.
Even the stories that aren’t directly based on specific reality TV shows have a reality TV show feel. In “Must-Haves,” a couple goes house shopping, and the story is told through a list of the things their new house has to possess. No fewer than three bedrooms to accommodate future children. A finished basement to shelter the family in case of tornado or hurricane. A claw-foot tub in which the narrator can escape an affair she imagines her spouse will have in the future.
This narrator imagines all the worst-case scenarios: fire, famine, the end of the world. The couple is young, and it’s easy to picture them, though Diehl never actually describes them physically. He’s a smartly dressed professional with a high salary and an eye on the corporate ladder. She’s the artsy type working on her first book. Both of them are fit and attractive with straight, white teeth.
It’s no leap to imagine them on a show like House Hunters, searching and searching for the right home, never finding it because of some minuscule flaw, like the “wrong” paint color or the lack of that claw-foot tub. Happiness knocks on their door, but they are too afraid to answer it, too afraid to face the possibility of failure, so their potential remains unfulfilled. The viewer remains on the couch, safely watching the drama of strangers’ lives, never venturing out to live her own life.
Regardless of the source material, Dana Diehl has a knack for the poignant detail. One of my favorites is from “Buddy,” a story about Cake Boss star Buddy Valastro. When he gets his family lost at sea, the narrator notes that “Most of the cakes he makes for his show are beautiful but flavorless, made of refrigerated sheet cake and covered with fondant.” It’s the artifice again, the beautiful lie. Appearances aren’t everything, though we all pretend they are.
Ultimately, TV Girls left me acutely aware of the way our culture has found innumerable ways to commodify the very act of living. We consume these stories, gobble them up, and we can’t get enough of them. The viewer is just as culpable for this spectacle as the people who are directly involved—and perhaps even more so. In a way, these six stories feel like cautionary tales. Instead of warning against vanity and vice, they remind us that happiness and fulfillment only come if we are willing to get down in the dirt, wrestle with our desires and shortcomings, failing, but in our failure finding truth.
Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. She lives with her partner, one dog, and a constant migraine. Her fiction has appeared in Permafrost, Sou’wester, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart. Kelly received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is a coordinator for the VIDA Count, and can always be found with a large mug of tea.
September 3, 2018 Reviews
by C.A. Schaefer
The title of Mandy Huggins’ collection, Brightly Coloured Horses (Chapeltown Books, 2018), evokes images of a childhood toy box. The stories inside this treasure chest are beautifully jumbled into an assortment that echo, overlap, and subvert each other. The epigraph, a quotation from Willa Cather that argues that “there are only two or three human stories,” serves not only as philosophical guide to the collection, but as a reminder that familiarity between stories is not a trap to avoid, but a strategy to be embraced.
Every story invites us to peer into the lives of its characters, returning to familiar narratives of loss and betrayal, or else healing and reparation. The collection circles the question of what it means to be with another person. Characters converge and then separate, or join together in astonishing love. In the title story, the narrator feels a profound and terrible isolation from her lover, realizing that even in the middle of a Parisian idyll, only she will recall these images and sensations as vividly as she does; her lover will return to his marriage, dismissing this experience and allowing it to fade. “She had felt sure that this moment would save them, but it was too busy, too impersonal.” Some relationships refuse redemption; in “Shooting Stars,” a wife imagines adultery a thousand times before she commits it. This wife, like so many of Huggins’ narrators, has moments of keenly devastating insight. “No one can protect her from what she wanted,” she says in a moment of realization. In “Fatal Flaw,” the narrator echoes her, declaring life as “the possibility of damage from which there can be no recovery.”
It is frequently Huggins’ vivid and precise descriptions of objects that speak to the connections between her characters. Some objects offer an elusive hope of redemption: a pair of yellow shoes serve as a harbinger of hope for a desperate young woman in “Twenty Dollar Shoes;” a jar of bean paste that sustains a memory of a lost beloved from “The Last of Michiko;” in “Kisses,” a biscuit dipped in tea acts as a substitute for a kiss. Other objects portend disaster. A small red ball, carelessly tossed out a window, catalyzes a horrifying accident in “Blood Red.” In “Car by Car,” a shining “curvaceous coupe” is witness to the end of a relationship and the fragments of the self that are inevitably lost during a separation.
But Brightly Coloured Horses sometimes warns us against believing too much in the redemptive power of these objects. In “The Turquoise Silk,” a child enamored with her mother’s “glittering tangle of diamante bracelets, necklaces of tiny iridescent shells, and cocktail rings set with rubies, amethysts, topaz, and amber” is devastated to realize that her mother values order and beauty over her child’s chaotic desires. “The Right Castanets” offers a story steeped in yearning, a child who tries to erase her father’s adulterous transgressions by searching for a perfect gift that he can offer her. But these objects fail to redeem and transfigure. In the end, they remain simply things, as they do in “Perfect Word,” which muses on the failure of these transformations. “The body of Christ can’t save me,” the mourning narrator muses, “only the blood of Christ: the wine that I drink to lessen the unexpected weight of grief.” In “Only the Best,” a wryly tragic variation on “Gift of the Magi,” an impractical object illuminates how profound the disconnection between a husband and wife can be.
Huggins turns away from the inanimate and towards the animal world throughout her collection. The sweetness and horror of animal behavior highlights some of the absurdities of human relationships. In “Nelson,” a small and beloved cat is discovered swirling limply in a washing machine. Although it miraculously survives, the cat and the narrator’s lover flee the next day, leaving the narrator bereft and waiting. The united actions of a pair of dung beetles, staggering together towards a blade of grass in “The Dung Beetle Race” is far more faithful than a human’s promise to return. Throughout the collection, dead rabbits, swooping seagulls, tiny crabs, and beautifully free dogs offer glimpses of a life deeper and richer than the tragicomedy of broken human relationships.
Huggins’ work is perhaps most piercing and revelatory in her moments of ambivalence. In “Whatever Speed She Dared,” a woman contemplates free and wild driving but hesitates because of a shadowy memory of bodies buried in peat. The narration only offers this incomplete reason, and refuses any further questions. Huggins allows us glimpses of understanding in these stories: the memory of a body, a trapped goose, or a moment of grace offered by the rain.
In a few of the pieces, however, these revelations don’t resonate as deeply as others do. Sometimes the pieces incorporate more thorough exposition, and their mysteries are resolved too quickly and completely. Sometimes, too, the language slips away from beautiful strangeness, and instead offers the occasional cliché. These are rare occasions in the collection, though; most of the stories linger beautifully, and their familiar chords begin to overlap in my memory, so that I am not always able to separate one story from another. These stories speak to each other, celebrating nuance, contradiction, and confusion. There may be, as Brightly Coloured Horses reminds us, only two or three stories, but their variations are both imaginative and tender.
C.A. Schaefer’s stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, Phantom Drift, Passages North, and other journals. A former editor of Quarterly West, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Utah. She currently teaches writing and other humanities courses in Salt Lake City.
August 27, 2018 News Digests
It’s that time of year again, when editors put on their Santa hats and make writers’ days and weeks and years. This nomination season is going to be particularly brilliant for Alvin Park, the grand prize winner of The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction (The Smokey). We’ve promised to nominate the story for every award, and we’re starting with Best of the Net.
2018 Best of the Net Nominations from SLQ
Whale Fall by Alvin Park
Boy by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor
Congratulations to Alvin and Tochukwu from the SLQ team!
Christopher and Tara
August 20, 2018 Reviews
by Julia Tagliere
Brad Watson (author of Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives) dubbed Pokrass the “new monarch of the delightful and enigmatic tiny kingdom of micro- and flash fiction.” Incredibly prolific, Pokrass has written four previous collections and a book of prose poetry. Her stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in more than 300 publications.
Alligators at Night, published in July 2018, is Pokrass’ fifth collection. Comprising 72 pieces, many of which first appeared in publications such as Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, and Jellyfish Review, this fascinating collection does not present an easily discernible underlying thread, at least in terms of subject matter. There are dead or dying pets (“You and Your Middle-Aged Cat”; “Being Sheila”); aging women (“Invisible”); old divorces and new beginnings (“Therapy Cat”; “Why Not Now”; “Starting Over”). Many of the pieces do, however, share a unique emotional theme: loss—not past loss or current, but rather, anticipated.
In the title piece, for example, the narrator and her husband are walking at night, listening to the “sound of alligators crooning like deranged, nocturnal cows” when she observes, “…what you sometimes want is to never actually get there. He has not yet had his dose of whiskey…You have not yet said you have a migraine, and that you don’t really feel like snuggling…You have not yet cried or threatened to leave…” Or in “The Benefits of Krill,” when the narrator tells her favorite cashier at the market by her pharmacy job that “Duncan has lung cancer and that soon the pharmacy will be gone. I need to become more memorable to him, and soon…” Four words is all it takes in “Separation”: “After packing, I find myself staring at his penis…It is friendly-looking. I will miss it.” These are all futures that have not yet come to pass within Pokrass’ narratives, but that wound nonetheless with their very inevitability.
Just as David Gaffney writes in “Stories in Your Pocket: How to Write Flash Fiction,” reading Alligators at Night feels like you’ve “been run over by a lorry full of fridges,” but in the very best of ways. Each precision-crafted story strikes an emotional chord and hits it hard, hammering away at different feelings so that it is difficult to read more than a handful at a time. I found myself needing to take frequent breaks to reflect on and process what a particular piece made me feel—and feel, I did.
Take, for example, “Dismount,” where a little girl beams a smile at her father, visiting her unexpectedly outside of his arranged time, a smile so enthusiastic she dribbles saliva: “…she walked out into the sunlight holding his big-fingers with no fear.” There is, of course, a subtle darkness mingling with the girl’s joy at his appearance—his displeasure at her dribbling, the “darkish stairwell,” her freckles “landing like buzzards around her nose”—but as I read it, all I can feel is her joy: “She was his princess on Sundays.”
Pokrass swings deftly between swells of joy like this to floods of darker emotion, as in her poignant “Man Against Nature.” She sets the reader up with a cozy scene of a couple watching a nature-survival show on TV, fragrant soup cooking in the background, only to slo-mo gut punch the reader with her last few lines, revealing the stark, painful contrast between the couple’s reality and the reality they’re watching on TV.
It’s not all darkness, however—far from it. Pokrass certainly excels at emotional wallops, but she also possesses terrific humor. She reveals this mainly through her characters, who make me snort out loud at something one or the other of them says. From “Albino”: “We went to a thrift store and joked about trying on hats and getting lice. ‘Miami Lice,’ he said.” Or the little girl idolizing her older sister, in “Playing the Chicken”: “I love it when she says fuck. She says it often and I like to sing it in my head. Last year, I was kicked out of girl scouts for saying that perfect word.”
Part of Pokrass’ talent in wrenching such intense emotions from her reader comes from the vividness of her descriptions. She has a brutally clear, unsparing way of forcing readers’ eyes wide open, insisting they see what she wants them to see. A few of my favorite examples: “I’d gotten so used to Mike’s nudity that I’d stopped noticing his penis crouched like a worried squirrel.” (“Wouldn’t You Like Some Sun?”) Or the woman friend “of a certain age” at lunch in “Invisible,” of whom Pokrass writes this: “Looking at her meaty arms, I thought of pie-crust dough.” From “You Are Better Than This”: “Like a drunk car on the highway, her lips followed the road of his hair. She could taste the salt of a tidal basin.” Pokrass hits all the senses with her descriptions—which only deepens the reader’s visceral emotional responses.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess I’m a recent convert to reading flash fiction, but this potent collection has completely won me over with its complexity, intensity, and gratification. Veteran flash readers and fans of Pokrass will certainly not be disappointed by Alligators at Night; newcomers to the genre, like me, will find an outstanding way to get acquainted.
Alligators at Night is available from Ad Hoc Fiction.
Julia Tagliere is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, The Bookends Review, Potomac Review, numerous anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection Love + Lust. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story and the 2017 Writers Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Julia currently resides in Maryland with her family, where she recently completed her M.A. in Writing at John Hopkins University. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel, The Day the Music Didn’t Die.
August 13, 2018 Reviews
by Ashley McGreary
Opening any collection of short fiction is like losing your senses to a curio cabinet of wonder, but Karen Donovan’s Aard-vark to Axolotl (Etruscan Press, April 2018) takes this precept to an almost literal interpretation. Based on a set of illustrations from the pages of her grandfather’s 1925 Webster’s New International Dictionary, this series of seventy-eight micro stories and prose poems represents an eclectic, lyrical, razor-sharp foray into the sphere of alternative definition, with its true allegiance laying somewhere between a lexicon and a bestiary. Like any cabinet of curiosity, each piece can be taken out, examined separately, and weighed in the humid cup of your hand, yet despite this microcosmic intimacy, its sheer breathless scope means that its fascination can never truly be exhausted. Karan Donovan is also the author of two collections of poetry: Fugitive Red, which won the Juniper Prize, and Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award. Her recognizant contribution to literature is summed up in Ander Manson’s words: “This blurb won’t help save you, but Aard-vark to Axolotl just might.”
Logically, for a work whose title celebrates the kingdom Animalia, this series begins by examining the complex interrelationships between humans and animals, with its opening gambit: “Earth Pig” rendering our hypocrisies in blood across the page, while equally evoking a psychological proximity that makes the rationalized violence of the piece truly jarring. In a wonderfully postmodern inscription, the titular Aard-vark greet the possibilities of a new day, which include the chance of its own individual extinction, a fact that resonates across all life. This state of interconnection is further advanced in “A Lustrous, Pearly Interior,” which uses the backdrop of a beach, and its calcium carbonate substrate of history, to evince a deep sense of isolation and meaninglessness, against which even language itself is impuissant. The animal and human condition run together like an agate seam through this chapbook, creating a sense of lineage and inheritance that is echoed in the distant-but-still-touching experiences of grandfather and granddaughter. At its heart, this work attempts to define not just the physicality of an object: “Achene of Buttercup in vertical section, showing solitary seed,” but its abstract, metaphysical properties: “When she left, she folded her wasted body through a crack in space-time and bloomed out on the other side, pulling the long bright skein of my brain’s neural pathways with her.” It is a tour de force, which transcribes the dictionary into emotion.
Each micro-piece is accompanied by an original illustration, which acts like a holdfast in the oceanic possibility of language. Beside it, Donovan’s hyper-condensed prose spans a universe in form and tone, rendering each piece with a unique, imperishable signature. From the numbered diagram of “View From Southwest Airliner on Final Approach to Province,” to the jazz-like call and response of “Constraints Are Better Than Freedom,” and the self-depreciating, staccato sentences of “Makeover,” to the nested involvement of “Dinner Date’s” twenty-seven words, Aard-vark to Axolotl explores ideas of perspective, interpretation, pleasure and disappointment, creativity, ineffability, and the condition of being untethered from ones culture: in short, everything it means to be human.
The collection also focuses its lens on the darker side of the human experience too, with sequences such as “Burn Notice” depicting a spiralling lack of control, which unwinds from a superficial sunburn to “The towers and with them my psyche. My bridges ever since,” articulating an irretrievable state of entropy; and “Sales Job,” whose jaunty tone hides a tenebrous scepticism concerning our inability to escape the corporate order and its false-benign smile.
Parallel to the natural world in Aard-vark to Axolotl is the urban environment, and the efficiency or redundancy of technology, with “No Signal Detected” and “The Accident” offering rival perspectives. In the first micro-piece, a couple resist the tide of progress by persevering with their old “rabbit ears” aerial and its temperamental reception; after far too long of this, they finally buy a smart, new antennae, which, like their old one only works when it is “propped up at exactly the right angle over in the corner of the room on top of the CD player,” showing the cynical failure of technology to improve anything other than material aesthetics. The second micro-piece, comparatively, advocates the propensity of technology to remake life as secure and perfectible through the illusion of depth. Following a jarring cycling accident, the speaker trades the risk of reality for “the stationary bike at the Y, the one that’s like a videogame” and is satisfied with the substitution, a stance which challenges our own perspectives on modernity. Donovan’s collection is, indisputably, a work of and for our time, but it also represents a pantheon across all times, with its tendrils trailing between past, present, and future. The existential resonance in “Mesozoic’s” line: “Ask the experts where my bones lie: there, on the other side of catastrophe,” implicates both the fragility and endurance of life, and the ease with which all animation passes into history; while “Other Floral Borders I Have Known” paints a cradle to grave montage through the adornment of flowers, capturing the essence of existence as beautiful, fading, and brief.
To return, punctually, to the curio cabinet metaphor, it is impossible to appreciate everything in Donovan’s work through a single encounter, Aard-vark to Axolotl is a collection that not only stands up to a third, fourth, fifth reading, but actively encourages it. With a tone that shifts from lyrical, to scathing, deprecating, eccentric, empowering and introspective, this collection provides, at its core, a rumination on how we use language to construct and define the world around us, as well as the place of writing within that structure. “It was then I understood,” Donovan records, in conjunction to the etching of an Archer Fish, “I had a razor-tipped device inside me that could spear any prey I desired.” The rest, they say, is history, because the power of good writing has been hooking people ever since. Though most readers don’t prefer a comparison to fish.
Ashley McGreary is a fledgling writer with a degree in English and Creative Writing, currently working towards an MA in English Literature. She is at the extreme end of starting out, but hopes eventually to shape a career out of the two things that set her soul on fire: literature and writing.
August 6, 2018 Reviews
New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories (Norton, 2018)
Edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro
Reviewed by Kara Oakleaf
The challenge of flash fiction is often what to leave out – limiting yourself to 1,000 words leaves little room for anything other than the absolute essentials of a story. Microfiction strips things down even further, fitting a full narrative into fewer than 300 words.
In New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories, editors James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro have assembled an impressive collection of these stories, pulling the best micros from online and print journals, story collections and anthologies. The collection features some of the most recognizable names of short fiction and flash, including Amy Hempel, Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, John Edgar Wideman, Joy Williams, and Kathy Fish, alongside newer writers. Most of the stories – 140 total, from 90 different writers – are from more recent publications, but a few are from writers who have been experimenting with this extremely short form since the 1970s.
In his foreword, Robert Shapard says microfiction can be “as intense as poetry,” and this feels especially true of the stories in New Micro. I found myself reading this book the same way I often read a poetry collection, getting through only one or two stories at a time before I wanted to pause, let those stories swim around in my head for a while before coming back for more. These stories look small on the page, but each of them demands that readers give it room to expand long after they’ve set down the book.
The opening story, “Letting Go” by Pamela Painter, establishes a high bar for that intensity Shapard mentions in the foreword. It starts out as a contemplative piece – a woman alone on vacation encounters a young, happy couple as she thinks about her ex – but the events turn quickly when the narrator witnesses something shocking that haunts her, and the reader, long after the end of the story.
Other pieces in the collection also play with the idea of witness, exploring moments when a character brushes up against a scene they aren’t fully a part of, but are nonetheless changed by. Molly Giles’ “Protest” features two thirteen-year-old girls lying in the middle of the road, stopping traffic and creating chaos. The girls are the catalyst for the narrative, but what makes the story is the image of young boys watching them, fascinated with this strange glimpse of what might wait for them in adolescence. John Edgar Wideman’s “Witness” shows us a fifteen-year-old boy murdered, the police on the scene, and finally, the boy’s family mourning at the spot where he died, all from the vantage point of the narrator’s balcony. In “New Rollerskates” by Erin Dionne, a young girl sits outside an apartment building, keeping the secret of what she knows is happening inside – until she doesn’t. And Kathleen McGookey’s “Another Drowning, Miner Lake,” has another take on this kind of story: a narrator swimming in a lake, disturbingly unaffected by the knowledge that a woman drowned there the night before.
Micros lend themselves well to the extraordinary, and several pieces in the collection experiment with unexpected or fantastic premises. The narrator of Thaisa Frank’s The New Thieves replaces herself with a camouflaged woman, testing to see if her lover will notice. A repairman gets stuck in a furnace duct for days in Kevin Griffith’s “Furnace,” and chats with the family through one of the grates in the floor. Nin Andrews’ two stories are written from the perspective of an orgasm. A surgeon cuts a patient’s flesh in the shape of his home country in James Claffey’s Kingmaker. Whole populations abandon their homes to become hermits in Ana María Shua’s Hermit. Stories that might fall apart in longer form are expertly held together by these writers who ground their characters so firmly in unbelievable premises that you’re drawn in before you have a chance to question it.
Some stories use this miniature form to tackle big subjects. Brian Cooper’s “Hurricane Ride” and Francine Witte’s “Jetty Explains the Universe” bring together everyday scenes – carnival rides and the lives of housecats – with expansive questions about the nature of the universe. Michael Czyzniejewski’s “Intrigued by Reincarnation, Skip Dillard Embraces Buddhism” begins with a light, humorous tone before focusing on the allure of starting over, of slipping out of your own life and into another anonymous one.
Other stories tackle more familiar and realistic territory – marriages, affairs, and the birth and death of loved ones – but create an unexpected impact. In Josh Russell’s “Our Boys,” the simple experience of a parent mixing up his two sons’ baby pictures leads to the unsettling question of how well we really know the ones we’re closest to. Zachery Schomberg’s “Death Letter” gives a powerful twist to a break-up story. In Tom Hazuka’s “Utilitarianism,” the narrator sees a change in his parents’ relationship, and we suddenly feel that we understand the entirety of this decades-long marriage. And in Gay Degani’s “An Abbreviated Glossary” and Damian Dressick’s “Four Hard Facts About Water,” the authors use lists to narrate the worst kinds of grief, and hit the reader hard in the moment when their characters’ pain cuts sharply through the story’s structure.
The stories collected here are broad and diverse, difficult to narrow down, but if any single thing unifies them, it’s the language. Stories like Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Sleepover”and Tara Laskowski’s “Dendrochronology” end on vivid, resonant images that bring every other detail into sharper focus. The rhythm and repetition in the single-paragraph stories “Flying” by Jeff Landon and “Black Cat” by Josh Russell are almost spell-like and completely transport you into the narrators’ memories. Every word carries extra weight in these stories, and it’s this attention to language, as much as their length, that makes the stories in in New Micro comparable to poetry.
And yet, these stories are clearly in their own genre. If what poetry does is crystalize a particular moment and invite the reader to linger there, microfiction crystalizes moments that immediately demand the reader imagine what lies beyond the story. Because there is a full world created by each of these stories. Micros may have the intensity and the economy of language of poetry, but this collection shows that they are distinctly narrative. As short as they are, the stories in New Micro are fully formed works of fiction, encapsulating nuanced characters, the scope of a long marriage, or the way small moments shape a day, or a year, or a lifetime. In every case, they outlive their size.
Kara Oakleaf‘s work appears or is forthcoming in journals including Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Jellyfish Review, Nimrod, Seven Hills Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Postcard Poems and Prose. She is a graduate of the M.F.A. program at George Mason University, where she now teaches and directs the Fall for the Book literary festival.
July 30, 2018 Reviews
by Pilar DiPietro
Often we think of life in the 1950s as one of wistful innocence and familial ease. We may even term it “the Good Old Days.” Barry Gifford’s The Cuban Club (Seven Stories Press, October 2017), a collection of sixty-seven related stories, pushes back on these notions of nostalgia with the remembrances of Roy. Roy is a first-generation American, Chicagoan by way of Miami in his youth. Trying to make his way through the snarls of puberty, Roy unties the knots of race, marriage and fidelity, death, sex and love, violence, grief, loss, and parent-child relationships.
In the snippets that make up Roy’s memories, the reader gains an understanding of the changing parental, domestic, family and moral roles that were sweeping through America in the 1950s and early 1960s and the effects these changes were having on the next generation. Through Roy’s eyes the reader is given insight: not only the fascinations of youth but the reflections of a changing time. Throughout the stories Gifford maintains Roy’s delightful innocence in the foreground, his youthful misunderstandings often tumbling out of his mouth, though alluding to the real situation that runs deeper, and often darker, behind.
Uniquely, and indeed digitally friendly, Gifford allows the reader to open to any of his stories and feel like it may have been exactly where you left off. There is no need to read this collection in any particular order. Roy’s stories, each approximately three pages long, identify the age at which Roy is recording them. This grounding is helpful in seeing Roy’s progression, his bildungsroman, as he grapples with situations that, perhaps, no boy should be aware of. I recommend mixing up your reading order and enjoying the stories outside linear time.
The book does contain some violence. While uncomfortable at times, it is palatable. Roy’s father, a mid-level racketeer with mob affiliations, is on one hand protective of his son, and yet his fatherly advice frequently verges on the morally hypocritical. For example, after Roy learns that Mean Well Benny’s cut-throated corpse was found in an alley garbage can, Roy’s father says, “Some men’s lives don’t amount to much, son. They get on the wrong road and don’t ever get back on the straight and narrow.” Luckily, Roy’s pops gives more solid lessons: “I’m sorry to say, Roy, I believe in the existence of evil. Hitler, for example, was an evil man who had the ability to inspire and manipulate people into committing the most gruesome acts of villainy.” Although Roy’s father is ambiguously depicted as being involved with illegal enterprises, his pronouncements, along with Pops’, are sound enough to aid in the formation of Roy’s ethical balance. Gifford writes in a manner allowing for reader understanding without author subjectivity.
Roy’s mother, an aging ex-model, ricochets from one boyfriend to another and often leaves Roy in the care of others while she jet-sets in search of love and adventure. By thirty-four she is quite jaded and has been married three times. The conversations between her and her equally disenchanted friend, Kay, are often overheard by Roy who is left to make his own conclusions and seldom have little to do with the actual meaning of the quips. For example, after Kay, speaking of orgasms, tells Roy that his mom has had an epiphany, Roy asks, “Do you have to be a Catholic to have one?” to which Kay answers, “No, Roy, but it probably helps.”
Johnny Murphy, Roy’s friend, teaches Roy about the underside of life, a seedy underbelly seems taken for granted by the characters. When Roy and Johnny decide to play detective after the grisly murder of a young woman is discovered, Johnny off-handedly states, “He raped the girl, strangled her—or maybe, if he was a real pervert, strangled her before raping her.” The eleven-year-old boys go to the crime scene to search for clues and Johnny deduces: “The killer’s a rich guy who lives in a fancy apartment around here, on Lake Shore or Marine Drive.” Indeed, the killer was found to be “a 42-year-old bachelor named Leonard Danzig, an architect,” who had determined the girl was the sister of Jesus Christ and “felt it was his duty to abort what he described as an immoral lineage.” After the killer was captured and committed, Roy asks his mother what she thinks. She tells her son, “You can’t execute all of the sick people in the world, Roy. There are too many. Once you start doing that it would never stop.” Roy then asks if she thinks the world would be better without the killer in it. Gifford’s next lines are typical of his style: “Roy’s mother, who had already been divorced twice and had a third marriage annulled, said, ‘Him and a few other men I can name.’”
Readers will enjoy Roy’s adventures, if not contemplate Gifford’s true intentions. The tales, often having many meanings, are a wonderful mix of ingredients that enfold a boy’s journey of adolescence in urban 1950s America. The result of the collection is a layered spiced cake with each of Roy’s episodes demanding the reader’s introspection of their own identity and values.
July 20, 2018 Flashback Series
by Michael Loveday
The novel-/novella-in-flash is a curious form. Not a straightforward novel/novella, nor simply a story collection, it functions as a hybrid. Its enthusiasts, myself included, resemble TV evangelists on obscure late-night channels, full of zeal as to why this of all literary forms is the most satisfying, and the closest equivalent to real life – that fusion of ‘story’ and the individual, numinous moment.
What follows is a list of twelve examples of the novel-/novella-in-flash, with some commentary that tries to approach a definition of what the form is, and what it isn’t. I’ve included some examples that stretch the category a little, so we can get to know its edges.
Broadly speaking, the novel-/novella-in-flash consists of a sequence of individual but related short-short stories that somehow build momentum towards a bigger whole. The craft essays in My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form describe how the form “mixes the quick and the sustained” and blends “the extreme brevity of the flash with the longer – albeit still brief – arc of the novella.” Despite the requirement for a coherent whole, because any overarching story is broken into distinct mini-stories or fragments, the novel-/novella-in-flash “is a form of omission and lacuna.”
The Bath Flash Fiction Award now has an annual international competition dedicated to the Novella-in-Flash and publishes an anthology of the three winning entries each year. The sensationally good How to Make a Window Snake by Charmaine Wilkerson was its inaugural winner in 2017. This competition asks for each chapter or flash to be not more than 1,000 words long, with the whole (for the novella-in-flash) between 6,000 and 18,000 words long. However, some of the twelve books in my list below are more like novels, and so run to several thousand more words than this.
Inevitably, in a list of only twelve books, there are significant exclusions, and I acknowledge that the list is a very subjective one. Still, I hope it serves as a useful way forward for readers wanting to discover more about the form. (As the list is limited to examples of fiction, I’ve not included memoir-in-flash.)
- Candide, or Optimism (Voltaire, 1759)
Cannibalism, murder, STDs, flogging, hanging, shipwreck, El Dorado, earthquake – in a mere 86 pages this eighteenth-century proto-novella-in-flash has all the drama you could want. Nevertheless, a philosophical tale at heart, Voltaire’s book satirises the mode of the chivalric romance through its story of a young man beset by bad luck who travels the world to find (and lose) his fortune. It possesses many characteristics that would later become defining features of the novella-in-flash: it’s short; each chapter (with one exception) is less than 1,000 words; and, because of its varied locations and ensemble cast of secondary characters, each chapter has its own distinct mood and material, that necessary sense of being a ‘world of its own.’ If it falls short of the novella-in-flash as we now know the form in its purest sense, it’s because (as with many novels from the 18th century to the present day) many chapters close by preparing us for the next or depend directly on the previous one in narrative terms. What came later to the form was a stronger sense of a pause or ‘resonating space’ at the end of each chapter, and the feeling that the overall text offers, rather than one continuous narrative thread, an interwoven patchwork of self-contained moments. Nevertheless, the roots of the novella-in-flash can be seen in Voltaire’s writing.
- Mrs. Bridge (Evan S. Connell, 1959)
A magnificent portrait of a middle-class woman, and her family, in mid-twentieth-century suburban America. Its 117 short chapters are written with a relentless, quiet conviction that insists: these characters really do exist. Mrs. Bridge, whose story we follow from youth to old age, is alienated from her life and her feelings, as she raises a family and builds a life for herself in the absence of any romantic attentions from her husband. Readers glimpse an existential dread running through her observations and interactions, and yet she potters on distractedly, somewhat bewildered by the changes in her world, and keeping up appearances in that very middle-class, mid-twentieth-century way. Subsequently overshadowed by the careers of Updike, Roth and Yates, whose debut books appeared at around the same time, Connell’s tragicomic first novel is a classic of social realism – a brilliant portrait of the inter-war dissatisfactions of American women – and should be read in conjunction with its sequel Mr. Bridge (1969), dealing with the same family life from the husband’s point of view.
- Play It as It Lays (Joan Didion, 1970)
An appealing cocktail of ennui, glamour, tragedy and spiky dialogue, this book’s whip-smart sentences convincingly depict life on the margins of the Hollywood movie industry, as a minor actress heads on a path of self-destruction prompted by a growing indifference to her milieu and the realities of the choices she has made. Most of the unnumbered chapters are story-fragments – from one paragraph to five pages. Some are impressionistic moments; others run in sequence, picking up where the previous one left off. Thus, not all the chapters are fully developed to become self-standing stories, and a narrative momentum builds that makes it feel close to being a continuous novel. But the choppy, short chapters beautifully evoke the central character’s discontent and disconnection, and Didion’s writing is both nonchalant and sharp – like a drunk with a knife in her hand.
- Palomar (Italo Calvino, 1983)
In these 27 short-short stories about an elderly man studying the world around him – waves, birds, the stars, a cheese shop, etc. – there is little action described, let alone event or even (god forbid!) plot. But as a set of meditations, it rewards readers who enjoy grappling with complexity in their fiction, as Calvino trawls through verbose philosophical conundrums about perception, identity, and the cosmos. Mr. Palomar is as close to being a story collection as it is to being a novella-in-flash: what little forward movement there is comes from a kind of ‘mathematical’ scheme – a sequence of claimed shifts among the stories – cycling through precise proportions of ‘description’, ‘narrative’ and ‘meditation’. The scheme is so intricate that the appendix announcing it appears to be part of a literary game on Calvino’s part, entirely in sympathy with the over-meticulous Mr. Palomar himself.
- The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros, 1984)
A stone-cold classic. Esperanza Cordero is growing up in a run-down tenement building in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago, negotiating family, quirky neighbours, boys, new friendships, and hoping one day for a home of her own. The language is lyrical without being sentimental, and there is a Technicolour sharpness to Esperanza’s passionate observations of the world around her, which are riddled with hopes and fears in a typically adolescent way. Stories range from 7 lines to 3 or 4 pages long and don’t progress in an explicitly chronological way. Not without moments of darkness, The House on Mango Street is a haunting yet uplifting portrait of Hispanic American life.
- Why Did I Ever? (Mary Robison, 2001)
Throughout its two hundred pages – over 500 microfictions and fragments – Robison’s novel-in-flash emphasises character and voice: there is no real overarching narrative arc to glean from this stream of jump-cut mini-scenes, many of which extend for a few sentences only. As a character-study, the book is concentrated, sassy, and inventively-phrased. The narrator, Money Breton, a Hollywood script-doctor, works on a terrible-sounding movie about Bigfoot, dealing out barbed comments to various figures in her life – her cat, her friend Hollis, her methadone-addicted daughter Mev, her son Paulie (now in police care after falling victim to violent crime). The fragments offer glimpses of her life and relationships (work, family, lovers, friends), and although these separate strands don’t integrate we do get an impression of forward movement within each strand. There’s such relentless verbal and psychological energy it’s as if each fragment has been formed under intense geological pressure – like brilliant jewels.
- We the Animals (Justin Torres, 2011)
The novella-in-flash as Bildungsroman: Torres charts the growth of a boy into sexual maturity, in the midst of a madcap, chaotic, and harsh domestic life: three brothers jostling for priority (the stories are often narrated as a third-person plural “we”); an often absent, and at times abusive, father; a mother struggling to take charge. The family environment at first feels implausibly zany; yet the reader’s fondness for it grows, until one is charmed and captivated; then the novella shifts into darker territory as it concludes. Apart from a final one-paragraph story that’s more like a prose poem, most of the chapters here (ranging from 3-12 pages) are fully developed into self-contained stories, building to their own individual climaxes, yet cumulatively they describe a central protagonist gradually uncovering his own identity. In this debut work, Torres’s control of sentence-rhythms combines with a gift for narrative structure to create a stunning tour de force.
- Paperboy (Bob Thurber, 2011)
At 230 pages, this is one of the longer books in this list, and it’s remarkable how Thurber sustains the narrative feat of creating an impression of linear, continuous story (occasional flashbacks aside) from over 150 individual segments, each with its own resonant ending. The narrative isn’t for the fainthearted: in 1969, an astronaut-obsessed teenage boy in a dysfunctional family is drawn into incest, and the rest of the novel depicts how the ongoing transgressions are kept secret, as well as telling the story of his failures and frustrations working as a local paperboy. There are a host of reasons why the material ought to fail, but the book is a raw triumph, almost claustrophobic in intensity – equally funny and tragic.
- Petrol (Martina Evans, 2012)
Irish poet and novelist Martina Evans published Petrol as a “prose poem disguised as a novella”. These thirty-nine one- or two-page prose pieces certainly have a poetic, crystalline brilliance. They might also be stream-of-consciousness dramatic monologues confided to the reader with a kind of controlled anarchy, so vivid is the voice of a persecuted thirteen-year-old in rural County Cork. Working at the family petrol station, three sisters deal with the reality of a new mother-in-law, while the narrator is terrorised by her father and drawn inexorably towards the forbidden attentions of a local nineteen-year-old.
- The Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill, 2014)
An old theme of marital infidelity is given remarkable new life in Jenny Offill’s broken-hearted novel, in which the rupture caused by the adultery is palpable, but the narrator is too pragmatic to watch herself slip under. The narrator leaps from thought to thought, through streams of observations, incidents, quotations, aphorisms and scientific facts that are sequenced into separate chapters. The wife is a creative writing tutor, the husband a sound archivist; other characters include a philosopher and an almost-astronaut, and all these roles feed into the rich themes of the text. A classic novel-/novella-in-flash might more obviously be a sequence of self-standing stories, but it’s becoming increasingly popular to publish mainstream novels like this one [witness also Megan Hunter’s recent The End We Start From (2017)], where the writing is a patchwork of fragmented paragraphs, sometimes as short as one sentence long. And all that divides its form from Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever? (more widely accepted as a novel-in-flash) is the absence of numerical separators between fragments, which makes Offill’s book feel more like a fluid and continuous stream of material.
- My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (2014)
Maybe I’m cheating the numbers to include it, but a list of twelve great novels-/novellas-in-flash would be incomplete without acknowledging this anthology from Rose Metal Press: it’s a crucial text in the history of the form, presenting novellas-in-flash by five different writers, supplemented by craft essays about the creation of each work, and an informative introduction by editors Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney. These essays are a wonderful welcome into what exactly the novella-in-flash is (or can be). The five novellas (by Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, Aaron Teel, Margaret Patton Chapman and Chris Bower) offer two coming-of-age stories, a portrait by a middle-aged daughter of her mother’s crankiness and frailty, a story about a child prodigy born to a nineteenth-century family, and an absurdist portrait of a contemporary family. This anthology will get you thinking about the potential forms of the flash fiction novella.
- Superman on the Roof (Lex Williford, 2015)
One of the shorter novellas in this list, this pamphlet offers ten 3-4-page stories that roam expansively through memories of a 1960s childhood. Williford ambitiously moves back and forward, covering the 1960s and the early 21st century, subtly placing the narrative in historical context through occasional passing references to contemporary politics. These elegiac stories circle, at their centre, a single, significant and haunting loss; in the process, they build a portrait of a harsh family environment and convent school education, in which adults seem hell-bent on punishing children’s petty transgressions. Apparently semi-autobiographical, the beautifully elegant sentences are written in a past tense that’s suffused with nostalgia – and guilt over the narrator’s involvement in family tragedy. In 38 pages, Williford weaves a tapestry that is more moving, memorable and skilfully crafted than many novels. Its form expresses all that is remarkable about the novella-in-flash.
Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge was published by V. Press in June 2018. He helps to organise the UK’s annual Flash Fiction Festival and is judge of the 2019 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award.
July 16, 2018 Guest BloggerReviews
by Cheryl Pappas
Lucky for us, Sherrie Flick has a new collection of stories. Thank Your Lucky Stars (Autumn House Press) comes out in September. If you read flash, you know her name. Flick’s stories have appeared in several anthologies dedicated to flash. She has published a chapbook (I Call This Flirting; Flume Press, 2004), a novel (Reconsidering Happiness; Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2009), and a collection of short stories titled Whiskey, Etc. (Autumn House Press, 2016), which Kathy Fish deemed “a sharp-edged, intelligent, brilliantly written collection of short shorts by a writer at the top of her game.”
In Thank Your Lucky Stars, Flick has arranged 50 stories of varying length—the shortest a paragraph, the longest 21 pages—into four numbered sections. The settings are often suburban towns in the West or Midwest, and Flick uses crickets, birdbaths with calm water, and deer heads as recurrent images throughout to underscore the agonizing quiet of such towns. Most of the stories are about love, but more specifically, finding someone to make a home with. Domestic spaces are the stage, and everyday objects, like two tin coffee cups, resonate with meaning.
Earlier sections contain stories of characters going through that very messy, fumbling search for the right person, moving from house to house, town to town, in the hopes of finally staying put, as exemplified in “Open and Shut.” By the third section, with “Garden Inside,” we see a shift: after leaving one house and its treasured garden, a woman and her husband move into a house with a neglected one and willingly start from scratch. The theme of starting over, already present in the earlier sections, now morphs into transformation. By the fourth section, we see stories about babies, kids, teenagers, a widower. With some exceptions, the book takes us through the stages of growing up, as it were, and finding not a house but a home.
The stories about relationships, on the whole, are about the illusions we wrestle with. “Bottle” begins with a woman cracking open a wine bottle over the edge of the dinner table to get her husband’s attention; she finds breaking things satisfying because he “looked at her then like the first time he’d laid eyes on her.” We see the couple in “Dance” actively trying to avoid pulling away the curtain of a horrific night from their past: Viv spends her day sipping whiskey and martinis on the patio (her drinking companion a deer head she pulls off the den wall), while her husband Matty dutifully serves her and obsessively bakes away his repressions. The “dance” in the title refers to the back and forth of their acquired roles, which they perform unconvincingly, like bad actors in a play. When Matty chastises Viv for her drinking, “You know, y’all shouldn’t be day drinking like losers in here,” Viv snaps back, “There’s just one of me, Matty. Who, may I ask, are you talking about with ‘y’all’?” But they also dance around the truth—one scene tracks the tense moments when they remember the night that a girl was killed and then how they quickly fall back into their agreed-upon forgetfulness.
Other stories in the collection defy a theme at all, like “Caravan, Suburbia,” a three-paragraph tale about a woman spying a mysterious rickety wagon crossing her front yard, and afterwards sensing the “smell of wood smoke, raw upturned earth, the quick scent of passion, and one low, unsung note abandoned in the stray leaves.”
Indeed, there is a range not just in theme. The opening story, “How I Left Ned,” in which a woman stops for corn on the side of the road and makes a dramatic life decision, takes bold leaps in narrative; “House,” however, about a woman who lives alone and peers out the window “like a suspicious widow expecting the worst,” has a slow, meditative pace. I admit, I am drawn to the strangeness and poetry of Flick’s shorter works. The sentences seem to come up from the deep, slowly and patiently, like they’ve been gathered from a Quaker meeting. Her story “Crickets” is just but one example: “They sing like pleasant car alarms again and again. Again and again. In their little black jumpsuits, they take to the crooked sidewalks in droves, not hesitating to leave the flowers and grasses.” Flick marries patience, resonanance, and quality in her flash pieces.
The longer “Still Life,” about a man who plans to end his life, achieves Hemingway-level compression, spanning only one night and the next morning. The story begins mysteriously, with Harry undressing and folding his clothes carefully, tenderly placing them on his bureau. He drinks half a bottle of whiskey. I love that Flick doesn’t reveal what he is up to, not even when she has him walk out the door, at three in the morning, completely naked. We get the middle-of-the-night sights and sounds in poetic prose: “The trees’ silhouetted arms sang hallelujah. The leaves clapped. Harry walked down Maple Street. Dark houses, the faint muffled dog bark, a settling tick tick of a foundation.” I won’t tell you how it ends, but the story continues to offer surprising turns, poetic language, eerie atmosphere, and even humor.
Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Cleaver Magazine, Ploughshares blog, SmokeLong Quarterly, Tin House online, and Essay Daily. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. She is currently working on a collection of fables. Her website is cherylpappas.net and you can follow her on Twitter at @fabulistpappas.
July 12, 2018 Fridge Flash
Editor’s Note: Today’s fridge flash comes from 8-year-old Shifa Asif, from Lahore, Pakistan.
Shifa Asif is eight years old and attends Beaconhouse Canal side campus, Lahore, Pakistan. Amongst her notable achievements, Shifa has won the post card art competition at the Broomhill Festival in Sheffield, Children University Bronze award, and swimming kingfisher award in UK 2014-2016. She also won best dress up for World book favourite character day certificate and WWF-Pakistan’s spellathon 2016-2017 certificate at LGS-JT, Lahore, Pakistan and was recently a runner-up in a poetry competition on poetry zone UK. She has published her work at ‘SmokeLong Quarterly Fridge Flash’, ‘poetry zone’, ‘scholastic’, ‘story jumper’, ‘Dawn Young World newspaper’, ‘Short-Stories-Help-Children.com and contributors.’ Shifa is an honorary President of Child Scholar’s Institute at Khan Bahadur Visionaries Welfare, where she encourages inclusive education. Shifa appeared amongst the top 100 students in the Kangroo spelling contest in Pakistan. Shifa has also taken part in sponsored bounce at Nether Green Infant School, Sheffield, UK.
July 5, 2018 Artist Spotlight
A work by painter Josh George illustrates this issue’s story from Jonathan Nixon, “Anywhere We’ve Ever Wanted.” Smokelong art director Alexander C. Kafka asked George about his experiences and inspirations, then invited him to play word association.
First off, thanks so much for contributing to SmokeLong Quarterly. Tell me about yourself. How old are you? What kind of family do you come from? Where do you live? Where are you from? When did you figure out you wanted to be an artist?
I keep thinking I’m 35 but my blotchy skin, bald spot, and creaky joints remind me that I’m 45. I come from a totally normal middle-class suburban family. We were all creative. My mom painted, my dad plays guitar and sings, my brother makes a living as a musician, and my sister is a great dresser, has nice hair, and plays a mean tambourine. I was always supported in my creative pursuits and always encouraged to make a professional go at them. I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. I went to art school there, got tired of seeing the same sights every day and was craving a more urban adventure, so I set off for New York City 18 years ago to wander the streets and paint city dwellers like my Ash Can heroes did. I knew I needed to make pictures at a young age when I drew demons and devils for my religious grandmother. She told me god gave me talent to draw fucked up stuff.
Much of your work is focused on the city and its dwellers. How did that come about?
I was never really interested in big, conceptual subject matter in my work. I am more interested in process, the narrative is not so important, though the city has so many stories and situations happening on every street corner and apartment. I like the textures and the never-ending nature of my surrounding city and I try to record the patterns and surfaces with an aggressive mixed-media approach. I like a sense of mystery in my mark making. I want to viewers to wonder, “How the hell did he do that?”
There’s such a feeling of bustle and busyness in your cityscapes. Is your mind like that? Always churning and zipping around? Or do you feel removed from your surroundings, more an observer, fascinated and distanced from the mayhem?
My mind is always jumping around and it gets frustrated because I can’t participate the way I used to in searching for an ideal life. Lately I have been doing urban aerial views that disappear into the horizon. I want to fly away from the city to the south of France and paint Hallmark Card landscapes of precious villages. So I guess I want both urban hustle and bustle and idealistic rural socialist living at the same time, including a two-hour nap each day.
You describe yourself as an urban realist. But you also have this whimsical side that comes out, especially, in your figure work. I’m thinking of paintings like Buddy Patrol, Giddyup Up Buttercup!, and The Wind Carried It in Its Belly, the City Nursed It. Those images still incorporate the city, but in a more mythical, ethereal vein. Can you explain to me the dichotomy between those two modes of work?
I say my work is not concept driven and is just a way to record my surroundings, but I do like storytelling even if there is no specific story. Holdovers for wanting to do comic books when I was younger maybe? But more likely I never get tired of painting my beautiful wife naked.
You paint in layers and include collage elements. For instance, in Giddy Up Buttercup!, it looks like we’re seeing some wallpaper or wrapping paper or some such integrated into the figure of the woman on the horse. What’s in there? How many layers? Do you make sketches, or under-paint, starting a work envisioning that kind of mix, or do you just kind of go with the creative flow of it as you work? Can you describe your process in a little more detail?
I plan out every image with some rough prototypes. I carry a sketchbook and draw for inspiration in planning works, I take a lot of photos and I invent a lot of imagery, since buildings are just shapes in perspective with a little bit of a light source. I do an under painting on wood panel then I collage over the entire surface with labels, wallpaper, ticket stubs, fabric, building up general forms in a controlled mess. I then paint over the collage elements with knifes, dragging and scrapping. Then I finish it all off with delicate brush work before a protective layer of varnish.
You’ve had a lot of gallery shows. Have you been able to make a living as an artist or have you worked simultaneous jobs?
So far so good. I’m in five different galleries around the country. I do a few solo shows a year and am involved in several group shows and a handful of art fairs. I have been teaching art now for 12 years.
What are your greatest inspirations?
Wine, death metal.
Who are your favorite artists?
Different each day but I always come back to Degas. I’m on a Ferenc Pinter and Henri Jean Guillaume Martin kick right now.
What’s your greatest fear?
Cancer, house burning down, alligators (or crocodiles).
What’s the dumbest thing you ever tried to do?
Become an artist and not a rock star.
Quick word association exercise. Don’t think—just write!
Shitty Marvel comics character
Nostradamus was full of shit and the people who believe him are idiots.
Basil is my favorite scent perhaps of all time. Thyme is too.
June 18, 2018 Playlists
Listen along to Issue 60’s playlist on Spotify!
K.C. Mead-Brewer, “The Cover-up” – “Maneater” by Lower Dens
Lower Dens is a bright star in Baltimore’s dream pop sky. I like their cover of “Maneater” as a complement to “The Cover-up” not only for the sexual humor and cover/cover-up connection, but because it’s such a strong reinterpretation of the original song’s intention: It isn’t about a super confident, super sexy woman anymore. Now it has an almost melancholy irony to it, the titular maneater lacking the self-confidence that the lyrics imply, never letting anyone get too close.
Joy Baglio, “A Boy Who Does Not Remember His Father” – “Fantaisie for Violin and Harp in A Major, Op. 124: V. Andante con moto” Camille Saint-Saëns, Ruggiero Ricci, Susanna Mildonian
The violin in this piece creates a mood that feels akin to both the boy’s flights of imagination, as well as the loneliness, the sadness, the absence he feels. There is both a playful sense of vibrancy as well as a constant yearning, which reflects the mood of the story and seems like an apt parallel to the boy’s dreamlike visions of his father.
Alvin Park, “Whale Fall” (Grand Prize Winner) – “Switzerland” by Soccer Mommy
I feel like this is a song that the narrator and She would hold in their hearts at some point. The wistfulness of hanging onto love, of wanting to get away from things and start over again.
Samantha Burns, “Dark Little Spaces” – “Trust” by Flume
I found this song when I started this piece, and while I don’t usually listen to music with lyrics when I’m writing, the strangeness of it matched the tone of the piece and helped me get in the right headspace to work on it.
Kerry Cullen, “Taking Notes” – “Amie” by Damien Rice
To me, the narrator’s journey in this story is very much a coming of age. The world around her has suddenly become unsafe, and she responds by trying to learn how to keep not only her, but her own guardian safe, by herself. She knows this progression is a part of life (“Nothing unusual, nothing strange”) but at the same time, she still feels it very deeply, and she feels the existential malaise of going through something that everyone goes through, eventually, but that is still very difficult for her. (“But I’m not a miracle/And you’re not a saint/Just another soldier/On the road to nowhere”)
Jonathan Nixon, “Anywhere We’ve Ever Wanted” – “Brand New Sun” by Jason Lytle
I think this song really captures the yearning for something new. If Lydia and Viv were ever to take their road trip, I imagine “Brand New Sun” playing loudly on the radio while wind whips through the car’s open windows.
Elaine Edwards, “Satellite” (Third Place Winner) – “Arctic” by Sleeping at Last
For an instrumental, it more than hits every beat that I try to here, the melancholy and the depth and a vital, generous wonder.
Kathryn McMahon, “The Color of the Sea at Noon” – “Sadness Don’t Own Me” by the Staves
“Sadness Don’t Own Me” by the Staves and my story are both about someone not recognizing themselves because of how pain has shaped who they’ve become. This person needs to face their fears in order to make their way back to themselves, though they doubt they’ll do it.
Theresa Hottel, “Haunt” – “Phantasmagoria in Two” by Tim Buckley
I listen to this song a lot while writing. It makes me feel restless and haunted.
Jonathan Cardew, “’I’m Ron McRain,’ said Ron McRain,” – “The Whitby Lad” by The Watersons
The lad in this song could easily be Ron McRain; Whitby is obviously Whitby; and the refrain, “Oh son oh son, what have you done?” has a repetitive circularity to it, much like the title. Also, it’s a teeny-bit a love story, I think, so this verse:
“Oh, there is a lass in Whitby town, a girl that I love full well/ And it’s if I had me liberty, along with her I’d dwell.”
Jennifer Wortman, “A Matter Between Neighbors” – “I Need You” by Nick Cave
Like many great love songs, “I Need You” is also a dirge; its tender nihilism captures something of the mood I hope to evoke with my story.
Sara Allen, “The Reader in the Square” – “Nice For What” by Drake
It’s a flipped kind of girl power anthem. To me it’s a song about women being “real” and ignoring the scrutiny of social media, which could also be seen as an extension of the male gaze. I think it’s also about the fierceness of women despite their vulnerability when they love. . . that Lauryn Hill hook is killer. Also this song contains a big stylistic nod to New Orleans where my story is set.
Lyndsie Manusos, “Everything There is to Love on Earth” – “Under Stars” by AURORA
I imagined the character Zoe listening to this song to as she contemplates and processes her parents’ absence. It has a seemingly uplifting beat, but when you listen to the lyrics, it strikes me as a song about being alone in the universe.
Jessica Cavero, “Blemish” – “I Will Never” by Sóley
I think about these girls staying together over the years and how tenuous the narrator’s sense of self might become. She might say to herself: “I love you, but it’s time to go. I will never ever be your woman.”
Josh Weston, “The Good Old Days” – “Weed Wacker” by Mark Kozelek
According to my wife, I’m not doing myself or anyone else any favors by contributing a Mark Kozelek song, but this is my current summer jam. It features a guy having an interaction with a stranger in a public place and having an existential crisis about it. Think of it as a flash lyric memoir set to a looped acoustic riff and enjoy.
Molia Dumbleton, “How Leopards Sleep” – “Father Kolbe’s Preaching” by Wojciech Kilar
June 7, 2018 Guest BloggerReviews
by Kim Kankiewicz
It takes audacity to write flash fiction, to assert that a few hundred words can carry the weight of a story. Memorable flash fiction offsets brevity with boldness, transgressing boundaries and embracing risk. Boldness and risk prevail in Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery & Murder (Black Balloon, June 2018), an anthology of flash fiction edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto. Bringing together forty established and emerging writers, Tiny Crimes features audacious writing about audacious deeds.
May 29, 2018 News Digests
Well, our first flash fiction contest was an overwhelming success! Thank you to the writers who participated. Nearly 1,200 of you submitted around 2,000 stories to our 15th-anniversary competition. That’s a massive party. As many fifteen-year-olds will tell you, feeling popular rules. Each time we opened one–or two–of your stories, we hoped we’d find something that would rip us apart, and the stories on the following lists did just that.
While only the finalists will be published in issue 60 of SmokeLong Quarterly, we found something gut-wrenching, innovative, disturbing, hilarious or challenging–something really great–in each of the stories on the long list as well. We’re sure these stories will find their way. Some will go on to win other competitions; some will end up in journals that we all love. They are all memorable.
Congratulations to our finalists and long-listers!
Look for Issue 60 on June 18, 2018, at which time we’ll announce our grand prize winner.
The Smokey Finalists
“The Reader in the Square” by Sara Johnson Allen
“A Boy Who Does Not Remember His Father” by Joy Baglio
“The Cover-up” by KC Mead-Brewer
“Dark Little Spaces” by Samantha Burns
“‘I’m Ron McRain,’ said Ron McRain” by Jonathan Cardew
“Blemish” by Jessica Cavero
“Taking Notes” by Kerry Cullen
“How Leopards Sleep” by Molia Dumbleton
“Satellite” by Elaine Edwards
“It’s Over” by Molly Giles
“Haunt” by Theresa Hottel
“The Groundskeeper” by Devin Kelly
“All the Other Dogs Screaming” by Devin Kelly
“Everything There is to Love on Earth” by Lyndsie Manusos
“The Color of the Sea at Noon” by Kathryn McMahon
“Anywhere We’ve Ever Wanted” by Jonathan D. Nixon
“The Loneliness of the Siberian Chipmunk” by Michelle Orabona
“Whale Fall” by Alvin Park
“Mother of God” by Ulf Pike
“I Went to the Tardigrade” by Eliezra Schaffzin
“The Good Old Days” by Josh Weston
“A Matter Between Neighbors” by Jennifer Wortman
The Smokey Long List
“Sow Season” by Michael Alessi
“Burnt Toast” by Patricia Anderson
“Inheritance” by Madeline Anthes
“The Hog Drive” by Gregory Ariail
“Walks Like a Lion” by Nancy Au
“Weight” by Mandy Beaumont
“Daughter Language, Footnotes” by April Bradley
“Marmalade” by Jacqueline Carter
“Sporks, Knorks, and A Little Splayd” by Elaine Chiew
“Palm Line Constellation” by Chloe Clark
“Out of the Fields” by Bryna Cofrin-Shaw
“The London Underground has 270 stations, alphabetically ‘Angel’ is number 6.” by Laura Danks
“Flotsam” by Leonora Desar
“In this fantasy I went to live with my therapist–” by Leonora Desar
“Alien Love” by Daniel DiFranco
“Pandora” by Paola Ferrante
“The Balloon Animal Artist Goes to a Funeral” by Jennifer Fliss
“Wrong Half” by Lindsay Fowler
“Playground” by Magda Gala
“Life After” by Frances Gapper
“Dutch” by Amina Gautier
“The Tainting of the Nook” by Sean Gill
“Yoga Binge” by Melissa Gutierrez
“Linger” by Matt Hall
“The Moths Came” by Elin Hawkinson
“Red Shoe Twitch” by Dustin M. Hoffman
“Comet” by Carlea Holl-Jensen
“Stray” by Jess Jelsma
“Magpies” by Ingrid Jendrzejewski
“A Sky Full of Sheep” by Len Kuntz
“A Purse on my Head” by Lita Kurth
“Under the Biggest Drop” by Ruth LeFaive
“Teeth” by Marysa LaRowe
“Honeymoon” by Robert Maynor
“Orchestration” by Ciera McElroy
“Embers” by Michael Minchin
“let’s throw a party” by Jono Naito
“Here Devils” by L.W. Nicholson
“Piddocks” by Nuala O’Connor
“A Tether, a Cord” by Wendy Oleson
“First Apartment in the City” by Jeanne Panfely
“good is all that is left of us” by Jesus Pena
“The Guillotine Reimagined” by Claire Polders
“Lessons” by Brian Randall
“The Electricity” by David Rhymes
“Adaptation” by James Smart
“The Venom Is the Juice” by Pete Stevens
“Pretty Things” by Jennifer Todhunter
“Turning Ash to Bone” by Emily Webber
“Blood Bag” by Chloe Wilson
“I’m Exaggerating” by Kate Wisel
“Shedding” by Tara Isabel Zambrano
May 23, 2018 Guest BloggerReviews
By Cheryl Pappas
In what other form can you find a story about old men floating up in the air, or a narrator’s deep dive into the word “glyph” as a way of coming to grips with the end of a love affair? I found myself ever grateful for the flexibility of the flash form when reading the new anthology Nothing Short of 100 (Outpost19, April 2018). Editors Grant Faulkner, Lynn Mundell, and Beret Olsen have compiled 117 little stories in this slim volume. The “tales,” as the editors call them, have been selected from six years (2012–17) of works published in the online journal 100 Word Story. (more…)
May 21, 2018 News Digests
Since I took over as editor in 2010, I hoped that one day we might be able to pay our contributors for their work. Today, I am thrilled to announce that we’ve finally made that a reality.
Thanks to the overwhelming success of our first-ever flash fiction contest, we’ve been able to raise enough funds to award our grand prize and to pay our finalists each $25 (up from the $15 we’d previously advertised).
In addition, we are excited to announce that moving forward, we can offer payment of $25 per story for contributors to our quarterly issues.
Now, while our staff is super excited about this development, we also recognize that $25 is nowhere near the value that should be placed on our amazing writers’ words. It’s a beginning—and one that we hope to grow on as we move forward in making SLQ the best publisher of flash fiction out there. However, being able to value artists’ work in some small way is, for us, an immense step forward and one that was a long time coming for us.
Our contest closed yesterday, and we are still working our way through all the wonderful entries to find our winners. Look for an announcement over the next week or so of all our long list honorees and our finalists! Our grand prize winner will be announced on June 18, which is when we will publish our 15th anniversary contest issue as well.
Thank you to the wonderful SLQ editors for their hard work and dedication to our magazine. Thank you to all the writers who made this contest an overwhelming success. I am continuously grateful to be part of such an amazing publication and community.
Editor, SmokeLong Quarterly
May 18, 2018 Interviews
Doug Luman and Jenni B. Baker’s Container is a literary project for artists interested in nontraditional storytelling. Container tells stories on lunchboxes and Rolodexes, on View Masters and with textiles—artists aren’t confined to book form. Recently we got the chance to talk about their vision, their story-objects, and whether or not a flower pot can be a poem. (more…)
May 8, 2018 Fridge Flash
Editor’s Note: Today’s story is by 4-year-old Sam, who is clearly channeling Kafka. His dad Marcus says that Sam told him the following story after building this awesome LEGO jail gate.
Before the Law, 2018
To get inside, you need the password. No one knows the password, so you have to press the button. There is no button. You need powers, but you don’t have any. Sorry.
Sam is four-and-a-half years old. He enjoys building with blocks and LEGOs, baking treats, and riding his bike. He cannot write words yet, but he can tell short, amazing stories.
May 2, 2018 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash is from Nikhil Sampath, a young writer and cleaning warrior who strikes fear in the hearts of dust bunnies everywhere.
by Nikhil Sampath
Constellations on a carpet. They glimmer dark and gray. Use the vacuum with tough brushstrokes, deprive it of its liberation, from its viewpoint, you are an enemy. But you are just establishing your fortitude. You must not become Laissez-Faire with this enemy. You must defeat it. Down with carpet lint!
March 27, 2018 Playlists
Nine of our writers in Issue 59 contributed to our issue playlist. Their songs, stories, and the reasons they chose the tune follow. Listen below or on SmokeLong’s Spotify Channel!
“Reynardine” by Anne Briggs – Maia Jenkins, “History”
This Victorian English ballad has appeared in countless guises, but Anne Briggs’ a capella version matches the bare-bones dread I hope is evoked in “History.” The gruesome contrast between Briggs’ angelic soprano with the lyrics,”She followed him, his teeth so bright did shine. And he led her over the mountain, did the sly bold Reynardine,” is something I was trying to get at as I was writing. Really, the story–an enticing creature leads a young girl away to an ambiguously horrible fate–is the same as mine, and so many others, sadly.
“Caribbean Blue” by Enya – Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, “Watch, Watching”
Enya’s songs help me meditate, fill me with so much joy and inner peace. I listened mostly to Caribbean Blue while writing “Watch, Watching.” The main character of the story loved the song on repeat, and I could happily live with that for the period that I worked on his story. Enya’s music (alone) inspires my art.
“No Witness” by LP – Daniel Myers, “Body Snatcher”
I don’t really know if the lyrics connect with my story at all, but I listened to this song a lot while I was working on this story. The pace of the song constantly shifts, and I think this influenced my story’s tone.
“The Neighbors” by Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers – Amber Sparks, “The Noises from the Neighbors Upstairs: A Nightly Log”
So perfectly apartment living.
“A Long Time Ago” by First Aid Kit – Dana Heifetz, “Drowned”
I selected this song for a very simple reason–my netmaker said that she loves it; if she weren’t who she is, she even might have sung it to her beloved drowned.
“Pilgrim” by Balmorhea – Zach Yontz, “Winter Light”
This song reminds me of flat, quiet Midwestern nights and the silence of two people together in a car.
“This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads – Lori Sambol Brody, “The Sky is Just Another Neighborhood”
The song starts with a one minute musical sequence that sounds equally innocent and uneasy; then David Byrne sings of longing, resignation, love, and hope, a rumination on what is “home.” This theme and emotions reflect how I feel when I reread “The Sky Is Just Another Neighborhood.”
“Eat Your Heart Up” by The Blow – Emily Jane Young, “Parasomnia”
Maybe a little too on the nose? In choosing a song, I thought first of The Blow, because so many of their songs offer a unique take on heartbreak, and there is often a heavy beat, which you’d want for a song with a heart as the main character. I listened to this album a lot in college, and while I didn’t specifically have it in mind when I wrote “Parasomnia,” this song must have been at least a subconscious seed for the story, as it includes both images of wanting to eat “your” heart and also a heart walking around in the world.
“Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (“Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”) by Claude Debussy – Sumita Mukherji, “Lifeline”
This tone poem from Debussy is a musical evocation of the poem “Afternoon of a Faun,” in which a half-man, half-goat creature delights in memories of forest nymphs. I love it for its impressionistic nature, as I thought of my piece in a series of images, beginning with the ending image.
February 5, 2018 News Digests
Do you have what it takes to write the best flash fiction we’ve ever seen? There’s $1500 on the line–both to celebrate SmokeLong Quarterly‘s 15th anniversary (yay!) and our first-ever flash fiction competition.
Starting February 5, 2018, our general submission queue will be transformed into a contest submission portal. For 15 weeks, we will be accepting only submissions for the inaugural SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction (the Smokey, if you will).
The winner will receive $1500, automatic nomination for The Best Small Fictions series, the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and other awards, publication in our 15th-anniversary Issue in June, and our undying love and devotion. At least 14 runners-up will also be published in the June 2018 contest issue–and each of the finalists will receive $15.
February 5 – April 29 $10, up to 2 stories
April 30 – May 20 $13, up to 2 stories
Money tight? Watch SmokeLong social media accounts for special days when entry will be free!
Entries will be read blind by members of the SmokeLong Quarterly staff.
Finalists will be accepted on a rolling basis throughout the contest period. A long list will be announced one week after the competition closes on May 20. The winner of the competition and at least 14 finalists will be announced on June 18, when all of the contest stories will be published in SmokeLong Quarterly’s 15th-anniversary Issue.
Stories must be original works and not have been previously published anywhere online or in print, including personal blogs.
Word count: Under 1000 words, excluding the title, per story. If you are submitting two stories, they must be submitted in the same document.
Anyone over 18 is eligible to enter, excluding SLQ staff and their families as well as former SLQ editors/staff. Former guest editors are welcome to enter.
All identifying information must be removed from the story and file name. The writer’s bio must appear ONLY in the cover letter, which is blind to the judges. If the author’s name appears anywhere in the story document, including the file name, the story will be disqualified and the submission fee will not be refunded.
You may submit as many times as you’d like during the contest period. All entries must be accompanied by the corresponding fee.
Simultaneous submissions are allowed, but we ask that you withdraw the entry immediately if the story is accepted elsewhere. If the entry is one of two stories submitted in the same document, withdraw the individual story by adding a note to the entry in Submittable. The submission fee will not be refunded.
February 1, 2018 News Digests
Submissions are live for The Smokey, so we’re already anticipating that some folks might have a few questions about the award and why the heck we’re doing it. Here is a handy guide (which may be updated as actual questions come our way) of all you’ve ever wanted to know about The Smokey. Enter through Submittable.
Why are you doing this?
Because we’re 15 now and we do what we want, regardless of what our parents tell us. And in celebration of those sweet 15 years, we decided it was time to hold a flash fiction contest. And give someone some money.
When will submissions open?
February 5, 2018. They will close May 20, 2018. Once submissions go live, we’ll post a link here.
Will I be able to submit to the general submission queue?
Not during the contest period. We are temporarily closing our general submission category during the contest so you don’t have to make a choice—and so we don’t get confused. Some of us on staff are old with bad knees and kind of scatterbrained and we like to streamline things to make it easier. Don’t worry, though—if you don’t want to pay the contest submission fees, we get it, and we’ll happily take your story submission on May 21 or beyond for free once the contest has concluded. We’ll also be offering free submission to the contest a day or two, here and there, but you have to follow us on Twitter @smokelong to find out when!
I have a story in your queue right now. Will it be considered for the contest?
No. All stories submitted before Feb. 5 will be considered as regular submissions to SmokeLong Quarterly. If you wish us to consider your story for the contest, you must withdraw it and resubmit the story in the contest submission category.
What’s the long list all about?
During regular submission periods, we sometimes find stories in our queue that we really like, but that just don’t quite make the cut for publication. We’ll often write to the authors of those stories letting them know that we really liked certain aspects of the piece and hope they submit again. We’ll do that again during the contest, but we also thought it would be nice to honor those folks in a bit more public way as well, hence the long list.
I’m a finalist. When will I know if I’ve won?
Congrats! If your story is accepted at all during the contest period, that means you’re automatically a finalist in the running for the grand prize of $1500. It also means that you’ll be published in our contest issue, quarterly #60, in June 2018. We will choose a winner from all our finalists and announce that winner publicly when the quarterly issue is published on June 18. We will probably let all the finalists know if they’ve won or not a few days before pub date.
I submitted once, but now I’ve written another awesome story. Can I submit again?
Yes. You may submit as many times as you’d like throughout the duration of the contest period, and include up to 2 stories in each submission packet. The appropriate fee must accompany each entry.
I was a guest editor for SmokeLong before. Am I eligible for the contest?
Absolutely! We welcome former guest editors and former contributors to apply, as well as newbies to SLQ. Former staff/editors at SLQ are not eligible. (They know too many of our secrets.)
January 24, 2018
We are beyond excited to introduce our 2018 Kathy Fish Fellow, Tochukwu Okafor. Recently, we asked him about his influences, his voice, and why he’s interested in flash fiction.
Interview by Allison Pinkerton
Welcome to SmokeLong! One of the things I learned as the 2017 Kathy Fish Fellow was to harness my voice, and to speak its truth loudly. Why does the writing world need your voice? (more…)
December 31, 2017 News Digests
As we close out an amazing year of flash fiction, I wanted to take a moment to thank all of our contributors—the writers who sent us their beautiful words, the artists who contributed their amazing work, the interviewers who brought the stories behind the stories to life, and most of all our guest editors, who read thousands and thousands of stories, helping us select the very best for our weekly publication.
I also want to thank the SmokeLong staff editors, who I’m grateful for every single day. Our staff is a kind of magic, and I feel very lucky to be among a group of smart, talented, thoughtful, kind, savvy writers and editors. Thank you for all you do.
And one final special shout-out to our 2017 Kathy Fish Fellow, Allison Pinkerton. We so enjoyed working with Allison this year and seeing the great stories come to life in both SLQ and other publications, and we are thrilled that she’ll be staying on to work with us in 2018.
And now, one final look-back before we set our sights on the new year. Here are the 10 most popular stories we published in 2017—and your chance to read them if you missed them the first time around.
- Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway by Gwen Kirby
This was by far the most popular story of the year—getting more than triple the number of hits of any other story or blog we posted. Gwen’s story hit a nerve with a lot of folks, who shared and tweeted the link all throughout the year. We are not surprised. It’s a delight.
- I’m Such a Slut and I Don’t Give a Fuck by Jen Michalski
Is the secret sauce for popular stories having the ‘f’ word in the title? Nope. The secret sauce is writing a story that lingers and stirs—and this gem by Jen about an aging rock star does both.
- Wolves by Bud Smith
From guest editor Daniel DiFranco, who selected this story, “I picked ‘Wolves’ because of its strong lyrical voice, sense of whimsy, and command of storytelling. It’s an Aesop’s fable for the modern day.”
- All of Us Are in Pieces by Melissa Goode
“‘All of us are in pieces’ is outstanding,” said guest editor Mel Bosworth. “It’s quiet and precise and has great movement. Big things happen but the tone remains the same. It’s got a great hum to it.”
- Manatees by William Todd Seabrook
Guest editor Kim Winternheimer said, “‘Manatees’ does everything a good piece of flash should do: it tells a great story in an economical way. ‘Manatees’ explores a passive attitude about death. How easily a group can move on from losing a member and what that means for the individual who is lost. A great question. All of this in just under 300 words. Wow.”
- How to Be Another Person in Five Days by Rebecca Bernard
“This story struck me immediately, with its odd, imperative voice of instruction,” said guest editor Leslie Pietrzyk. “We’re offered an immediate narrative drive—what will happen in five days?—and writerly authority, as we never question why we might want to be another person in five days. I’m still not done with this story; I find something new to admire each time I read these words.”
- Missed Connections by Kevin Hatch
“I love how the character’s fantasy spirals in such weird, surprising ways that feel very true to the voice,” says Tia Clark, the guest editor who chose this story.
- Dream Barbie by Mamie Pound
Our staff editor Brandon Wicks fell in love with this whimsical piece, calling it “economical and punchy” and a “a humanizing and disturbing reflection of our current moment.”
- I Utide by Lone Vitus
From our Global Flash series, this Danish story was chosen by guest editor and translator Sinéad Quirke Køngerskov, who said, “This story captured my curiosity – we are a society obsessed with linear time. We are supposed to take advantage of every second, move forward like the clock and be “busy” all the time. When do we ever just ‘feel’ time like the author describes? The story offers the reader to pause and reflect like a little meditation. That resonated with me.”
- Good Boys by Tamara Schuyler
Staff editor Shasta Grant selected this story. “If a story could punch me in the gut, this one did. Somehow the writer managed to make my heart break for these two boys, even though they are doing such a terrible thing. Every sentence crackles with energy and heart.”
This coming year is shaping up to be a memorable one, with our 15th anniversary rapidly approaching, our new Kathy Fish Fellow Tochukwu Okafor, and more fabulous flash fiction. We’ll see you all at AWP and elsewhere. Keep up to date with all our news by signing up for our mailing list serv at http://eepurl.com/bkyV_D
December 18, 2017 Playlists
We’ve got an amazing issue for you this time–and a Spotify playlist to go along with it. After you’ve read the stories (or while you’re reading them!) check out the playlist hand-picked by our authors of songs that accompany their stories. (Note: Not all authors participated, so only select stories in the issue are represented by the playlist.)
Issue 58 Playlist Selections
Listen along here: open.spotify.com/user/smokelongquarterly/playlist/6N245OExhaXIMYSFZWpne0
“Shout” by Tears for Fears
(Caitlin Pryor, “Epistle from the Hospital of Strong Opinions” )
In my SLQ interview, Karen Craigo asked me what I would “shout in the courtyard,” as my character does, and the first thing that came to mind was Tears for Fears’ 1985 mega-hit, “Shout.” Tears for Fears co-founder Roland Orzabal has said that the song was not only a response to the writings of Arthur Janov, creator of primal scream theory (a popular 1970s psychotherapeutic approach that attempted to resolve trauma through catharsis or, in some cases, actual screaming) but also a Cold War-era incitement to protest politically and “Let it all out.”
“Gnossienne No. 1” by Erik Satie
(Charlotte Pattinson, “Brussels, 2004”)
Because I mention a piece of music in my story, I think it probably makes sense to have that be the song to accompany the story.
“Bad News from Home” by Randy Newman
(Geoff Kronik, “The Jumper”)
I think the song’s 1st-person singer and my story’s protagonist would relate to each other.
“All Kinds of Time” by Fountains of Wayne
(Jeff Ewing, “Parliament of Owls”)
I’ve always liked the multiple ways the football cliche “all kinds of time” can be read, and the suspension of time the song itself achieves. The moment captured is a glory days moment that automatically implies an unconstructive nostalgia. Tim’s disillusioned epiphany is hidden in there somewhere.
“You Are Never Alone” by Vic Chestnutt
(Steve Edwards, “Starlings”)
There’s a brokenness and humor and hope in Vic Chesnutt. What I love about this song in relation to “Starlings” is the litany of things—like taking pain meds or having an abortion—that are all, well, okay. You can keep on keeping on because you’re never alone. I imagine that’s part of what the narrator of my story is realizing about wanting to hang himself.
“The Evening Descends” by Evangelicals
(Pete Segall, “I Thought I Knew the Answer for a Minute”)
Here’s a track that’s barely three minutes long and feels like three or four different songs. Each one seems like it should be goofy, lite punk – but every time it’s on the verge of tipping into frivolity… it just doesn’t.
“I’ll Fly Away” by Gillian Welch & Alison Krauss
(Lee Reilly, “Pastor Bob’s Picnic”)
“Teenage Dreams” by Moniker
(Jeremy Packert Burke, “Miller Time”)
At the heart of my story is this desire to grow up faster, to skip the pain of teenage years and revel in adulthood before that innocence is lost. In Moniker’s song, there are some wonderful reflections on the pain of this, the interplay between having too much fun to worry much and worrying too much to have much fun; a lot of the same concern of my story is caught in the lines ‘These days I think I know who I am/I wish I knew who I was going to be’
“Saltbreakers” by Laura Veirs
(Josh Jones, “The Cartographers”)
I love its oceanic imagery and upbeat, celebratory tone that complements the sense of mystery and hope in my piece.
“An Ending, A Beginning” by Dustin O’Halloran
(Cheryl Pappas, “Nature.”)
Besides the aptness of the title, this song seemed perfect to me because it’s plaintive and simple, which captures the essence of my story.
“For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” by Sufjan Stevens
(Carolyn Nims, “New Yorker Story About Michigan”)
This was an obvious choice. But also, its loveliness undercuts the story’s darkness, and its rawness echoes some of the more ragged emotions in the story.
“That’s the Spirit” by Judee Sill
(Julian K. Jarboe, “The Heavy Things”)
“How We Quit the Forest” by Rasputina
(Tessa Yang, “Princess Shipwreck”)
To me this song sounds like a spooky fable. It’s about choosing to turn away from the familiar, because the familiar isn’t actually what it seems.
“Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I)” by Ray Charles
(Jonathan Nixon, “Our Father”)
In my story, a Ray Charles record can be heard playing throughout the house. I feel the song “Hard Times” not only fits the mood of the piece, but also takes on the role of the father’s voice.
“The Last of the Famous International Playboys” by Morrissey
(John Meyers, “1922 Roma Airship Disaster Tattoo”)
I was listening to Bona Drag quite a bit when I wrote the story and imagined that the hero would likely have been a big fan of this song. I’ll leave it to readers to interpret the connection.
“Night Ferry” by Anna Cline
(Allison Pinkerton, “Zelberg”)
Anna Clyne’s orchestral composition “Night Ferry” (2012) pairs well with my story “Zelberg,” which focuses on a cellist who has sprinkled his wife’s ashes all over the orchestra pit. When I listened to “Night Ferry,” I got an ominous feeling, and the strings sounded like swarming bees. “Zelberg” is told in the first-person plural. The collective voice details the orchestra’s attempts to protect Zelberg from the police, who’ve been summoned after an audience member notices the ashes and mistakenly assumes Zelberg’s a terrorist.
December 18, 2017 News Digests
Congratulations to Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, our 2018 Kathy Fish Fellow and virtual writer-in-residence! We are so excited to bring his work to SmokeLong Quarterly and are thrilled to work with him in the upcoming year.
This year we also would like to name Latifa Ayad as an honorable mention, as we were particularly impressed by her application packet.
Tochukwu is a Nigerian writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Litro Magazine, and is forthcoming in Harvard University’s Transition Magazine. His No Tokens story, “Some Days,” has been nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize. He has been nominated twice for the Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction, with his stories, “Leaving,” appearing in Short Story Day Africa’s anthology, Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa, and “All Our Lives” forthcoming in the anthology, ID: New Short Fiction from Africa. His Warscapes story, “Colour Lessons,” featured in Columbia Journal, The Cantabrigian, and Volume 1 Brooklyn, has been shortlisted for the Problem House Press Short Story Prize (2016) and nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. His Open Road Review story, “Spirit,” featured in Juked, has been shortlisted for the 2016 Southern Pacific Review Short Story Prize. In 2014 he was awarded the Comptroller Charles Edike Prize for Outstanding Essays. He is an alumnus of the 2015 Association of Nigerian Authors Creative Writing Workshop and the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Writing Workshop, and a two-time recipient of the Festus Iyayi Award for Excellence for Prose and Playwriting (2015/2016).
Tochukwu is also a 2018 Rhodes Scholar finalist. He graduated with a cumulative grade point of 4.95 (out of 5.0) as the best graduating student in the Department of Electrical/Electronic Engineering and the whole of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Benin, Benin city. He is a programmer, an android developer, and has delivered talks at the TEDx and World Speech Day events.
You can read Tochukwu’s SLQ stories starting in our March 2018 issue.
We received more than 200 applications this year, and once again we were blown away by the quality of the stories.
Thanks again to our finalists Rebekah Bergman, Megha Krishnan, Lyndsie Manusos, Kathryn McMahon, Alice Mercier, Rachel Richardson, Michael Sarinsky, and Elisabeth Ingram Wallace.
December 11, 2017 News Digests
Good news! We have 10 finalists for our 2018 Kathy Fish Fellowship. Out of more than 200 applications, these 10 writers really stood out for their originality and talent. Which makes our job very difficult in choosing a winner. We’d like to congratulate and honor these 10 writers for their accomplishment.
The finalists are:
Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor
Elisabeth Ingram Wallace
We hope to make a final decision about the winner of the fellowship in the next week. Congratulations to all our finalists, and thank you to all the writers who submitted to the contest this year. We’ve been truly stunned by the talent in the queue.
November 18, 2017 News Digests
The holidays seem to begin earlier and earlier every year. This year, for us, they’re starting right now. SmokeLong Quarterly is thankful for the opportunity to have published these stories (two are coming out in December actually, so you’ll have to wait a while on those). They all in some way add to and further the art of flash fiction, which is a gift to the entire literary community.
Thank you to everyone who sends work to us. We’re always excited to read your best flash fiction, and we love this time of year when we can spread some love. We wish we could nominate every single story we publish, and we’re always looking for more ways to promote the writers who trust us with their work. Congratulations to everyone on the lists below.
“I’m Such a Slut and I Don’t Give a Fuck” by Jen Michalski
“Good Boys” by Tamara Schuyler
“Filthy, Polluted” by Raul Palma (forthcoming in December 2017)
“Popcorn” by Andrew Mitchell
“The Jumper” by Geoff Kronik (forthcoming in December 2017)
“Filthy, Polluted” by Raul Palma (forthcoming in December 2017)
“Sour Toe” by Justin Herrmann
“Gravity, Reduced” by Kara Oakleaf
“Manatees” by William Todd Seabrook
We wish you all tons of success. You are all stars!
October 31, 2017 News Digests
Here are some spooky tales from our archives to get you in the Halloween holiday spirit.
- The Dead Are Not Hungry by Justin Lawrence Daugherty
Zombies like you’ve never seen zombies before. Also paired with possibly the best piece of artwork we’ve ever run at SmokeLong.
2. Working Halloween for Christmas Money by John Minichillo
The insiders guide to those cheesy haunted hayrides and houses and corn mazes you scared yourself silly at when you were a teen.
3. Laura Palmer’s Bar and Grill by Andrew F. Sullivan
Especially fitting to re-read this one after the new season of Twin Peaks this year. A trippy, Lynch-like fan tribute to the mysterious Laura Palmer.
4. The Sadness of Spirits by Aimee Pogson
A Ouija board. Some lonely ghosts. A little boy. What could go wrong?
5. The Horrors by Joseph Lucido
Is it bad luck or something more sinister at work? The voice in this piece is so compelling it pulls you along, even as you dread what’s coming next.
6. Last Seen Leaving by Laura Ellen Scott
When Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington went missing after a Metallica concert, Laura Ellen Scott decided to explore what might’ve happened to her. Now that her killer has been convicted, this story has an even more chilling facet to it.
7. The Eleventh Floor Ghost by Megan Giddings
A haunted hotel with all sorts of ghosts trying to find their identities. This is a whimsical, fun piece from our former Kathy Fish Fellow.
8. The Rise of the Witch–A Fridge Flash by Stella Urbanski
This Fridge Flash by kindergartener Stella fits our theme and has original art to boot!
9. An Old Woman with Silver Hands by A.A. Baliskovits
A.A. Baliskovits is a master of retelling and reinventing classic fairy tales, and this is no exception.
10. Monarchs by Andrew Wehmann
Here’s a world where in order to survive, you must keep killing.
11. Bait by Amy Sayre Baptista
That creepy man on the side of road? Just what are his intentions?
12. Under the Dark by Dawn Bailey
Daddy tells you to go crawl under the porch. Do you go?
13. The Woodcutter’s Wife by Ben Black
A creepy retelling of Hansel and Gretel.
October 3, 2017 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash is from Evie McClinch, who narrated this piece during one of her many imaginative play sessions. Her mom transcribed it as originally told, read it back to her, and solicited her edits. Evie is a true editor in the making! (more…)
September 29, 2017 Reviews
By Stefen Styrsky
While reading the exceptional stories in The Best Small Fictions 2017, the phrase “in our time” kept bouncing around my head. It’s the title of Hemingway’s first collection, the book that put him on the literary map, filled with examples of what, back then, had no name: Flash Fiction. Hemingway seemed to be on to something with that title. It struck me as the perfect phrase to encapsulate BSF 2017. The subjects of these stories run the gamut: families, death, identity, culture, race, environment. In other words, a glimpse into our current collective subconscious. (more…)
September 18, 2017 News Digests
Issue 57 of SmokeLong Quarterly comes with a whole new sensory experience. We’ve created a Spotify playlist for Issue 57, so you can listen to music that’s been paired with each story in the issue.
The songs were chosen by each author, and our associate editor Meghan Phillips curated the playlist order for your listening pleasure. If you do listen and read, let us know about your experiences!
Here’s the playlist:
“Cool Slut” by Chasity Belt (Jen Michalski, “I’m Such a Slut and I Don’t Give a Fuck”)
“Catch a Wave” by The Beach Boys (Todd Seabrook, “Manatees”)
“Blood in the Cut” by K.Flay (Didi Wood, “Husking”)
“Texas Never Whispers” by Pavement (John Jodzio, “Floodplain”)
“I Want You to Want Me” by Cheap Trick (James Claffey, “Sins of Omission”)
“Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash (Tim Fitts, “Belly”)
“Otherside” by Red Hot Chili Peppers (Jane Blunschi, “San Miguel”)
“Levitation” by Beach House (Nikalus Rupert, “Fragore”)
“Every Breath You Take” by The Police (Cheyenne Autry, “Sexting”)
“Jackrabbit” by San Fermin (Kaely Horton, “”Apology Note To My Roommate Irene After My Chimaera Destroyed Her Blue Suede Heels”)
“I’m Done” by The Julie Ruin (Caitlyn GD, “What We Do For Work”)
“September Fields” by Frazey Ford (Tina Hall, “The Extinction Museum…”)
“Getting Ready to Get Down” by Josh Ritter (Allison Pinkerton, “St. Zelda’s”)
“Time Forgot” by Connor Oberst (Melissa Goode, “All of Us Are In Pieces”)
“Ode to Divorce” by Regina Spektor (Robyn Groth, “Still Life with Hairball”)
“Every Single Night” by Fiona Apple (Monica Lewis, “Night Run”)
“There Is a Light the Never Goes Out” by The Smiths (Skylar Alexander, “The Unicorn”)
September 6, 2017 Guest BloggerNews Digests
Editor’s note: We are fortunate to have Tara L. Masih, founding series editor for the Best Small Fictions anthology, guest blog for us this week. Tara takes a look at some of her favorite endings from flash fictions included in the BSF series.
Anyone who studies or participates in writing sudden, flash, or micro fiction knows the importance of a great ending. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow so accurately said: “Great is the art of the beginning, but greater is the art of the ending.” Longfellow, who mostly published poetry and translated some of the world’s greatest writers, understood that leaving the reader with an indelible image or deep new understanding makes for a more powerful and resonant reading experience. In other words, exiting a story well is more important than how we enter. And it may be more difficult to achieve. With that in mind, here are my top choices for perfect endings from the Best Small Fictions series. Needless to say, choosing was a hard task. I believe every story in each volume accomplishes what Longfellow emphasizes, but these six have something extra special.
2015, guest edited by Robert Olen Butler:
This flash is a one-paragraph tour de force that hits the reader hard with a strong opening, then takes the reader on a journey that’s both internal and external. Strayer avoids the expected narrative direction that a victim story might normally take and moves us toward a conclusion that reaches above the victim’s, and our, basic instincts. “Let’s Say” was mentioned in many reviews and I think that’s a testament, of course, to the story as a whole but also to its powerful ending.
2. “The Garden Sky,” by Dave Petraglia, originally published in Necessary Fiction (Nov. 26, 2014)
One of the hardest things to do in any genre, but especially within the confines of flash, is to tackle subjects as large and complex as race relations, bias, and guilt of the conqueror/invader. Petraglia manages to cover all of these heavy themes in two pages. His narrator is a white businesswoman admiring a young female Vietnamese civil engineer during a work lunch. A lunch discussing apps that recognize bombs, which are unearthed and cleaned and sold in markets. Bomb is a heavy word in this story, with multiple layers of meaning for both parties. The ending is a masterful, poetic rewind of the bombs that fell on the engineer’s country, injuring her father. It’s tortuous because we cannot do rewinds on dropped bombs, and I think the ending helped put this story on many readers’ lists of favorites.
2016, guest edited by Stuart Dybek:
3. “Bug Porn,” by Robert Scotellaro, originally appeared in What We Know So Far (Blue Light Press)
Leaving readers with a strong visual image is one way to ensure they will remember your story. In this humorous Micro, Scotellaro uses visual interplay between a husband and wife to set up a strong statement. A daddy longlegs, squished on the ceiling, is not just a dead bug. Scotellaro narrows the focus of vision to a single insect leg, which angled just so, looks like a “forward slash. With all of the surrounding grammar missing.” The power is in the image, and in the space around the image, as it relates to the couple’s marriage.
4. “The Story, Victorious,” by Etgar Keret, originally appeared in Flash Fiction International (W. W. Norton)
Another humorous ending. Or is it an ending? Keret fools the reader into thinking he or she has reached one ending, but then produces another. Masterful and original, and got him recognition in the venerable Flash series.
2017, guest edited by Amy Hempel:
- “Sea Air,” by Matt Sailor, originally appeared in Five Points, Vol. 17, No. 3
Sailor’s brief almost post-apocalyptic story proves that an ending can be very simple, yet still be powerful. His final line is a fragment of just five words: “A tangle of disturbed sheets.” It’s both visual and metaphorical. Each word chosen carefully. This editor appreciated every word and nuance. The reader will, too.
- “In Our Circle,” by Kimberly King Parsons, originally from NANO Fiction, Vol. 10
Parsons’ ending is not only visual, but tactile. She manages to literally mold an ending that invests lumps of clay with Freudian symbolism and her narrator’s deepest thoughts and flaws. This little story is already getting attention in reviews. She has a great beginning, but an even greater ending.
For other great endings, see the individual stories recommended by the Flash Field Guide authors and editors in the downloadable PDF at Rose Metal Press’s website. The PDF will be available later this fall.
Tara Lynn Masih is editor of two ForeWord Books of the Year, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays, and is author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows. Her flash appears in many anthologies, including Flash Fiction Funny, Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comic and Prose, and W. W. Norton’s forthcoming New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, and was featured in Fiction Writer’s Review for National Short Story Month. Additional awards include The Ledge Magazine’s Fiction Award, the Lou P. Bunce Creative Writing Award, a Wigleaf Top 50 and a Neville Award citation, and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. She is Founding Series Editor for The Best Small Fictions annual anthology and received a finalist fiction grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
August 1, 2017 Fridge Flash
The kids in Oliver Jones’ first grade class were instructed to imagine a story that took place outside of their school. They were to include at least one real element they have observed outside. Oliver chose to include squirrels in his story. He hasn’t observed any robots on the school grounds but he hasn’t given up hope.
June 29, 2017 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash is from nine-year-old Ethan. Ethan shares a poignant story about love, loss, and childhood friendships that last a lifetime.
By Ethan Hampel
Jone was standing outside his house with the pointy roof. Up in the pointy roof was nothing. But he, he didn’t think that was right. His whole house was empty but it was so full. But his heart was empty. His house only had him to live in it. He remember 20 years ago when he was 30. Back then he was married. The girl was Sharlet Amy Shewats. He thought back to when they were good friends when he was 11 and she was 10. They were on the playground.
“Umm… so how many times have you been on the slide” She would say.
He would say “ 9 19 29 39 49 59 69 79 89 I don’t know should I have been keeping track. Mabey 99.” He said every time she would ask.
One day she wasn’t there to ask him how many times he had gone down the slide. He got off the slide and looked around. The last place he looked was behind the school. There he saw her being bullied by a bunch of idiots.
He said “ Hey back of you…you…Idiots you shouldn’t be bullying anybody.” “Who you callin a-” The main one started. But before he could say anything else, he hit him. Square in the nose. Then he looked at him. You could tell he got teary eyes. He left. He was so proud of that one time. But Sharlet died of a heart attack. He had blamed himself for that every day. He thought he could do something but the truth was nobody could have done anything. But he thought of not going back.
Ethan Hampel was 8 when he wrote this and is currently 9. He lives with his parents and big sister Madelyn and attends school with his big sister all in Wichita, Kansas.
June 27, 2017 Guest Blogger
June 24 was National Flash Fiction Day in the U.K. Although the festival is over, we at SmokeLong Quarterly would like to party one more day. In celebration, we asked several amazing writers of flash fiction to share a top ten list of flash favorites on a topic of their choice. On our final day of celebration, SmokeLong’s Kathy Fish Fellow, Allison Pinkerton, shares her top ten flashes exploring the distance between children and adults.
June 26, 2017 Guest Blogger
June 24 was National Flash Fiction Day in the U.K. Although the festival across the pond is over, we at SmokeLong Quarterly would like to keep the party going for a few more days.
In celebration, we asked several amazing writers of flash fiction to share a top ten list of flash favorites on a topic of their choice. SmokeLong contributor, Claire Polders, has a story featured in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Sleep Is A Beautiful Colour. Today, she shares her favorite flash stories featuring (dead) fathers.
by Claire Polders
This year’s theme for the National Flash Fiction Day anthology was “Life as you know it.” I interpreted that as autobiographical writing, and whenever I turn toward my own life for inspiration, I often end up writing about my father, who died way too young. The small piece I submitted to the anthology, “Swing State,” was accepted (thank you Tino, Meg, and Calum!) and reading it back in the proofs, I wondered what other flashes were out there dealing with fathers, dead or alive. Here are some of my favorites:
“My Father Took Me To Watch” by Mai Nardone (published by Tin House, the Open Bar).
Mai Nardone’s story startled me with its first sentence in which the callousness of a father is portrayed. And there was a lot more to discover as I read on. About the responsibility of being a first-born. About what it means to keep secrets from your “noosed mother.” A cruel but beautiful read.
“Letter to a Funeral Parlor” by Lydia Davis (published in The Collected Stories Of Lydia Davis, excerpt made available by NPR).
Lydia Davis is a huge inspiration for me, so a list without one of her stories would seem incomplete. In this flash, she expresses the anguish of grief by focusing on the absurdity of the way we deal with death in our society. Who can disagree with her when she writes: “Cremains sounds like something invented as a milk substitute in coffee, like Cremora, or Coffee-mate.”
“Sometimes My Father Comes Back from the Dead” by Steve Edwards (published in SmokeLong Quarterly)
It’s hard not to love a good ghost story. What I admired in Steve Edward’s flash was the optimism in the narrator’s voice and the perceived innocence of his father’s presence. It made me wish my own father would drop by sometimes so I could love him without reserve for the man he was.
“Relic” by Aubrey Hirsch (published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts)
I selected this story by Aubrey Hirsch because of its seducing reticence. By focusing on a dining room table, the narrator tells us about her father’s tragedy and her response to it. It’s a talent to let something as hard as wood reveal so much emotion.
“Father’s Return from War. Topics” by Horia Gârbea (published by Words Without Borders)
What can you know about a father who goes to war when you stay behind as a child? What can you imagine? In this ingenious story by Horia Gârbea, I was treated to nine versions of a history that left me wondering how many of them were mutually exclusive.
“Timbre and Tone” by Sudha Balagopal (published by Jellyfish Review)
In Sudha Balagopal’s flash about a father’s funeral she brilliantly shows the mystery our parents are to us. Here’s a daughter who tries to figure them out, pin them down, so that by her understanding their actions might hurt her less. But in the end, they keep surprising her, which, surprisingly, comes as a relief.
“Empire State Building” by James Yates (published by matchbook)
Should we hate or love our fathers for their lies, their exaggerations, their obsessions? In this touching story by James Yates, in which more is said than written, I was left pondering that interesting question.
“The Hand That Wields The Priest” by Emily Devane (published by Bath Flash Fiction Award)
In Emily Devane’s story an entire relationship between a father and his daughter is transformed by one well-chosen scene. “That night, his hand felt different on my head.” I felt it, too.
“Candles” by Paul Maliszewski (published by Gulf Coast)
Stories about fathers are often about authority. Paul Maliszewski strikingly shows how a son deals with the authority of both church and father and finds invisible ways to be defiant.
“Reunion” by John Cheever (published in The Stories of John Cheever and anthologized in Sudden Fiction)
I’m not a son and my father was the opposite of the man in John Cheever’s story, but when reading this flash I am that young man, so excited to meet with my father and in the end so… oh, just read it.
Plus One. Are they flashes or chapters of a novel? Whatever they are, Justin Torres writes beautifully about fathers in We the Animals. An excerpt, “Heritage,” was published by Granta.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author of four novels with a debut in English on the way. Her short prose most recently appeared in TriQuarterly, The Offing, Connotation Press, New World Writing, Necessary Fiction, Cheap Pop, and elsewhere. You can find her at @clairepolders or www.clairepolders.com.
June 23, 2017 Guest Blogger
June 24 is (Inter)National Flash Fiction Day. In celebration, SmokeLong Quarterly asked several amazing writers of flash fiction to share a top ten list of flash favorites on a topic of their choice. SmokeLong contributor, Gay Degani, has a story featured in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Sleep Is A Beautiful Colour. Today, she shares her favorite flash stories featuring cars.
June 22, 2017 Guest Blogger
June 24 is National Flash Fiction Day in the United Kingdom. When we learned that flash fiction has its own day of celebration in the U.K., we at SmokeLong Quarterly wanted to participate in the festivities, especially since many of our beloved contributors are included in the National Flash Fiction anthology, Sleep Is A Beautiful Colour.
One of those contributors, Santino Prinzi, is a co-director and editor for the anthology. In celebration of (Inter)National Flash Fiction Day, we asked Santino and a few other amazing flash writers to give a list of their top ten favorite flash fiction stories on a topic of their choosing. Over the next few days we will be posting those lists in celebration. Enjoy and Happy Flash Fiction Day!
June 19, 2017 Artist Spotlight
Ashley Inguanta, a SmokeLong Quarterly contributing artist for seven years and its art director for six, will be stepping down from the art director role after this issue to concentrate on her art, writing, teaching, and yoga practice in Florida. Her latest poetry book, Bomb, was published last year. You can see her photographs here. Our current art director, Alexander C. Kafka, asked her about her experiences with SmokeLong and her plans. (more…)
May 2, 2017 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash comes from seven-year-old Shifa Asif, who extols the beauties of nature.
By Shifa Asif
You give us cool air and oxygen,
And they are very beautiful, (more…)
April 27, 2017 Why Flash Fiction Series
By Dana Diehl
As a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was looking at old photographs of my family. My parents had five photo albums stored at the top of the hallway closet, too heavy for me to get down by myself, with dark covers and no labels. Five albums filled with pictures of me, pictures of my brother, pictures of my parents’ childhoods and their lives together before my brother and I were born. I would sit cross-legged in the hallway, my feet going numb against the hardwood floor, turning the thick pages, satisfied by the flop they made in my lap. (more…)
April 19, 2017 Interviews
SmokeLong Associate Editor and resident trivia buff Meghan Carlton Phillips will be appearing as a contestant on the beloved game show Jeopardy! this Friday, April 21, 2017. Will she make it a true Daily Double? Will she give an undying shout-out to SmokeLong Quarterly? Will she win big and buy us all jet planes? Check your local listings and tune in this Friday to find out!
In the meantime, we asked her some questions about her experience auditioning and being on the set, how she prepped, and what her most dreaded category would be.
April 5, 2017 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash comes from four-year-old Sherdil Asif, who shares his tale of a spider taking a ride!
by Sherdil Asif
The spiderman was going in a Volkswagon. He was happy happy.
March 29, 2017 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash comes from six-year-old, Esben Møller Semmel. This cautionary tale is full of phonetic fun and is poetic in structure. Be careful of duks!
by Esben Møller Semmel
a duk swam in the water
the duk landed in the water
the duk splashed water on me
the duk saw me
the duk floo too me
the duk was mad at me.
Esben Møller Semmel is a six-year-old kindergartner. He likes to draw and write stories and play baseball. When he grows up he wants to play professional baseball for one of these teams: St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins, Baltimore Orioles, and Detroit Tigers. Those are the only teams he will play for.
March 20, 2017 News Digests
Congratulations to Bath Flash Fiction on their first anthology: To Carry Her Home: Bath Flash Fiction, Volume One! To celebrate flash from the UK and around the world, SmokeLong Quarterly is giving away 5 copies of the Bath Flash Fiction anthology. Details on how to win below.
March 2, 2017 Why Flash Fiction Series
For Raymond Carver
By Len Kuntz
He was already dead when I found him. There was no one to call. My stomach filled with acid, my head spun. So I sat down, right there in the bookstore row, and read—This Is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—until my eyes bled.
I was spellbound.
This was before flash fiction even had a name.
Others had known him before me, and I found this disappointing. Couldn’t someone have introduced us? How is any fair writer supposed to make their way without Ray?
February 22, 2017 Fridge Flash
In this week’s Fridge Flash, eleven-year-old Irene Meklin shares a story about the end of school days, jelly donuts, sleepovers, throwing rubber lizards, and the exhilarating exhaustion of childhood. We are excited to share this story from this talented young writer whose name we are certain to see again in the decades to come.
By Irene Meklin
Time is something that will not do your bidding. When you are waiting for something, it goes unbearably slow, and if you don’t want to go somewhere or do something it smiles and runs away from you at a mile a minute, grinning. I thought as I watched the clock. It seemed to slow down and dwell on one minute, one second even. Tick-tock, it went, as if it knew that I was waiting for it. Move! Move! I told it. Don’t you ever get tired of standing in one place? Move! Move, move, move! Finally, it struck two fifty. Only ten minutes left! Those ten minutes felt like ten hours. I zoomed out of what the teacher was saying, daydreaming about what was sure to happen that night. Then I noticed that everyone was packing up.
I stood up and got my stuff. I met Kesenia, my classmate, outside. We waited for her mother and when her mother arrived, we picked up Kes’s sister, Eliana. We drove to Krispy Kreme’s to get jelly donuts, since it was one of the nights of Hanukkah, also the last day of school before winter break in case you want to know. I remember clearly what flavors the donuts were. Some were maple, some chocolate with sprinkles, some glazed with jam, and some custard-filled. After that, we drove to Kesenia’s house. I remember that ride: Kes’s mother tried to make conversation as we drove on to her house in the rain.
February 16, 2017 Why Flash Fiction Series
By Kara Vernor
Not all of us drop from the womb writers. In 1991, when I was seventeen, none of the books I read—Vonnegut, Kerouac, Nin—made me feel as connected to the world as the music I listened to, as Courtney Love in a slip dress screaming: “Is she pretty from the inside/Is she pretty from the back.” That was all I needed, really, that emotional quick fix, those urgent jabs on the electric guitar. Plus, unlike reading and writing, which I did alone in my room, music brought me into contact with Real Live People—in gushing talk of mutual fandom, through traded mix tapes, at live shows in boiling pits of longhaired boys. So it was with modest expectations that I went with my overage boyfriend one winter night to see some old musician named Jim Carroll perform “spoken word.” Not written? Not sung?
January 31, 2017 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Mike Minchin discusses Edward Falco’s story “Koi” and how this introduction to flash changed his writing. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Mike Minchin
I knew very little of flash fiction until about six years ago, when I happened to be reading The Southern Review and came across Edward Falco’s “Koi.” I was struck first by the brevity of the piece, barely more than a page, and I thought, Oh, how short. Such was my ignorance of the form and its possibilities. I had loved poetry for years, but I thought of fiction as mostly a long-winded creature. I was, at the time, attempting to compress my sprawling, almost novella-length stories into something remotely publishable, which is to say I needed to chop off ten or twenty thousand words from most of my stories. And so, I was overdue for a lesson in concision.
January 30, 2017 News Digests
You may have noticed in the last two issues of SmokeLong Quarterly that things were a bit less Anglo than usual. In September 2016 we published Rupprecht Mayer’s “Aufgaben: ein Triptychon,” translated from German by Christopher Allen (that’s me), and in December Timba Bema’s “Accident,” translated from French by Michelle Bailat-Jones. And we’re just getting started.
In the March issue of SmokeLong we’ll be running a story in Danish translated by guest editor Sinéad Quirke Køngerskov, in summer a Spanish story translated by guest editor Cecilia Llompart. You can read all of this on the Global Flash Series page.
Writers and readers in French will be thrilled–and we are also thrilled–that Michelle Bailat-Jones is remaining with SmokeLong to become our French editor. Submissions have now reopened and will remain open on a rolling basis. Michelle Bailat-Jones is looking forward to your best work in French. Welcome, Michelle! We are excited to have you on board.
We have also decided to reopen German submissions—also los! Schick mir etwas! This means that now SmokeLong is always open to submissions in English, French and German.
I would also like to welcome our newest Global Flash Series guest editor. John Obwavo is co-founding editor of Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature and has published fiction and literary criticism books on East African and European fiction. He teaches creative writing at St. Paul’s University in Kenya. He earned his PhD in Mass Communication from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya.
John will be reading submissions in Swahili starting June 1, 2017. He will consider submissions for the September 2017 issue of SmokeLong. If you know someone who writes in Swahili, please make sure they know about this opportunity.
Translators, if you are interested in guest editing for SmokeLong, please contact us. Ideally, you’ll have translation experience. You should also be well connected to your literary community in the target language, and you should be familiar with the kind of work SmokeLong publishes. If you’re not familiar with SmokeLong, just have a look at our archives.
January 26, 2017 Why Flash Fiction Series
This “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Michelle Elvy shares what Debussy, beasts, birds, and the sea reveal about flash fiction. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
When I was a kid, I studied classical piano. I played the requisite Bach and Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms, sure. But my favourite works, hands down, were Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Russian Easter (Suite No.1 for Two Pianos, op.5 mov.4) and Claude Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair, also known as Prélude No 8). I played Russian Easter with my two-piano partner; the relentless ringing of those bells rumbled my soul. The composer said he had written the suite to paint a picture – and I believed it. At around three minutes, it was demanding and challenging. It required control and focused energy. It told a story in a short interval with a bang – that piece, more than any other we played, was the very embodiment of intensity and precision.
January 11, 2017 Reviews
By Santino Prinzi
In many of the stories in Deer Michigan (Truth Serum Press, 2016), characters reflect on memories of what once was and how the world around them has changed, whether they wanted it to or not. In these moments, we find loss, anger, and regret, as well as happiness and hope.
“Hoop Dreams” is a coming-of-age story about young boys obsessed with the NBA and Baywatch. The narrator remembers his childhood in 1998 and how he and his friends were fascinated by Denis Rodman and imitated his behavior: “Purposefully missing shots in order to accumulate more rebounds on the stat sheet, diving on the concrete for loose balls, temporarily dying our hair for a day with green and red Kool-Aid you know, Rodman type of stuff.” This imitation of celebrities or icons feels innocent and playful, and we probably all did the same when we were their age. Rodman’s actions become the boys’ aspirations as he begins dating Carmen Electra because “Dennis wasn’t considered good looking, so it gave hope to all of us teenage losers that we could date one of the Baywatch babes, too,” but already Buck suggests the recollection of this memory is tainted with contempt. The boys are losers, and this imitation of Rodman makes the narrator feel foolish on reflection. Buck then explores the naivety of these boys, “We all thought we were inevitably destined for the NBA, that was a given, but Dennis dating a television supermodel was an added boost of confidence,” and this evokes a feeling of what is natural to believe at that age. That these boys were going to grow up to become NBA stars and date models “was a given” and seems so normal, as we all did when, as children, we believed we would become our heroes one day.
January 4, 2017 Reviews
By Eshani Surya
Imagine the things you do in a day. See those small moments in succession: walk by the preacher on the subway, bake cookies or bread in the oven, try to flirt with the cashier at a local store, watch Netflix with increasing horror as the clock ticks forward, visit the bookstore, listen in on a conversation in a café.
In his debut collection of flash fiction, Dots: and other flashes of perception, Santino Prinzi walks his readers through daily lives, giving small actions and events weight. Prinzi moves away from the autopilot mode that so many of us exist in, trying to find meaning in what is often ignored. Even the stories that depict more specific and difficult circumstances (like “Calls for Ronan,” which deals with a transgender character and her mother’s inability to call her by the correct name) do so without grandiosity. In “Calls for Ronan” the story is told through phone calls, storytelling that reads as tangible rather than philosophizing. The effect of all this is a delicate collection, with stories that breathe whispers into the subconscious mind. On the inevitable day that a reader is mimicking the actions of a character from the book, it is entirely possible that a sentence from a story will rise up out of memory, and that reader will find themselves reconsidering their bodies and motivations.
For all his interest in the mundane, Prinzi others the experience of daily motions, making them deserving of further inspection. In “Halfway to Fifty,” Prinzi takes on Netflix and the phrase that the website asks: “Are you still watching?” For most, this is a screen we have encountered. We hit “Resume,” and go on. But Prinzi situates this image into questions of age and accomplishment. The first person narrator considers Netflix, then the length of centuries, then Facebook, then suicide, before returning to watching television. In this way, Netflix becomes a gateway for showing how technology ties its users to endurance.
Often, this othering is created through explicating violence. Much of the collection deals with forms of violence, both physical and emotional. This is most evident in the stories that handle deteriorating or unmoored relationships. In “Hereditary,” Prinzi depicts a mother and daughter who both kill their abusive husbands in the kitchen. In “Shelf Life,” Lisa and Nick meet in a bookstore. They follow each other through the sections, using the genres to guide the dynamic of their relationship. They end in Crime, where Lisa hides Nick’s unconscious body. These relationships have higher stakes with this clear violence, allowing Prinzi to show how precarious human affairs can be.
But violence is evident in other stories, as well, acting as a tie between the different parts of the collection. “Little Details” is also a relationship story, but it is the violence of betrayal, as a husband paints another woman’s portrait. In “Burnt Out,” a car is engulfed in flames in the night. Here, a blatant act of destruction is embedded into the scene. But even crueler is how the first person narrator talks about Janet in the morning, with no indication of even wanting to help the car’s owner when it caught fire.
Powerfully, most of the stories in Dots: and other flashes of perception consider the inherent violence in human actions. In this thematic space, Santino Prinzi is at the height of his critical prowess, uncovering truths that most people refuse to confront about their so-called mundane lives.
Eshani Surya is a current MFA student in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also teaches undergraduates. Her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter Online, New Delta Review, Lunch Ticket, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, and more. She was the 2016 winner of the Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Flash Fiction from New Delta Review. Eshani also serves as a reader of fiction at Sonora Review. Find her on Twitter @__eshani.
December 20, 2016 Fridge Flash
In this week’s Fridge Flash, ten-year-old Nikhil Sampath shares an homage to our most important writing utensil, the pencil.
By Nikhil Sampath
In every pencil there is a story waiting to unfold. I as a writer have to let it unfold. When I write I let it come through without any thought. All hail—the Great Pencil.
December 19, 2016 News Digests
Congratulations to Allison Pinkerton, our 2017 Kathy Fish Fellow and writer-in-residence at SmokeLong Quarterly. Allison’s application packet blew us away with its originality and sense of play. We are thrilled to get to work with her over the next year.
Allison has an MFA from the University of Central Florida. Her work is forthcoming from Image, received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train, and has appeared online at The Pinch, the Ploughshares blog, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Central Florida, loves to travel, and is currently listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat.
You can read Allison’s SLQ stories starting in our March issue.
We received a record number of submissions this year—396—and were truly stunned by the talent within. In addition, thanks to the generosity of those applicants that added a $5 donation to their submission packet, we are thrilled to say that we’ve raised enough funds to host the 2018 Kathy Fish Fellowship! Look for more details on that award later in summer 2017.
We’d like to extend another congratulations to this year’s finalists as well: Maria Alvarez, Joy Baglio, Jacquelyn Bengfort, Rebekah Bergman, Hedgie Choi, Tayler Heuston, JSP Jacobs, Ingrid Jendrzejewski, Andrew Mitchell, Eric Schlich, Mackenzie Smith, and Benjamin Woodard.
Thank you to all our applicants. It was a pleasure to read your work.
And Happy New Year to all!
December 14, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Bernard James shares the insight and humor of Langston Hughes’ character, Jesse B. Semple. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Bernard James
The indomitable spirit of Jesse B. Semple (aka “Simple”) was first introduced by Langston Hughes in 1943, through a series of stories that appeared in a column he wrote for the Chicago Defender. Simple’s legacy as a literary fixture was later cemented following the release of three compilations that made Hughes’ original content available for wider public consumption. The first was Simple Speaks His Mind, published in 1950, followed by Simple Takes a Wife in 1953 and Simple Stakes a Claim, released in 1957. Subsequent anthologies (The Best of Simple, 1961, Simple’s Uncle Sam, 1965 and The Return of Simple, 1994) sample from the earlier pieces to form new collections, but the charisma that is Simple and the grace with which Hughes delivers him to the page are no less impactful when viewed through this updated, curatorial lens.
Each story is presented as a conversation that opens a window onto the beauty of pedestrian encounters. Indeed, part of what makes them so beautiful is the ongoing discovery that Simple’s life (our lives) are not pedestrian at all. “Simple on Indian Blood,” “Simple Prays a Prayer,” “Temptation,” “Vacation,” “Letting off Steam…” The titles are succinct, the prose direct and easy to understand. Through Simple, Hughes elevates the ordinary and shines a spotlight on what is otherwise common. Simple becomes a metaphor for profound statements exploding from unassuming packages. Hughes’ abbreviated prose cuts to the chase and by intensifying the mood, brings his subjects into better focus.
In “Simple Prays a Prayer,” the protagonist carries on about how whites would not recognize Christ if he returned at that moment; that they would barricade their segregated churches and sink deeper into their pious, segregated selves. Simple hopes that when Christ does return, he lands in the South and brings anger and vengeance with him. Notably, Simples hopes that “Christ drives the Jim Crowers out of their high places, every living last one of them, from Washington to Texas!” concluding his rant with “I hope he smites white folks down.” When Hughes asks if Simple is referring to all white folks, Simple replies, “No, I hope he lets Mrs. Roosevelt alone.” ntentional, but discerning. Humorous, but righteous still.
In “Conversation on the Corner,” Hughes and Simple talk about everything from haircuts to gambling, drinking, and dancing. Simple claims he drinks because he is lonesome, but the author shoots this down, questioning how Simple could possibly be lonesome given his popularity and the many friends at his disposal. “I’m lonesome inside myself,” Simple explains. Yes…this line grabs at me too; and I keep going back to it, turning it over in my mind. Relating and understanding. Unflinching in his delivery, Hughes understates it like a whisper that pulls you in closer until it squeezes your soul with devastating veracity. Alone in one’s own head is sometimes a challenging place to be. Anxiety. Insecurity. Depression. Hughes plainly speaks the truth of this.
Simple manifests as an amalgamation of identities. He is everyone and no one, yet accessible to anyone. He is available to the masses—and as a technical construct, these conversational vignettes serve up bite-sized portions of commentary and introspection through which the reader comes to invest in Simple’s foibles and concerns. Simple’s observations as presented by Hughes are analogous to holding up a mirror on a typical day, reflecting its typical problems and potential (typical) resolutions.
Simple’s longtime lady friend Joyce figures prominently in his many discussions with Hughes. She is patient to a fault, and forgiving of Simple’s assortment of less than perfect traits. But we soon learn that Joyce has her limits, and when Simple really screws things up, even Joyce no longer finds him tolerable. In “Blue Evening,” Hughes finds Simple sitting on the corner stool alone. He mistakes his friend’s malaise as the manifestation of another hangover, but Simple explains that Joyce has finally quit him. When Hughes offers a drink to cheer him up, the author is blindsided by another surprise. “This is one time I do not want a drink. I feel too bad,” Simple says, and Hughes knows his friend is in serious trouble.
Simple pleads his case, but Joyce is not persuaded. He rings her bell, sends telegrams—phones her seventeen times in a row; and still she will not answer. “You never miss the water till the well runs dry,” Simple concedes. At that moment, he cares about nothing other than winning back Joyce’s affections. Liquor and other women are of no concern; the distaste he harbors for his landlady is of no concern; even race relations and Jim Crowers do not bother him in the face of this unexpected loss. “I would not care if Mississippi moved to Times Square,” he proclaims, which is something, because Simple is fiercely protective of New York and especially the (black) safe haven that Harlem provides. Having drifted beyond the point where Hughes’ explanations carry any weight, Simple has resolved to stand outside Joyce’s brownstone all night, pleading his case and calling her name if that is what it takes. Who among us has not experienced the pain of love lost and the desperation to get it back? That is a condition understood by everyone, escapable by no one, and applicable to anyone.
Novels have longer arcs; slower deliveries. Reading one is like taking a long train ride or a cross country trip. By contrast, Simple’s reflections feel more like a walk home from the corner grocery store—with a random stop on a friend’s porch or a quick detour inside the neighborhood bar to catch up on gossip over a couple of drinks. In Hughes’ capable hands, a profusion of action transpires inside these discrete windows in time. This is a testament to the author’s talents and the beauty of the sensory context established through repeated dialogue with Jesse B.
The Simple Shorts (as I like to call them) functioned as a kind of gateway; priming and preparing me for denser volumes that were yet to come. Flawed and irreverent though he was, here was this likable, accessible character who was plainspoken but substantive in discourse and thought. As fictionalized trough Hughes’ sensibilities, Simple opines on weighty matters of the day, striking a prescient chord as it relates to our current state of racial and economic affairs. But unlike the solemn to somber tone found in some of Hughes’ poetry (A Negro Speaks of Rivers, Kids Who Die, and Suicide’s Note for example), Hughes successfully reaches for a more buoyant plane of expression through the humorous and dubious rationalizations of Simple.
Having grown up in the decaying orbit of Youngstown’s once vibrant steel industry, I was several imaginations removed from the cultural consciousness that permeated Langston Hughes’ Harlem. Nowhere was that more evident than in the mostly Eurocentric curriculum to which I was subjected during my primary and secondary education. But my lovely mother, God rest her soul, was my saving grace. She stepped into the breach, exerted her influence and remedied this lack of exposure. An avid reader with a special appreciation for the canon of Black American classics, she made sure I was introduced to—amon others—Morrison, Hurston, Ellison and Hughes. More than any other, it was Langston Hughes who captured my imagination and fueled my desire to further acquaint myself with Harlem’s renaissance period; and it was Jesse B. Semple who stood out as one of the most significant influences on a young boy’s immersion into the world of black language arts.
Jesse B. Semple was a purveyor of flash long before such a notion had settled into common understanding. Hughes’ capacity for lyricism and his ability to unpack, then distill complex ideas uniquely positioned him to take full command of the short story form. By reducing the framework of each story to a brief conversation with Simple, Hughes imbues the narrative with additional powers, enabling it to punch above its weight. He sets us up to expect and wait for Simple’s gems. Each story is uniquely capable of standing on its own, encapsulating and resolving itself from brief beginning to end; but when taken together, the reader is lulled into a comfortable pattern of elongated time and space; each story building upon the one that came before it and in turn, setting the stage for the next in line. Hughes’ voice and the folksy appeal of Jesse B. Semple are what allow this magic to unfold—from story to story, in the space between collections, and in the reflective silence that follows, long after Simple’s tales have been told.
Writing under the pseudonym Bernard James, James Bernard Short is an emerging novelist, essayist, and poet. His singular ambition as a writer is to produce smart, expressive and culturally authentic content that captures the wide spectrum of aspirations and challenges encountered by persons of color. Notions of what define the cultural and geographic boundaries of the Black diaspora are of particular interest, as well as pieces that explore the dynamics of love, loss and personal transition. James’ work has appeared in sx salon, a Small Axe literary platform, the Killens Review of Arts & Letters, and the Columbia Journal of Literature and Art. He is a 2016 Kimbilio Fellow, a member of the 2016 Writer’s Hotel Master Class in Poetry, a 2015 Givens Writing Fellow, and a participant in the 2013 MN Northwoods Writer’s Fiction Workshop. James holds degrees from Northwestern and The University of St. Thomas. He currently resides in the Twin Cities.
December 13, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is excited to nominate six fantastic stories for the 2017 Pushcart Prize!
Zombies. Yes, this is a zombie story. A stunning and moving one. While “The Dead Are Not Hungry” is yet another sign-of-the-times story about a world spinning out of control, it’s also a very personal story about a father’s feeling of helplessness. And Justin Lawrence Daugherty aces the ending. It will leave you breathless. – Christopher Allen, Managing Editor
Read “The Dead Are Not Hungry”
Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Justin Lawrence Daugherty
Marysa LaRowe’s “Independence Day” builds layer upon layer toward a shocking ending—a deluge that carries the reader away just as flash fiction should. – Christopher Allen
Read “Independence Day”
Congratulations to all of our 2017 Pushcart Prize Nominees!
December 8, 2016 News Digests
Out of more than 300 applications for the 2017 Kathy Fish Fellowship, our staff has narrowed the list to 13 finalists. We’d like to congratulate and honor these 13 writers for their accomplishment.
The finalists are:
We hope to make a final decision about the winner of the fellowship in the next two weeks. Congratulations to all our finalists, and thank you to all the writers who submitted to the contest this year. We’ve been truly stunned by the talent in the queue.
December 6, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is excited to nominate six fantastic stories for the 2017 Pushcart Prize!
Over the next three Tuesdays, we will announce our nominees by posting links to the selected stories and author interviews.
“Sometimes My Father Comes Back from the Dead” draws the reader in so effortlessly. Magic realism is not easy. It can often seem heavy-handed or forced, but Steve Edwards pulls it off with a solid, engaging voice that urges the reader along to a sort of coda in the brief line “Love is a mess.” This is a brilliant example of flash fiction. – Christopher Allen, Managing Editor
Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Steve Edwards
The Apocalypse is coming. Our world in crisis has inspired an onslaught of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories. “The Sound and the Song” is one of these. Letitia Trent deftly uses cadence to create a confused and dazed tone as her characters, an archetypal nuclear family, succumb to the effects of a gas attack. Trent manages to make this apocalypse personal and even beautiful. – Christopher Allen
Read “The Sound and The Song”
Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Letitia Trent
Check back with us next Tuesday for our final round of our 2017 Pushcart Prize Nomination Announcement!
December 6, 2016 Fridge Flash
In fewer than 30 words, this week’s Fridge Flash from Raya Ghosh-Roy follows the journey of a wistful Parisian fox. Showcasing evocative, haiku-like descriptions, “A Fox in Paris” recalls one of the earliest forms of flash fiction–fables–with a cosmopolitan twist.
By Raya Ghosh-Roy
There was a fox in Paris swerving in and out of a dark, gloomy alley listening to echos. It was thinking of its family, back in the misty hills.
November 30, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. Stefen Styrsky waxes poetic on the day he discovered Isaac Babel and it changed his life. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Stefen Styrsky
Isaac Babel arrived in my life like a bolt from the blue, or maybe I should say like a Cossack horde appearing on the horizon. It was at Myopic Books, a used bookstore on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, near Wicker Park, an old neighborhood of odd-angled intersections and flatiron buildings.
It was pure chance, me fortuitously catching Babel’s name as my eyes swept the shelves. The Collected Stories. The cover image: three men on galloping horses, an abstract representation that appeared to be a sponge print; the cover itself helpfully taped at the corners and along the spine. The tape probably kept the book whole, enabling it to travel from its publication in 1960 — through who knows how many hands and boxes and personal libraries — to me in that year of 2008.
I’d often heard Babel mentioned in connection with other great short story writers, especially his fellow countrymen — Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekhov – artists who had developed and honed the story into the shape we know today. Floating around in my head were a few other Babel-related items absorbed over years of indiscriminate reading. There was his observation, so perfect a writerly sentiment it’s suspiciously apocryphal: “Nothing pierces the human heart like a period in the right place.” That his last public words, shouted as Stalin’s secret police hauled him off to the gulag, were, “But I’m not finished yet!”
When I returned to my hotel room that evening I dove right in and read the first few stories from the book’s opening section, Red Cavalry. (Attesting to the power of Babel’s stories, I can’t recall why I was in Chicago, my memory of the time completely subsumed by initial exposure to his prose). I had no idea what to expect. Stories, obviously, but my imaginings hadn’t prepared me for these compact, visceral tales.
The first paragraph of the first story, Crossing into Poland:
The Commander of the VI Division reported: Novograd-Volynsk was taken at dawn today. The Staff had left Krapivno, and our baggage train was spread out in a noisy rearguard over the highroad from Brest to Warsaw built by Nicholas I upon the bones of peasants.
Followed by two brief pages that end with the narrator awakening alongside a dead man he’d unknowingly lain next to when bedding down in a civilian’s house for the night. The man’s face is hacked in two and “in his beard blue blood was clotted like a lump of lead.” We learn that soldiers of the invading army killed the man the previous day, the same army the narrator marches with. The dead man’s daughter, who perhaps allowed the narrator to sleep next to the corpse as a kind of gruesome revenge, asks aloud in the story’s final line, “I should wish to know where in the whole world you could find another father like my father?”
Under a thousand words; it barely tops 850. History and war, horror and pathos, all in one compact package. I shivered with jealousy and awe. Who was this writer and when had he composed such brief stories? Babel seemed thoroughly modern, despite writing about a minor conflict from a previous century. I flipped to the copyright page. The book was a reissue of a translation published in 1929 by Alfred A. Knopf. And so here was not just an amazing writer, but here also was flash before flash technically existed. Before the writing of the short-short story was considered a separate prose genre.
Later, I’d learn from Lionel Trilling’s introduction that Isaac Babel began his career as a journalist in Odessa and often based his fiction on details he picked up. During the Russo-Pole war of 1920-1923 he rode alongside the Russian Cossack cavalry as a correspondent for Soviet periodicals. Bespectacled, asthmatic, and Jewish, Isaac Babel was everything the Cossacks were not, men literally born to the saddle, brought up riding horses across the steppe, who demonstrated outright disdain for “intellectuals,” and possessed a long and deep experience with violence, especially against Jews. Somehow, he earned their grudging acceptance. The thinly-fictionalized stories in Red Cavalry depict the evolution of outcast into tolerated colleague. Most are as short as Crossing into Poland. Only a few reach beyond five pages. So not only was Babel an early practitioner of flash fiction. In Red Cavalry he also stumbled into what is these days called the flash novella: a series of flash or very short pieces that comprise an entire story arc.
But it wasn’t simply Babel’s hyper-compressed style that prompted my reaction. There was first and foremost his language. It’s vivid, energetic and extremely tight. His stories come across as dispatches from the front, reports dashed off in the fire and heat of combat.
Then there are his metaphors which seem conjured from the fevered edge of dreams:
Savitstky, Commander of the VI Division, rose when he saw me, and I wondered at the beauty of his giant’s body. He rose, the purple of his riding breeches and the crimson of his little tilted cap and the decorations stuck on his chest, cleaving the hut as a standard cleaves the sky. The sickly sweet freshness of soap emanated from him. His long legs were like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots. (“My First Goose”)
And many descriptions in Red Cavalry simultaneously combine the horrible and the sacred. Acts of violence and destruction arrive in terms that seem almost holy. Consider this final paragraph from the one-page story Prishchepa’s Vengeance:
On the third night the settlement saw smoke rising from Prishchepa’s hut. Torn, scorched, staggering, the Cossack led the cow out of the shed, put his revolver in its mouth and fired. The earth smoked beneath him. A blue ring of flame flew out of the chimney and melted away, while in the stall the young bull that had been left behind bellowed piteously. The fire shone as bright as Sunday. Then Prinschepa untied his horse, leaped into the saddle, threw a lock of his hair into the flames, and vanished.
The Red Cavalry stories were so head-clearing they became one of the first times I actually studied how an author employed language. From Babel I learned that word choice could imbue a story with an emotional volume that belied its scant word count. Consider how powerful Crossing into Poland becomes with that final word: father. That the reader will intuit much in a story without having to be told. And that metaphors should not merely describe, but also reveal meaning. Above, the images around Savitsky convey the man’s dominating grandeur and beauty.
I revisit the Red Cavalry stories often. The language is forever fresh, the situations forever revealing of new angles and modes of interpretation. And, obsessed as I am, I’ve obtained other versions. In 2003 W.W. Norton issued the Complete Works of Isaac Babel translated by Peter Constantine. Red Cavalry was also printed as its own volume. I bought the 2013 Boris Dralyuk’s version from the Pushkin Collection not only because it’s an engaging translation, but also because the volume is sized perfectly to fit inside a coat pocket, making it easy to carry and pull out whenever I require a Babel fix.
No translation is perfect, but all three manage to capture the essence of Babel’s unmistakable work. Sometimes I’ll play a little game and lay the three side by side, each open to the same passage. Then I’ll try to decide which I like best, which I think comes closest to what Babel intended, where his periods, commas, paragraphs, and words seem to be in just the right place.
Stefen Styrsky is a graduate of the writing program at Johns Hopkins University. His fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Litbreak, The Offing, Number Eleven Magazine, and the Tahoma Literary Review. He is currently at work on a series of stories based on a theme from Babel. He lives in Washington, DC.
November 29, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is excited to nominate six fantastic stories for the 2017 Pushcart Prize!
Over the next three Tuesdays, we will announce our nominees by posting links to the selected stories and author interviews.
Why we chose it: “‘Daddy’s Boy’ is an abuse story. You might even call it a conversion therapy story. We read a lot of abuse stories in the SmokeLong queue; and while they’re all troubling and tragic by nature, few add much new to the story. Dennis Norris II gives the reader a dialogue between a father and a son: the father teaching his boy how to be a man in the first section, the son showing his father the man he becomes in the second. The father’s voice embodies so well that damning voice church-reared gay men carry around with them: I’m hurting you because I love you. Painful and real.” -Christopher Allen, Managing Editor
Why we chose it: “‘Some Cool Heaven’ is a linear narrative: an account of a mother taking her son to the fair for the last time. She’s dying, probably cancer. It’s one of those types of stories that we get again and again, but the difference is that Emma Smith-Stevens’ attention to detail is moving and so intelligent. This story has something to say, and it says it perfectly–in each and every line.” -Christopher Allen
Check back with us next Tuesday for Round Two of our 2017 Pushcart Prize Nomination Announcement!
November 28, 2016 News Digests
PLEASE NOTE VENUE CHANGE BELOW! This event is no longer being held at the Wonderland Ballroom.
Heading to AWP‘s conference? Washington, D.C. is COLD in February. So why not warm up with some dark, steamy flash fiction?
Join SmokeLong Quarterly and D.C.’s Noir at the Bar for an off-site AWP reading “Cold, Dark Flash,” an evening of noir flash fiction. RSVP on our Facebook event page.
Cold, Dark Flash
Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017
The Pub and the People
1648 N. Capitol St. NW
Washington, DC 20002
(Three blocks from the Green Line Metro)
W. Todd Kaneko
and hosted by:
Music by DJ Alkimist
Books for sale, raffle prizes, music, and more! Hope to see you there.
November 25, 2016
It’s been an amazing week of flash fiction giving and receiving. Thank you to everyone who participated in SmokeLong’s #FlashGiving!
We discovered many wonderful pieces of flash fiction, while celebrating and saying thank you to the talented writers who created them. Please check out the hashtag #FlashGiving to read all the stories.
Five lucky individuals were chosen at random to receive a copy of Randall Brown’s Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction. Below are the winners and a story they tweeted to us:
Christina Dalcher tweeted us Ani King’s “Conjugate ‘to be’, using complete sentences,” published at freeze frame fiction.
Cathy Ulrich tweeted us Rebecca Harrison’s “The Slinky” published at Menacing Hedge.
Jan Stinchcomb tweeted us Ashley Hutson’s “The Hen of God” published at The Conium Review.
Voimaoy tweeted us F.E. Clark’s “The Solstice Shade” published at The Molotov Cocktail.
Sophie van Llewyn tweeted us Paul Beckman’s “I Have a Problem” published at Spelk.
Thank you again to everyone who participated. Happy #FlashGiving!
November 23, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Katey Schultz discusses how Hemingway’s In Our Time allowed her to embrace flash along side traditional length fiction. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
by Katey Schultz
We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him. This line, from Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, is one sentence from an eight-sentence story published by Scribner under the heading, “Chapter III,” in 1925. The piece, which might be labelled today as somewhere between a dribble (50 words) and a drabble (100 words), is 75 words in length. When I finished reading the story, I didn’t care what it was labelled. I knew I’d never be the same again.
Not because it was Hemingway, mind you. And not even because the piece was so beautifully short. But because of the verb “potted.” The entirety of the war—the senseless waste, the black humor, the scale of loss that leads to dissociative language—seemed summed up in that one, keenly appointed verb. To kill a human being should never be to “pot” one. And yet…Hemingway potted that soldier, and, as the story concludes, “Then three more came over further down the wall. We shot them. They all came just like that.”
It’s worth noting that I read this story sometime around 2011. The number of rejections for my first book of short stories titled Flashes of War—as of then unpublished—was somewhere in the upper twenties. The rejections I received were filled with some of the kindest things anyone has ever said about my writing. Yet time and again, editors concluded something along these lines, “That said, I just can’t imagine how to market a collection of mixed full-length and flash-length stories. Regrettably, I’ll pass.”
Regrettably, too many writers are still receiving rejection letters like that, and while I certainly wouldn’t want any editor to take on a book she or he felt dispassionate about, I do want to beseech all editors (and readers! dear readers!) that the “problem” of marketing or relating to mixed collections isn’t new and it isn’t a problem. The work speaks for itself. In Our Time contains flashes, drabbles, full-length stories, and various indefinables. I suspect its sales are…well…isn’t it enough that almost a hundred years later, it’s still selling? Trends will be trends. We can never outsmart them and it isn’t the business of art to do so.
It is the business of art, however, to make every word count. Potted counts. Potted takes my breath away. Potted says more in two syllables than 50,000 first draft NaNoWriMo words can say in a month. (Ok, I’m not hating on NaNoWriMo, but I am suggesting that deep work leads to precise word choice, and it’s often hard to go deep and go long at the same time, at least in early drafts, while also under pressure.)
In the end, Flashes of War received 44 rejections. After Loyola University Maryland published it, it went on to win to awards, be required reading at the United States Air Force Academy, be studied at more than a dozen universities and colleges, and be embraced by the veteran community. I’m not saying that to tout accomplishments, I’m saying that to prove a point: mixed collections do speak to the human heart, and flash—dribble, drabble, micro, nano, sudden, call it what you will—deserves just as much shelf space as other genres. If Hemingway were alive today and faced with “marketing” and “platforms” and “tweets,” would he keep on shrugging and writing whatever he wanted to write? Easy answer. Hell yes he would, and he’d pot anyone who suggested otherwise.
Katey Schultz is passionate about short form writing and provides feedback to writers via email instruction.
November 16, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Jennifer Fliss discusses the deliciously deep and ominous works of Franz Kafka. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jennifer Fliss
Somewhere in the middling, flannel, acne-covered early nineties, I was introduced to Franz Kafka, via The Metamorphosis. As someone who didn’t particularly enjoy classic literature, Kafka was a welcome departure. The strangeness and the details left unexplained impressed upon me that part of the fun of reading is leaving something for the reader to parse out – a mystery in form and not only in subject matter. I quickly read through Kafka’s other stories, long and short. And it is in Kafka’s shorter works that I found exactly what I was looking for and what would influence my writing decades after.
Often this style of omission can be difficult for a reader in longer works. When reading novels, my mind wants to grasp onto tangible setting details and storytelling. In really short stories, there isn’t enough physical space for these things and requires the reader to fill in the blanks and work with the writer for a fully composed masterpiece and experience.
One hundred years ago, Kafka’s 775-word story, “A Fratricide” is a very early example of what we now have given the name, “flash fiction.”
The premise is of a man, Schmar, murdering his brother, Wese. The killing is premeditated. As he awaits his brother, we see him sharpening his blade, we feel him hot with nerves, we see what he is wearing; we are in very close narrative distance to Schmar. Also, of importance: Kafka gives us a witness, Pallas, who is watching in his bedclothes from his apartment window.
In this short piece, in a style similar to what we see in many flash pieces today, it is unclear who the narrator is. This is critical. The first line is everything, and is a tell for the reader: The evidence shows that this is how the murder was committed. This means – and I love it – that you can’t actually count on this being the objective truth. This is only what the evidence shows.
In “A Fratricide” there is also some wholly unbelievable dialogue after the murder transpires. Schmar rejoices aloud in the blood-letting. But the words don’t ring true. Presumably, it is what Pallas has reported. And who is Pallas? Kafka asks the reader this pointedly which I believe was Kafka’s way to say – hey, this guy may not be so innocent.
This is all a break from straightforward narrative. In flash fiction, we can do that since flash is often conceptual. Flash writers experiment with all kinds of form and in this way, Kafka does not disappoint.
In my flash, I love writing the intangibles. What can you not grasp onto that is keeping you in the story? Have you caught it in the end? Yes? No? Want to read it again to see if you can parse out the meaning? Because the work is so short, you can easily read and reread it and engage with it on multiple levels and reinterpretations. It can mean something to one reader and something entirely different to another. As a flash fiction writer, you present a stage, throw in some clues as to what your intentions are and leave the rest to the reader.
But you decide. Read the story yourself. It’s brilliant and it reads very modern. One thing to note though is that Kafka was doing it one hundred years ago, a time when James Joyce and Marcel Proust and E.M. Forster were on the scene. These authors were writing long epic novels (Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is over 3000 pages!) filled with rambling sentences with nary a detail left out.
Of “A Fratricide,” others have said the three characters are personifications of Freud’s three elements of personality: id, ego, and superego. And if this was an English class, I’d say: yes, go there. Dig deep. Find meaning. See the obvious parallel to the biblical brothers, Cain and Abel. Look for the layers. But I also enjoy reading this story for the story directly put in front of me. That’s the beauty of flash fiction – it can be so many different things at once.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in PANK, The Rumpus, Bartleby Snopes, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She recently won the Fiction Southeast Hell’s Belles Short Fiction Prize. She can be found on Twitter at @JFlissCreative or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com
November 14, 2016
Celebrate the season of giving with us by sharing your favorite online story!
From now until Wednesday, November 23, SmokeLong Quarterly is sponsoring #flashgiving to show how grateful we are to writers of flash.
Flood your Twitter account—and ours—with the greatest flash stories of the year. We depend on the talent, energy, and creativity of these writers, so let’s celebrate them.
Besides the great feeling you’ll have from promoting a writer, there’s something tangible and square to win: Five people will get a copy of Randall Brown’s Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction.
We will compile all the shared links on the SmokeLong blog sometime the week following Thanksgiving, right after we’ve had our vegan turkey and gluten-free stuffing.
Here’s how it works:
- Choose a story from any online journal (not your own story, not your own journal). You can share as many stories as you want of course (why would we stop you?), but your name goes into the hat only once.
- Use #flashgiving to tweet the link and the reason you love it. Also include the author and the journal’s handles whenever possible.
- Check out other #flashgiving stories.
We will contact the winners via Twitter the day before Thanksgiving. World-wide entries accepted. Winners should expect a direct message from us November 23.
November 10, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Melissa Scholes Young discusses why and how she teaches her students flash fiction as their first assignment. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Melissa Scholes Young
On the first day of class, my students are often cautious. They’ve heard I’m a hard teacher. Their friends have told them I’m fanatical about form and revision. Rumor has it I lecture too much about concrete details: “It’s never an apple! It’s a Gala or a Pink Lady or a Jonigold.” Others warn them to never have their characters strolling through cities without sensory details: “Cities smell. How do they smell? Put it on the page!” My first fiction assignment is an analysis and emulation of a flash form. When I share the instructions, my students begin to snicker. 500 words? 1,000 words? Seriously? Finally, an easy A, they think. That’s when the deception begins.
In “The Art of Microfiction,” a column by Gayle Towell published at LitReactor, she compares the brief fiction form to meals:
“Good stories come in all shapes and sizes—all lengths and forms. If a novel can be thought of as a ten course meal, and a short story as an excellent deli-sandwich. A microfiction piece might be an exquisite chocolate truffle. All are food. All are enjoyable. But they’re each very different. Microfiction is a scrumptious, bite-sized nugget of a story. It packs big flavor and satisfaction into a small package.”
Continuing with Towell’s lovely comparison, I teach flash fiction first because it is a manageable morsel all on its own and it is a digestible amount for sharpening writing skills. Depending on whether I’m teaching at the undergraduate or graduate level, I assign either Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction anthology or Rose Metal Press’ The Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction edited by Tara L. Marsh. With our guides in hand, we dig in to understand the stories first. Here’s the assignment:
Close Reading and Analysis
In less than 500 words, tell us how this story works. Do not waste space summarizing; we’ve read the story, too. Focus on how not what. Your liking/disliking of content or theme is not necessary. Do open with a one-sentence declaration that tells us the technique you’ll analyze and eventually emulate. Use specific text references to support and to expand your claim. Consider the structure carefully. Also, tell us how “complete” the story is and how the author accomplished (or didn’t) so much with so little.
To prepare them for the reading task, we discuss “Close Reading” by Francine Prose published in The Atlantic. It’s delightfully ironic that the essay is actually four times as long as their assignment, but we are developing skills to put flash under a microscope. It’s heavy lifting and we need to build our reading muscles.
After wallowing in how others write micro/flash well, we try out the techniques in our own work.
Writing a Flash Fiction Emulation
Using your analysis and micro/flash fiction choice, write a new story in less than 1000 words. It should be a complete story and the technique you are emulating should be obvious. For example, if you wrote your analysis about the use of dialogue, your emulation should rely heavily on dialogue and accomplish a similar result. The theme and content should not be the same as your micro fiction choice.
Inevitably, because my students are hard working and earnest, someone will raise their hand and ask the “rules” of flash fiction. They don’t like my answer that “rules” don’t matter nor do they find it satisfying when I insist that “rules” in art are meant to be challenged, so I give them a few rules I’ve adapted from “Stories in Your Pocket” by David Gaffney published in The Guardian.
- Start in the middle.
- Don’t use too many characters.
- Make sure the ending isn’t at the end.
After their close reading and emulation drafting, they present their analysis and we workshop their stories. In my experience, most of what needs accomplished in a workshop can be done in fifteen minutes. After fifteen minutes, someone usually brings up their grandma or starts rewriting the story for the author; neither are useful to the work. I limit their responses to three questions and require a specific text reference for each.
- What is this story about? What is the writer accomplishing?
- What is the central conflict? What are the character’s motivations?
- What does this story do well? What might this story need to do better?
Using these parameters, my students write “Dear Author” letters before class. In that way, they’ve focused their feedback in preparation and, like the flash form itself, we can accomplish more in the briefer workshop form.
What I hear most from my students during this assignment is a whining variation of “This is harder than it looks.” They’re right. Flash fiction does a lot more with less. Reading, examining, understanding, questioning, analyzing, and emulating flash is worthy and difficult to do well. You can’t hide anything from the reader in micro/flash forms. Your intention must be crisp. We can see your every move. As my students learn, deception is futile.
Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, and other literary journals. She was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri and still proudly claims it her hometown. She teaches now at American University in Washington, D.C. is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Her debut novel, Flood, will be published by Center Street/Hachette in June 2017.
November 3, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Insurrections author and former SLQ guest editor, Rion Amilcar Scott, breaks down the beauty and magic of Alice Walker’s short story “The Flowers.” Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
by Rion Amilcar Scott
Once I picked up an anthology and chose the shortest story in the interest of time, but neither time nor brevity functioned as I expected them to. I probably read it quickly—I’m sure I did—but years later part of me is still back in the woods of the story with the little girl protagonist—her name is Myop—puzzling over that disturbing thing I saw. My brain is unable to distinguish the action of the story from memory so images from the brief and intense tale come flitting through my head from time to time.” More so than any story I’ve encountered, it doesn’t feel as if I’ve read “The Flowers” by Alice Walker as much as it feels like I’ve lived it.
The story begins with the lightness of a fable, and somehow without losing that lightness, it takes on, in addition, the darkness of a horror. Myop skips through a clearing engaged in a child’s vocation, collecting flowers. And here is where Walker binds her protagonist to the reader. The author primes us to live the story rather than just read it with a series of notes to the senses. She tells us about the “keenness” in the air that makes Myop’s nose twitch. And then she follows it with this image: “The harvesting of the corn and cotton, peanuts and squash, made each day a golden surprise that caused excited little tremors to run up her jaws.” We go from feeling to sight back to feeling. The images cause a delightful Synesthesia that Walker plays with over and over again in the course of the story’s 563 words.
We learn that Myop is ten and carefree. She bothers chickens, feels the warm sun on her skin and with a stick she taps out a song on a fence (“ the tat-de-ta-ta-ta of accompaniment”). By this point, Walker has been so relentless with her sensory descriptions that the mixed sense effect begins to happen without the author even forcing it. The author mentions pigs and I hear them snort. There is a stream and Walker doesn’t mention it bubbling, but I hear it bubbling and I hear the whisper of its flow.
Then Walker does magic. She writes the sentence: “She found, in addition to various common but pretty ferns and leaves, an armful of strange blue flowers with velvety ridges and a sweet suds bush full of the brown, fragrant buds.” And each time I read it, out of nowhere I smell the sweet purple fragrance of the flora in Myop’s arms. The smell passes through my nasal passages and rests on my tongue until I can taste it. It’s as someone has sprayed the air with a floral perfume. Here I usually look around, feeling my sanity has finally come to an end. What is this weird evocation, but a hallucination?
And after this glorious delusion is where things begin to get dark. It’s noon and Myop is a mile from home, a place Walker says is gloomy. The fragrant air is now replaced by a damp scent. Perhaps we should have seen this change coming, right before the fragrant buds Myop begins looking for snakes, the first hint of danger after paragraphs of beautiful carefree images.
Just as she looks to turn for home, Myop bumps into a skeleton partially buried in the ground. Its clothes are rotted away and its teeth broken. Worst of all, a rope lay around this man’s neck. This was no accident. This was not a case of a poor fool dying of exposure. This man was murdered. He was lynched.
Not only does the finality of death intrude on Myop’s carefree jaunt, but the reality of racialized violence. This could happen to one of the men in her life, she realizes. Myop rests the flowers next to the dead man and leaves. In the end, an understated Walker announces: “And the summer was over.” Poor Myop, she can never have summer again. She can never truly experience the lightness of a nature walk again. She now knows too much of the world.
I’ve read this Walker story over and over, sometimes going from the final word back to the beginning hoping to find more of Walker’s secrets. I’ve read it out loud from semester to semester with my students to show how cleanly the story moves from purpose through perception; trying to figure out just how in the world Walker managed to make writing the perfect short story look easy. But often I leap back to not wanting to know, yearning for the innocence of Myop in the story’s first paragraphs. After all, doesn’t it ruin the magic to unravel all the movements of the illusionist’s hand?
Rion Amilcar Scott’s work has been published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International,The Washington City Paper, The Toast, Akashic Books, Melville House and Confrontation, among others. His debut short story collection, Insurrections (
November 2, 2016 InterviewsReviews
According to Webster’s Dictionary, there are generally three commonly used meanings for the word “Exposure:”
- “the fact or condition of being affected by something or experiencing something: the condition of being exposed to something;”
- “the act of revealing secrets about someone or something, and”
- “public attention and notice.”
Katy Resch George’s collection entitled Exposure aptly captures each definition within several beautifully layered stories. The collection contains ten stories of varied length, each story attempting to reveal or expose the characters, starting with the title piece that appeared in issue thirty-three of SmokeLong Quarterly.
I spoke with Katy via email to ask her about the collection, what inspires her, and the literary quality of photography.
Here’s our chat:
Tyrese: I know this may sound biased, but one of my favorite stories in the collection is “Exposure,” the one that appeared in SLQ. What I truly appreciate about this story is how seamless the transition between the characters is in such a short space. Why did you choose this story as the title piece of your collection? What does this story reveal about the collection itself?
KRG: I’m so glad you enjoyed this story. I was thrilled when SLQ published it. One reason I selected “Exposure” to frame the whole collection is because of that moment in the final paragraph, when the nurse is in the movie theater and observes the couple holding hands. She thinks: “… to hold hands in a theater is to say I am watching this movie, but I am also in this life that I share with this person; I bring this life with me wherever I go.” This idea that we contain many lives, or selves, and that we tote them around with us is one that touches nearly all the characters in the collection. Most characters in these stories are trying to reconcile past mistakes, past selves, with their current station, and with their wishes for their future. Often, this process is the heart of the story. To go through it, characters endure a variety of emotional exposures: they have to confront their whole selves– be exposed before themselves, if you will– in order to know why they behave as they do, and what they need to let go of.
Even though “Exposure” is short, it contains some detail that connects directly to all the other stories: a storm, sibling interactions, out-of-season death (and attempting to makes sense of it), making out in (semi) public places, wearing high-heels and its implications about feminine effort, marriage and the power of union, the playing-out of pathologies. There might be more! It was fun to discover those connections.
Also, the word “ exposure” draws attention to a central metaphor in the book, which involves the photographic process of capturing the accumulation of time through long film exposures.
I also think the form of the story– flash fiction but involving multiple characters and circumstances– prepares the reader for what’s coming: a mix of flash fictions and layered, lengthier stories.
Tyrese: Now that you mention it, I can see that thread of a photographic exposure weaved throughout your stories. Yet another definition of that term that is at play. The instant capture of life as we know it, so layered yet so simple is a hard concept to put down on paper, and I think you do this very well. I feel like this is the type of interpretation that only someone who knows about this type of exposure can pull off. Are you a photographer as well as a writer?
KRG: Many years ago photography was a hobby of mine. I satisfied some high school and college electives with photo classes and in college I worked in the darkroom mixing chemicals for the photo students. I loved capturing images but darkroom processes were tedious for me, though I had, and still have, romantic notions about them. I wanted to love it and I so admire photographers who get it.
Tyrese: Along this vein, another story I really enjoyed is “The Last Darkroom.” I thought the ending was particularly interesting as it left me with optimism, despite what we know about the main character’s circumstances and what lies in his immediate future. I love a short story that ends on a positive note, and I find that many writers are almost afraid to do this with contemporary short stories. Do you agree? Can you tell me about how you developed this story and what made you decide to end on such a hopeful tone?
KRG: Wow, thank you. I agree “The Last Darkroom” is especially hopeful at the end. Really, almost all of the stories are ultimately hopeful stories. I mentioned earlier that a lot of the stories show us characters’ efforts to realize a “better” self they want to become. Most of the characters make it, or the story ends with a character behaving in a new way that suggests she is on the right path. “The Last Darkroom” does this in the most clear and heartening way.
I can’t say if writers are afraid to end with optimism. I’m trying now to recall recent stories I’ve read that struck me as hopeful or optimistic and I’m struggling to come up with titles. That might say more about my tastes as a reader than it does about contemporary literary trends. Maybe writers—all people—don’t feel especially optimistic these days, or maybe people turn to the literary arts to exorcise fears or negativity to make room for optimism in their lives off the page. I’m speculating, of course. Maybe authors fear their optimistic endings would come off as saccharine? It could be a worthwhile exercise to draft two endings for a story in progress, both plausible yet surprising, but one grim and one hopeful. And see what feels most true to the characters and what the story needs to say.
“The Last Darkroom” began with the urge to write about people who were alienated and frustrated by modernity, really…people who felt a more “hands-on” approach to life was fading away. This pops up in the story with the darkroom vs. the digital lab, the narrator’s confusion about social media and his love of old cameras, and with his wife’s criticism of education being shrunken and dehumanized by standardized testing. Around the time I started toying with the story, I was thinking about what it would be like to become a parent and the story might be working through related anxieties Not only about physical health, but about new vulnerabilities and what would surely be a encompassing transition! (It has been– my daughter is now 17 months old!)
When I started the story I had no ending in mind—unusual for me. The narrative organically moved to a positive tone. I really loved writing that final scene. These characters, in their grief, had been removed from their vocations, from their marriage—they needed a break. The narrative also needed a break from the pile-up of misfortune, and it struck me as consistent with what we knew of the characters that they could find a way back to each other and their passion, at least for one evening.
Tyrese: What influenced your choice to include flash pieces along with stories of traditional lengths in one collection together? What are the advantages or disadvantages for the reader when digesting the collection as a whole?
KRG: This is a tough question! I collected these stories because they work as a unit to explore the themes I talked about earlier. I think if I tried to break apart “Exposure” and assemble two new collections– one of “traditional” length stories and one of flash fictions– I’d end up with two books investigating the same problems. As a writer and reader I love both forms. My intention was to let the flash fictions offer a more lyrical or formally experimental narrative exploration of themes presented in the lengthier works. Some readers might enjoy having these concentrated shots. But maybe some might find it jarring to go from a 7,000-word story that spans eight years to a 800-word story that covers one hour. I tried to arrange them to avoid that.
Tyrese: Are you working on any new projects?
KRG: Thanks for asking this. I am! I’m wrapping up a novel titled Lent that is about the emotionally fraught relationship of a young woman and her mentally ill mother. Part of the story takes place during the Easter season of Lent, which becomes significant as the young woman, in need of help for a number of reasons, is susceptible to charity that has bad strings attached. The other project is a story collection titled City Park that thinks about how operating out of our fears can make us dangerous.
Katy Resch George’s stories have appeared in Blackbird, West Branch, Pank, Painted Bride Quarterly, and other journal and have been recognized by the annual Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions list and by the storySouth Million Writer’s Awards. She is a recipient of artist grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and Richmond Culture Works. Katy has taught for the English Departments of Brooklyn College and VCU, and as a faculty lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband visual artist Josh George and their daughter.
Tyrese L. Coleman is an associate editor with SmokeLong Quarterly.
October 28, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Christopher Allen shares his experience reading Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” right in time for Halloween. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Christopher Allen
I was in graduate school during the Virginia Woolf craze. Remember that? When all the teenagers were screaming and fainting? Pulling out their hair? Putting rocks in their pockets. Claiming to be channeling Virginia’s ghost? Forget the Beatles; Virginia Woolf was our boy band.
I read everything. The journals. The letters. The essays. The novels. I read Orlando a decade before the film came out. You might say that I dived so deep into the person of Virginia Woolf that it’s a miracle I ever surfaced. Maybe it’s a tragedy. I’ve just reread Woolf’s story “A Haunted House” and am leaning towards the latter. She might have referred to it as a sketch, but as it continues to resonate with readers a hundred years later—it’s more. It’s flash fiction.
We should never ever stop reading Virginia Woolf. And that’s why I’m so happy to have this opportunity to dive right back into this haunting flash back.
One evening—I think it must have been October 1993—I got a call from a colleague of my father’s. He was enjoying a relaxed evening with a bottle of bourbon and he wanted to talk about Virginia Woolf. He needed to convince me that Virginia Woolf was crazy and her writing was a jumble, a bunch of nonsense scribbled down haphazardly for the rest of us to worry over. I think that was the upshot. Stream of consciousness was somehow on trial, and I was its advocate. Because back then we didn’t have caller ID, I found myself trying to teach this drunk guy the difference between reading and writing; meanwhile I had 200 pages of The Wings of the Dove to read. He was under the impression that stream of consciousness writing was unedited narrative vomit spewed onto the page for what it’s worth. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to read, but that’s not how it’s (normally) written. No matter how I tried to convince this person that Virginia Woolf edited her prose (again and again and again), he simply did not believe me.
Virginia Woolf, you’ll be thrilled to know, went through the same process of writing that many of us go through: we jot, scribble, scrawl down the first draft of a story, put it aside to marinate for months-maybe-years, and take it back out when we think it’s right for a journal. And then we edit, and we edit. And we edit. And, it seems, Woolf’s very short stories fell under an even more scrutinizing eye.
Leonard Woolf, from the foreword to A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, drives this point home:
“It was her custom, whenever an idea for [a short story] occurred to her, to sketch it out in a very rough form and then to put it away in a drawer. Later, if an editor asked her for a short story, and she felt in the mood to write one (which was not frequent), she would take a sketch out of her drawer and rewrite it, sometimes a great many times.”
I did not become acquainted with Woolf as a short story writer. Before I read “A Haunted House,” I’d read To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, Between the Acts, The Waves, The Years, The Voyage Out, A Room of One’s Own and so on. I don’t actually know how I ran across the short story collection. It just appeared one day—or maybe it surfaced. It has been on my bookshelf for decades.
“A Haunted House,” the first story in the collection and one of the stories published in Monday or Tuesday (Woolf’s only short story collection published during her lifetime in 1921), is to my knowledge the first piece of flash fiction I ever read, and of course I had no idea what flash fiction was back then. “A Haunted House” is character-driven prose that has all the elements of Woolf’s longer works: tertian rhythms, effervescent language (bubbling, threshing, pulsing), a narrative that mirrors post-impressionism here and points towards cubism there. It’s so dramatic, maybe melodramatic by today’s standards, and a ghost/love story to boot.
“’Safe, safe, safe,’ the pulse of the house beat softly.” Then gladly, then proudly, then wildly. These moments lend structure and cadence (something so important to Woolf) to this story that I’ll read a hundred times and still find moments buried in its two and a half pages. What I find again and again is a love story. An enviable love story.
“A great many times,” Leonard Woolf told us of Virginia’s editing habits. You can be assured that Woolf chose each word carefully. Even if she wasn’t the sanest person around (and who really cares?), she was an editor. “A Haunted House” is a great introduction to Woolf’s style. All the elements are there. And here. And there. Here is a popular audio version read by Tom O’Bedlam. And a dramatic interpretation that’s pretty cool and a bit wacky and which has not received enough attention.
Christopher Allen’s flash fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Indiana Review, Camroc Press Review, Literary Orphans and lots of other beautiful places. His story “A Clown’s Lips” was the recipient of Ginosko Literary Journal’s award for flash fiction. SmokeLong Quarterly nominated his story “When Chase Prays Chocolate” for the Pushcart and included it in SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years (2003-2013). And he’s received a few other nods. Since 2014, Allen has been the managing editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. He lives somewhere in Europe. Find him online at @christopher_all or www.imustbeoff.com.
October 20, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Jeanne Jones discusses Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings,” and how it gave her permission to break the rules of traditional storytelling. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jeanne Jones
When I was in college, I knew I wanted to write, but I thought I was going to be a poet. If you had asked me then, I would have told you I was a poet. I wrote horrible lines in poems with ridiculous titles and I thought I was being mysterious and profound, until my poetry professor finally said, “coughing up ashes again? I think that’s a bit much.”
I also remember reading poems in this class from a book called 45 Contemporary Poems. One of them was Margaret Atwood’s “Variations on the Word Sleep,” which ends with the lines “I would like to be the air/that inhabits you for a moment/only. I would like to be that unnoticed/& that necessary.”
Once I read those lines, I never forgot them. They were everything I was trying to write and failing at, but more important, they showed me just how badly I was failing at it. I couldn’t imagine anyone ever reading that poem and saying, “that unnoticed & that necessary? Don’t you think that’s a bit much?” No. You read that poem and you say: “I’m going to read every Margaret Atwood poem I can find.” If I couldn’t write great poetry, I could certainly be good at reading it.
These were pre-Google days, when making good on a statement like that didn’t mean you had to sit down in font of your computer for the next 17 hours. You just had to make a good faith effort at a library or a book store. My good faith effort turned up Murder in the Dark, Atwood’s 1983 collection of short stories, essays, and prose poems. And nestled in that thin, 110 page collection of 27 pieces was a tiny story called “Happy Endings.”
“Happy Endings,” is not really a story. It’s more of a comment on stories. Or a manual for story writing. Or a comment on life. Or maybe it’s six different stories. But what I loved most about it was its strangeness. It is definitely weird. And back then, when I was learning about story analysis, plot structure, and Freytag’s pyramid in my literature classes, it seemed like a gift to me. A whisper of possibility that I could hear underneath all the different versions of “isn’t that a bit much?”
The story starts with a sentence that is about as basic as you can get in storytelling: “John and Mary meet.” Then Atwood asks us, “What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A.” So you go to A and you get a basic happy (and boring) plot line, with many cliches and no conflict: John and Mary fall in love, get married, buy a house, have children, who “turn out well,” and eventually they retire and have rewarding hobbies. We are told three times in the space of one paragraph that John and Mary’s life is “stimulating and challenging.” Atwood ends section A with, “This is the end of the story.”
But then there is section B, where we move into conflict. John doesn’t fall in love with Mary and Mary ends up doing things no self-respecting woman wants to see herself doing, eventually killing herself. And then section C, where John is an older man falling for Mary, who is only twenty-two. Section C adds more complications, and two more people—Madge and Fred. Eventually we find out that John buys a handgun. And here is where Atwood gives us an aside, saying, “this is the thin part of the plot, but it can be dealt with later.”
Now this was something new to me. A story that comments on itself? Are you allowed to do that?
With every section of this story I discovered a new possibility I thought writers were not allowed to do. In section D, the couple is getting along “exceptionally well,” until a giant tidal wave destroys everything, killing thousands of people. In section E, Atwood tells us we can substitute items in the story. “If you like, it can be ‘Madge,’ ‘cancer,’ ‘guilty and confused,’ and ‘bird-watching.’” In section F, she exhorts us to try to turn it into a story of political intrigue, “and see how far that gets you.” And finally, in the end, she warns us not to be deluded by the deliberately fake endings we may have read in other stories. She reminds us that in stories, as in life, the only authentic ending is death. And she repeats it three times to make sure we get it: “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.”
This story made fun of everything I learned about story making. And it was hilarious. (Atwood says, about trying to turn the story into one of political espionage, “Remember, this is Canada.”) Here was the same woman who had written those meaningful lines about love and longing that I would carry with me for the rest of my life now telling me that fiction writing is basically “one thing after another, a what and a what and a what” and showing me that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can try something new if you like.
I carried on with my tortured poetry for another few years before I decided to write fiction instead. And when I did, I had this lesson as my fortress, always with me as a sort of encouragement. The lesson, as I read it, is there really is no wrong way to do it, and if you’re having fun while you’re doing it, it’s even better.
When one of my pieces was finally accepted for publication, the editor told me it landed “firmly on the lap of experimental fiction” they were looking for. I had thought, at the time, that I had written a narrative with a traditional story arc, but if they were publishing it, they could sit it on whatever lap they wanted. I have since realized that just knowing that “Happy Endings” exists has allowed me the freedom to make up whatever structure feels right for my story.
I recently read that Atwood compared writing “Happy Endings” to “scribbling anonymously on a wall with no one looking.” She believed she had discovered a new mutant literary form and that it was “disappointing to learn that other people had a name for such aberrations (metafiction), and had already made up rules.” I like the thought of Atwood creating graffiti and ignoring rules she didn’t even know were there. It gives me encouragement to do the same. “Happy Endings” was a new form to me when I came across it, and it still reads like a revelation every time I read it.
Jeanne Jones is a graduate of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. A writing teacher in the Washington metropolitan area, her work has appeared or soon will in Abundant Grace: Fiction by D.C. Area Women and online at American Short Fiction, Barrelhouse, and the EEEL, among other publications. She lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with her husband and two children.
October 19, 2016 Interviews
Rose Metal Press is an independent publisher of hybrid genres, including flash fiction collections and novellas-in-flash. For the past 11 years, Rose Metal Press (RMP) has held their annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. SmokeLong discussed this year’s contest with founders Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney to find out what the press hopes to see in this year’s contest submissions and what titles they have in store.
SMOKELONG: Can you start by talking a bit about how the contest has (or hasn’t!) evolved since the first chapbook publication in 2007 to this year’s contest? What goals have changed? What has remained intact?
RMP: The contest has stayed essentially the same since its inception back in 2006. The process remains the same: we accept blind submissions of short short fiction and nonfiction chapbook manuscripts, screen them, send the finalists (usually between 6-8) to a flash celebrity judge, and then publish the winner the next summer in a limited edition with letterpressed covers. Our goal has always been to showcase one of our favorite forms in a format more typically used for poetry than for prose, and to make the highest quality book possible in both its content and its design. We’ve even left the reading fee ($10) the same since day 1, hoping to encourage more submissions while still offsetting some printing costs, but last year we added a $200 prize as well as publication, and we plan to continue that prize. Of course, in the 10 years we’ve been running the contest—going on 11 this year—more places have begun using the chapbook to publish prose, which we think is terrific, and of course the judges and people submitting have changed, but for the most part it’s been pretty steady-as-she goes. In a world that sometimes seems to change too quickly, this is kind of comforting to us—to have this small, dependable thing like clockwork year in, year out.
Our roots with the chapbook contest go all the way back to the start of our press and our goal right from the beginning to find more ways to highlight and promote flash forms. One of the great things about having a consistent contest format is that it’s been a great indicator of how flash has changed and grown as a genre in the last decade. We’ve watched aesthetics change in the field and various techniques and styles become popular. Around 2010-2011, we started to see a lot of linked flash manuscripts come in (we call them novellas-in-flash) and that trend has continued. We even published a book of novellas-in-flash with a study of the form, My Very End of the Universe, built around the terrific novella-in-flash submissions we were getting in the contest each year. This year’s contest winner, Lex Williford’s Superman on the Roof, is a novella-in-flash, for instance, but the majority of the submissions we receive are unlinked (but cohesive, as every collection should be) flash, like last year’s winner, Rosie Forrest’s Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan. It’s a real privilege to have this window, the contest, on what trends and styles are influencing flash writers.
SMOKELONG: What makes a submission stand out? Are there any deal-breakers in submissions?
RMP: It might seem weird to offer a negative definition, but the base level measure of a strong submission is simply that it not make any mistakes, whether that’s a logistical mistake of not following the contest instructions (page count, story length, blind submission, etc.) or an aesthetic mistake (not starting the manuscript with strong stories, having the stories in an order that doesn’t work, having a title that doesn’t feel like it fits the manuscript, etc.). Those kinds of errors are not necessarily automatic deal-breakers, but they do make a contest reader less inclined to keep something in the yes or even the maybe pile. As for what makes a submission stand out to us, we love things that are hybrid not just for hybridity’s sake, but because the piece really *has* to be that way—it’s the best form for the job. In the case of the contest, that means that the stories/essays really only work as flash pieces or connected flash pieces, rather than shortened versions of longer short stories. Many different kinds of narrative techniques and styles can be used to create terrific and effective flash, but the hallmarks of the flash form—compression, urgency—have to feel present and essential in the work. And, we also love things that operate in more than one emotional register, serious-smart, funny-sad, angry-comic, etc.
SMOKELONG: RMP is a publisher, and the goal with any chapbook or standard book is to market and sell them, so are there other considerations beyond the quality of a submission that play a factor when you begin judging? If so, what are they and how do they factor in when you review the submissions?
RMP: As a mission-driven non-profit, we have the privilege of being able to publish books without sales and marketability being our central endgame—at least not in how we choose what we publish. Part of our mission is to expand the literary landscape and to provide publishing opportunities to authors, genres, and books that more profit-driven publishers might not see as marketable enough. Of course, we do want to get the authors, books, and genres we publish the most exposure we can so that more readers get the chance to discover all the amazing writing happening in hybrid genres like flash, so after the editing process, we focus a lot on how to promote a book and how to get it to the most readers and reviewers, which means focusing on sales and marketing. But that’s not how we choose the manuscripts we publish—it’s what we feel like our responsibility to the author is once we accept a book for publication.
We read our submissions blind in order to do our best to not be biased by who an author is or how established (or not) they are. Once we send the submissions to the judge and the judge, in this case Amelia Gray, picks a winner, we work with the winner to make sure not only that their manuscript is in the best possible shape for publication by editing it, but we also help them have the platform (website, social media, readings, etc.) to get the word out about their chapbook. On average, we set up 5-7 readings per author and send out 35 to 50 reviewer copies of any given chapbook winner. We ask our authors to create author websites if they don’t already have them and help promote the book on social media. The more visible an author is when a book comes out, the more readers their book has the potential to reach, mostly because an author’s own community is the biggest initial source of sales, support, and word-of-mouth recommendations.
SMOKELONG: Tell us a little about the 2016 contest judge, Amelia Gray. How did you connect with her? What does she bring to the judging process?
RMP: Amelia got on our radar all the way back in November of 2007 when she submitted a couple of extremely strong manuscripts to our chapbook contest, actually. She didn’t end up winning, but we admired her work a great deal and have followed her career since then. We’re fans of her virtuosity as a writer—her diction, her syntax, her sense of structure and pacing—as well as her subject matter—unsettling, funny, strange, and haunting. Her unique and engaging writing style is showcased beautifully in her story collections Gutshot, Museum of the Weird, and AM/PM. We’re honored to have her be our judge this year and look forward to her decision.
SMOKELONG: Aside from the chapbook contest, what is RMP looking forward to within the next few months?
RMP: This November, concurrent to the contest reading period (November 1 though December 1), we’re launching our latest book, THE BITTER LIFE OF BOZENA NEMCOVA, a collage biography by Kelcey Parker Ervick. It’s about the Czech writer and feminist Bozena Nemcova, who is so famous in the Czech Republic that her face is on the money, but whose talents as a writer, collector of fairytales, and early Czech Nationalist are largely un-appreciated outside her home country. It’s a beautiful and compelling book, full of letters, tales, and artwork, and the innovative fragmentary form really creates a new way of approaching biography and memoir. We’re excited to get it out into the hands of readers.
October 12, 2016 Interviews
Most are familiar with the typical poetry reading scene: a dark bar, an uplit stage, maybe some jazz and finger snaps at the end of some emotionally wrought yet strange, if not cliché, poem. A familiar, yet overused scene, which is why we were so excited to hear about The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series.
Created by writer and flash aficionado, Nancy Stohlman, the FBomb Flash Fiction Reading Series features flash writers and their stories in a rotating line-up with a rotating theme. Nancy reached out to fellow writer and flasher, Paul Beckman, who introduced the series in New York City at the KGB Bar’s Red Room. On October 22, 2016, the Fbomb NY series will host the finalists and winners from the The Best of Small Fictions 2016, published by Queen’s Ferry Press.
One of our blog editors, Tyrese Coleman, caught up with Nancy and Paul recently for an email Q&A.
Tyrese: How did the series start?
Nancy Stohlman (NS): For me, it started as filling a void. I had spent the last six years co-founding/running Fast Forward Press, which started in 2007 as a small press that put out a yearly anthology of flash fiction (back when fewer people were writing it). Every year when we would release the new anthology, we would have a big release party reading. When I stepped down from the press in 2013 to work on my own writing (insert a moment of silent appreciation here for all the small presses working tirelessly for little or no pay), I missed the camaraderie of those events and decided that I wanted to create an opportunity for the flash fiction community to congregate in a new way. I called it the Flashbomb so we could “drop some F(lash)-bombs” and designed the structure with rotating hosts and a focus on community participation. Our first Fbomb was Valentine’s Day of 2013. I was the host and my feature was Rob Geisen.
Tyrese: Paul, how did you become involved with the series?
Paul Beckman (PB): I was invited by Nancy to be a featured reader along with Robert Vaughan in Denver. The talent and the energy were life-changing and it made me want to have something all flash in New York. Luckily the people at KGB were on board with it and every writer I asked said yes. I’m fortunate at the quantity, and especially the quality, of the flash writers in the tri-state area. I either know or know of many of the writers and in turn they gave me other names.
Tyrese: Tell me about your latest reading, who attended, and how did it go?
PB: The first was September 9th with Nancy Stohlman flying in from Denver to headline the twelve writer reading to a standing room only crowd. Also featured were Bud Smith, Gessy Alvarez, Sara Lippmann, Janee Liddle, Alice Kaltman, Jan Elman Stout, Chuck Howe, Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber, Jolene McLLwain & myself. On October 21, Bud Smith will co-host a show from 6pm-8pm with Len Kuntz, Robert Vaughan, Meg Tuite, Gay Degani, Michael Gilan Maxwell and Karen Stefano.
NS: I loved being invited to kick off the premiere Fbomb NY event–it was fantastic! In Denver we’ve had events monthly for going on four years now. All our events are awesome. Last month we had Hillary Leftwich hosting and Marty McGovern featuring, and we have the best open mic in town. I have a background in community organizing, so when I designed this series I knew that if I wanted it to thrive in the long term, and if I wanted to avoid burning myself out, I needed to delegate and share the leadership. I got the idea for the structure from my obsession with Saturday Night Live: Each week on SNL they have a new guest “host” and a featured musician. Because the hosts and musical guests always change, the flavor of the event also changes. I never wanted to create the Nancy Stohlman Flash Fiction Reading Series. So I decided right from the start to empower others to take on leadership roles, assigning “hosts” from the audience and allowing the hosts to pick their own features and take ownership of their “month”. The result has been tremendous variety, from Elvis Luas to “Back To The Future” night to our upcoming October “Once Bitten” Fbomb, hosted by David Atkinson, with non-vampire costume prizes. The hosts, who I always invite from the active Fbomb community, bring in the fresh blood with their features–just as I brought Paul to Denver. It’s a way to acknowledge those who support the Fbomb but also build bridges to new communities.
Tyrese: What are your goals with the FBomb Series?
PB: To make it a must-attend series for both writers and readers–much as it is in Denver. Nancy calls it community building and I’d like to think of this the same way.
NS: So I had some goals/secret agendas when I created this series. I wanted to obviously create flash fiction community, and to community build by sharing leadership. I also wanted a place where writers could learn to be better readers: I have been to too many readings where someone’s brilliant work is lost in their poor delivery. So I wanted to create a space where people could become better readers of their work.
I also wanted a balance of open mic and featured reader(s)–almost all the readings I go to are one or the other, and I like the balance and inclusiveness of having some featured readers as well as the opportunity for community participation.
Also, in rotating the hosts and handing over control to different people each month, I intended to create opportunities for people to become better event coordinators and promoters. I got so tired of hearing everyone talk about how they were “no good” at promotion. So this way the spotlight changes each month, and we all learn how to promote one another and get over that block.
And it’s worked! We have incredibly dynamic events, our hosts all bring their own flavors, we have a welcoming community of features and open mic, and our readers are some of the best I’ve ever heard.
Tyrese: Tell me about the upcoming reading with the winners of The Best Small Fictions 2016. It sounds really exciting. Who will be reading?:
PB: This is an exciting group of readers coming in from as far away as Washington state. The book features 45 stories and will be on sale that night. We’ll have both winners and finalists reading their work. Some of the writers are: Len Kuntz, Robert Vaughan, Dawn Raffel, Paul Beckman, Tina Barry, Amir Adam, Eliel Lucero, Amy Shearn, Dianaca Potts, Ilana Masad, Nancy Ludmerer, Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber and others.
Tyrese: How did this event come about?
PB: This event came about during an email exchange I had with the editor, Tara L. Masih. She was looking for a venue and I offered to find one in NY, preferably at KGB. The manager of the Red Room, Lori Schwarz and the owner Denis Woychuk were so impressed with the first turnout that on the spot they gave me the perfect time and date for The Best Small Fictions 2016. One of the most important factors about reading at KGB is the respect the audience gives to the readers. They come to listen and the chat comes later.
Tyrese: Are there any other events coming up that we should not miss?
PB: I’m presently working with a couple of authors to have their flash collections rolled out in our Red Room and working with other authors to take on the role of hosts during the year.
NS: Every month we have an Fbomb. We’ve been having our events on the third Tuesday of the month at the amazing Mercury Cafe–which is a longstanding center of the art culture in Denver. Our schedule of past and future events is up at www.fbombdenver.com And even if you have never been to an Fbomb before, we’d love to have you. You can learn about flash fiction, hear from some of the best, and even jump on the mic yourself if you get brave.
Another cool flash fiction event coming up is FlashNano, which I started about the same time as the Fbomb as a way for flash fiction writers to suffer alongside the novel writers in November during NaNoWrimo. Our goal is 30 stories in 30 days, and I give an optional prompt every day for those who like that sort of thing. I end up hearing a lot of FlashNano pieces read at the Fbomb throughout the year. You can sign up for more info at my website.
Nancy Stohlman’s books include the flash fiction collection The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, The Monster Opera, Searching for Suzi: a flash novel, and four anthologies including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape, a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is the creator and curator of the Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series in Denver, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Find out more about her at www.nancystohlman.com
Paul Beckman’s story, “Healing Time” was one of the winners in the 2016 The Best Small Fictions and his 100 word story, “Mom’s Goodbye” was chosen as the winner of the 2016 Fiction Southeast Editor’s Prize. His stories are widely published in print and online in the following magazines amongst others: Connecticut Review, Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, Pank, Blue Fifth Review, Flash Frontier, Matter Press, Metazen, Pure Slush, Jellyfish Magazine, Thrice Fiction and Literary Orphans. His latest collection, “Peek”, weighed in at 65 stories and 120 pages. Paul lives in Connecticut and earned his MFA from Bennington College. His published story website is www.paulbeckmanstories.com and blog is www.pincusb.com
October 6, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Jennifer A. Howard discusses how puzzling over the world’s mysteries drives her flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jennifer A. Howard
Sometimes the ugly truth might be that I write flash because I’m super Midwestern or female or an INFJ and don’t want to take up too much of your time. At my worst, I don’t want to bother you at all or demand your attention for what might feel like too long. Performing as an artist with an audience, in which I’d have to dance or cello or juggle in front of you, would be an impossibility. Even reading my own work to a crowd of people can feel like a compromise more than a joy. Sorry, I’m going to read to you for a little.
And what have I got to say anyway?
But that dark feeling really only happens sometimes. Because most of the time, my writing flash, my writing, isn’t about you at all. The world is full of interestingness: right now I’m trying to figure out if the British drink more tea than we do because their kitchen outlets kick out more power and their electric kettles boil water more quickly. Could that be true, and what else in my life would change if my house were wired differently?
This investigation into plug adapters may or may not lead to an insightful meditation on love or parenting or language or time or bodies or habit or gender or history. Probably on its own, it won’t. I’ll have to track down three or four more leads first; post-its around me right now contain notes from Forensic Files and tweets about #Brexit and my nieces’ kid-syntax and translation apps and albino deer and this movie about an astrologer who turns around a 1970s basketball team, plus I’ve got a leaky faucet in my bathroom, which will require some research to figure out.
Because I do not know yet what I have to say. But things in the world need to be written down, feels like anyway, and the fun part is figuring out how to puzzle those irrelevant facts and wishes and gumdrop or grease-stain words together into a handful of sentences that follow each other and land somewhere honest. Often, that takes for-freaking-ever to figure, but how awful is it to be given a mystery and guess the solution right away? No fun at all: I want the game to last and last. I want to work, at least some, for the win.
Which is why I’m so grateful writing flash is not a performance art. I want tangling together a story to take a long enough time, so it feels like a case I’ve cracked, but I don’t want you to watch me guess and guess at where I’m going, to witness every time I get it wrong. That part is private. Here in the tip top of the Midwest, it’s me and a coffee pot that only needs 110 volts to spark and so much delete key and then once in a while a little solution on paper with a title you can take home with you and read. You know, if you want to.
October 5, 2016 Interviews
What’s cooler than flash fiction? Reading it out loud and pairing it with music. Writer E.A. Aymar, a past guest editor here at SmokeLong, and Kimberly Venetz (DJ Alkimist) have partnered on a new project mixing flash and music for amazing effects. The two are also planning on performing live at select events. SmokeLong Editor Tara Laskowski chatted with them about the venture and what they hope to achieve.
Tara: Where did this idea come from?
EA: It’s been a complete collaboration from the start.
I run D.C.’s Noir at the Bar series and thought it would be cool if we had a musical component, so I looked up area DJs and really liked Kim’s (DJ Alkimist) work. We started trading e-mails and she mentioned she enjoyed crime fiction. I told her about my interest in working with musicians, specifically my readings where local jazz musician Sara Jones had provided accompaniment. Then Kim told me about the music she’s produced on her own, and I listened to her tracks and mixes and learned that, while Kim’s mixes could absolutely get a club bouncing, she also produces this deeply personal beautiful music, and it dug deep down into my bones.
I wanted to write to it.
So she and I kept talking about collaborations and getting excited, and I think we both started to realize this could be something unique.
DJ: I had been quietly producing my own weird little tracks as a side project from my DJing and performing and Ed suddenly fell into my world. It just took off from there. No one has ever approached me about doing something like this, so naturally, I was intrigued.
Tara: How does the process work? Do you write the story first, then add music? Or select music and then write a story that fits that mood? Does it vary? It reminds me of those call and response projects between writers and visual artists, and I’m always interested in that collaborative process.
EA: That’s a really thoughtful question and this is going to sound dickish, but I don’t like discussing process. I will say this. The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen used to get thanked by actresses for creating such wonderful characters for them to play. When I first heard Kim’s music, and when I hear her new music, I understand that reaction.
And that’s something Kim and I have discussed—why we vibe. I’m a fairly straightforward writer, especially when it comes to giving a reading. I think it’s because I suck at listening to readings, and complex oral stories confuse me. When I write for a reading, I want the story’s complexity to be almost entirely emotional, under the surface, rather than twisted into the plot. Similarly, the music Kim creates (that speaks to me the most) has an easily recognizable surface, but it’s so emotionally and musically layered that, upon repeat listenings, I keep discovering more.
DJ: Ed put it best when he talked about how we vibe. Because it’s really all about that. And a little bit magic. Our writing styles are very compatible, and as Ed said, we create a whole lot of emotional complexity under the surface. We want it to linger with you.
EA: Check out Kim’s track “Silence,” for an example of a slow, heartbreaking piece of music that’s deceptively complex. You think you’re just listening to a few notes, but other elements are slowly brought in that deepen it significantly, and it transitions so subtly and smoothly that all of a sudden you’re like, “Hey, is that a bird?” And, crazily, it works, and the somber mood of the track is maintained. I don’t know how she does what she does.
Tara: Is flash fiction the perfect form for this kind of thing? Any plans to attempt a longer piece in the future?
DJ: If we decide we don’t want a story to be a standalone piece, then it makes more sense to keep the stories relatively short and weave them all together using music or similar themes. My DJ side can easily hear how all the songs can be blended into a longer piece, like a DJ set or a mix tape, with no dead time. Also, from a musical perspective, keeping the songs short helps me edit and make sure each phrase of my piece is important and not just filler.
EA: I like to keep readings to about five minutes or less, which is probably around the average length of the song. I wouldn’t mind going longer, but Kim’s right; a longer form would be different than that idea suggests. To put it in writing terms, I think longer would work better as a series of interconnected stories or novellas, rather than one fat novel.
Tara: How long does it take to complete one pairing? How many “takes” do you need to do? And on that note, any mistakes you made or lessons you learned along the way?
EA: Probably a month. We didn’t do need to do a lot of takes for “You Would Have a Queen” because I practiced it so much. I rehearsed it over a hundred times, which is a lot more than I do for a typical reading.
One thing I’ve struggled with (and a lot of people do) is talking too fast. I try to slow down, but some of the tracks require a faster pace. So lately I’m all about enunciating. That’s kind of my new thing.
DJ: I had no idea Ed practiced it a hundred times; I just assumed he was pro.
Tara: What do you think combining these two forms does to elevate each?
DJ: OMG, I could probably talk about this idea for hours (but don’t worry, I won’t).
I think music adds life and depth to everything. Try to picture a commercial, or a scene from your favorite movie, or eating at a restaurant, or anything, and think about how you feel when there’s music accompanying that scene versus silence. But I’m not knocking silence; silence is powerful in its own right.
I think sometimes our mind wants to hear the music of a scene anyway, just as sometimes it wants to verbally express the story that seems to manifest from a piece of music. And music affects our brain in ways we are only beginning to understand. If you were to hear a story with its own soundtrack, it’s going to affect how you feel and interact with that story, even if you’re not directly paying attention to the music, and vice versa. I also believe that language is the shortened version of music. They’re just different methods of communication.
If I write a track, I’m trying to communicate something with it. But I’m not the best with words. Ed’s stories ground my songs and give them form and direction, a certain life. It’s a relationship of reciprocity. And the result is something of beauty, emotional complexity, uniqueness, and a whole lot more.
EA: Well, shit, I can’t beat Kim’s answer. But I’ll just add that I make a conscious effort to keep the written piece a short story. It intentionally lacks the cadence or style of rap or a poem, although I borrow elements from each of those forms.
We call this “short stories + music,” but that’s pretty much the same thing as a song or rap. To be different, the written element has to be identifiable only as a short story. So, although my stories follow the rhythm of Kim’s music, and the two play with each other, I’ll occasionally ignore measures just to break rhythm.
Tara: Ed, you’re a crime/noir writer primarily, but it seems to me that most any style or genre could work for this kind of project. Do you have any plans to accept submissions from or solicit other writers?
EA: No, DJ Alkimist is awesome and she’s mine. Stay away everyone. For real, fuck you.
Kidding. We have a couple of upcoming projects where we’re working with other writers in different ways. I usually don’t collaborate with writers, so it’s a little odd. Very much something I’m learning to do as I go. Writing, I’m a loner.
But if other writers wanted to work with Kim on their own, I mean, I guess that’s cool. She makes music that we don’t use for this project and performs on a regular basis. This is by no means all we do, and I expect each of us will be working on different projects in the future.
But this is something that I want to continue doing, and return to. Something about this burns.
DJ: I’m a Scorpio and therefore also fiercely loyal. I have no plans at the moment to collaborate with other writers besides Ed and the peeps we bring in on this project. But I’m also a pretty open-minded person. And I’m always open to submissions of really delicious raw food recipes.
Tara: Everyone always says they hate the sound of their own voice. Do you?
EA: Yes, it’s awful. I worked with two people: a voiceover artist and singer named Art Tiller; and the writer Kim Alexander, who has a background as a radio host. They assured me that my voice was fine. I doubt it. I’m pretty sure everyone I asked was lying to me and I sound terrible. Hopefully the music and stories are so good that no one notices.
DJ: I know this question’s not for me, but can I just say that I’ve always thought Ed had a great voice?
EA: Aw. But, for real, it needs to be, like, fifteen percent raspier. I’ll probably start smoking. You know, for art.
October 4, 2016 News Digests
We have six months worth of updates on book deals, publications, interviews, awards, and other accomplishments from SmokeLong contributors and staff, so take a deep breath and dive in. If you’ve previously written for SmokeLong, please submit your news for future updates via our Submittable form.
Steve Almond (five SmokeLong stories) has a story, “Okay, Now Do You Surrender?” featured in the newly-released Best American Mystery Stories 2016. Additionally, his story “Dritter Klasse Ohne Fensterscheiben” was selected as a notable story in The Best American Short Stories 2016.
A.A. Balaskovits (“An Old Woman with Silver Hands”) has a short story collection, Magic for Unlucky Girls, forthcoming with SFWP Literary Awards in April 2017. The collection was previously named the grand prize winner of the 2015 Santa Fe Writers Project Awards, chosen by Emily St. John Mandel.
Matt Bell (three SmokeLong stories) released the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall with Soho Press in September. His story “Toward the Company of Others,” published in Tin House, is featured in the newly-released Best American Mystery Stories 2016.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty (“The Dead Are Not Hungry” and “Blood”) was a finalist for the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize offered by Lake Forest College in conjunction with &NOW Books.
Kelle Groom (“Jimmy Wasabi, Juan Juan and the Toaster Oven“) recently published six new pieces: short story “25 Reasons to Attend the Gala” in Map Literary, poem “Hour” with No Tokens, poem “Incurable” in Provincetown Arts Magazine, poem “Taxonomies” in Vinyl, essay “Six Ships” in BROAD! Magazine, and AWP panel talk “Blood & Water: Poets Writing Nonfiction” on the AGNI blog.
Melissa Scholes Young (“Storage”) has a novel, Flood, forthcoming from Hachette in 2017. She also published a reported essay, “Navigating Campus Together: First Generation Faculty Can Steer First Generation Students to Success,” with The Atlantic.
Bud Smith (“Junior in the Tunnels”) has a collection forthcoming with Maudlin House in 2017, which will include his SmokeLong story. He also has six new pieces out: “Boss” and “Two Daydrinking Stories” with Hobart, “Reviews of My Life” at Barrelhouse, “Roast Beast” with Maudlin House, and “Grapes” at Real Pants.
Kara Vernor (“David Hasslehoff Is from Baltimore“) has a chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, out now with Split Lip Press. She also recently published two sex ed fictions: “If You’re a Girl…” with Minola Review and “How Much Tongue When Kissing?” with Your Impossible Voice.
Anne Weisgerber (“Summer Baby” and “Flash Fiction as Language Art“) was recently nominated for Best of the Net for her short story “How to Meet Marc Chagall,” originally published in The Airgonaut. She will also be reading at the FBomb NYC Best Small Fictions reading at The KGB Bar Red Room on Oct. 22.
Kevin Wilson (“Blue-Suited Henchman, Kicked Into Shark Tank“) received a notable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2016 for his story An Arc Welder, a Molotov Cocktail, a Bowie Knife, published in Ploughshares.
Managing Editor Christopher Allen’s story “The Air Between Us” is publishing today at Juked. His story “My Little Cuckoos” recently won third place in the 2016 Literal Latte Fiction Awards. His other recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in FRiGG and Chicago Literati.
Blog Editor Tyrese Coleman’s flash essay “Why I Let Him Touch My Hair” was published in Brevity’s special issue examining lived experiences of race, racism, and racialization.
Interview Editor Karen Craigo’s chapbook Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In will be released in November from Hermeneutic Chaos Press.
Staff Reader Josh Denslow was a finalist for the 2016 Moon City Fiction Award.
Staff Reader Sherrie Flick’s flash fiction “Chest Out” was published in New World Writing. Additionally, the Ploughshares blog reviewed her new collection of short stories, Whiskey, Etc. Her story “After the Fall,” written with Sam Ligon, was the first collaborative feature at New Flash Fiction Review.
2016 Kathy Fish Fellow Shasta Grant’s chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home was selected as the first runner-up in the Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest and is forthcoming from Split Lip Press in June 2017. Shasta has recently published stories in Hobart, matchbook, Pithead Chapel, and Third Point Press.
Art Director Ashley Inguanta’s photography is featured in the current issue of Ghost Parachute.
Editor Tara Laskowski’s essay “Why Parents Should Take Their Children to Literary Readings” was published by Publisher’s Weekly. She recently interviewed Christopher Irvin in “On Writing Violence” for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Additionally, Blog Editor Tyrese Coleman interviewed Tara for The Rumpus about her short story collection Bystanders.
Blog Editor Virgie Townsend’s essay “I’ve known two convicted child sex offenders. But I refuse to parent by fear” was published by the Washington Post.
Finally, we are both saddened and excited to announce that today is Executive Editor and 2013-2014 Kathy Fish Fellow Megan Giddings’ last day at SmokeLong. Megan has accepted a position as co-Fiction Editor of The Offing. Although we will miss her keen editorial eye and professionalism, we look forward to seeing the work that she’ll do at The Offing. Please join us in thanking her for her service to SmokeLong.
September 29, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Robert Scotellaro charts his journey from loving Emily Dickinson to co-editing a collection of micro-fiction. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Robert Scotellaro
Communi Territorio: Shared territory
I came to writing early, as a poet, and perhaps in the vanguard because I didn’t need to be born into the Computer Age to have a short attention span. I was a natural. I devoured Emily Dickinson’s short poems—wrote them, dreamt them, saw them in my alphabet soup. I was hooked. Distance mattered. That point between the first word of a literary work and the last. And, of course, what was skillfully and honestly crafted between.
Because I was dyslexic reading was a particular challenge; words, and how they were put together, had an added heft. An extra weight I carried gladly. I read slowly, but voraciously. Short/small was my MO. Short poems, short stories, and the novels (there were many) I read in segments. Short takes. So, I guess, as a writer, I was always a sprinter. As a reader, I relished the impact of literary works in small containment. Brief, but not slight.
Sometime in my early twenties I discovered prose poetry (my gateway drug) and then short-shorts, and on to what was to be called flash or micro fiction. Forms that would become abiding passions. I wrote/read all the prose poems I could find. I was taken with the blending, the annealing of genres. That shared territory of forms in short prose/poetic blocks, sometimes a single paragraph long. Then, later discovering W. W. Norton’s seminal collection: Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas, and Tom Hazuka. And in it, finding Richard Shelton’s poetic piece, “The Stones.” Short, metaphorical, and with the narrative arc of fiction. Along with a plethora of brief arresting fictions that incorporated a variety of strategies in constructing this astonishingly powerful literary form. I was home. Found a genre that suited me, and that I was suited for.
Also in the same anthology, James Thomas (who coined the term flash fiction) asked Carolyn Forché if she would convert her poem, “The Colonel,” from lines into sentences, which of course, she did. It is considered by many to be a quintessential example of this blurring of distinctions between what is considered poetry and what is considered fiction in the very short form.
Now, ironically perhaps, serendipitously for sure, I am coediting a collection of microfiction with James Thomas for W. W. Norton. In the course of our research, we have found many writers of the form who were or are poets. It’s far from a prerequisite, but is a natural enough precursor. In Tara Masih’s stellar flash fiction series, The Best Small Fictions 2016, Stuart Dybek in his introduction addresses this genre bending and blending: “No matter what names these individual fictions go by, this is not a collection of literary cubicles, but rather an anthology where writers locate their work along a continuum of infinite gradations that spans the poles of fiction and poetry, and the narrative and lyric.”
Horror Vacui: Fear of empty spaces. In visual art, it is the filling of the entire surface of
Within flash fiction’s small constructs the opposite is the case. And I like that. “Empty spaces” are in fact capable and vital components—need not be filled in by the author, as in a novel or traditional length short story. Rather, most often, it is allusion the reader places inside them: an allusion to something larger, deeper, more nuanced and telling. A resonance of implications. A partnered, tacit agreement between writer and reader. A detail that hangs in the air, a gesture, a snippet of dialog, something unsaid that swells. A sense that what is lost in extrapolation is gained in the concentration of what can be imagined. The empty spaces do not take away, but add. They are expandable, exponentially so. It is one of the things that draws me to writing flash fiction—its inherent flexibility. The stories are brief and small, but they have borders that do not bind—spaces left open like many windows to a bigger world. And beyond, in those great outdoors, there is fresh earth to sink into, soil that adheres to your shoes and does not kick off easily.
Robert Scotellaro has been published widely in national and international books, journals, and anthologies including: W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International Anthology, The Best Small Fictions 2016, NANO Fiction, Gargoyle, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and many others. He is the author of seven literary chapbooks, several books for children, and two full-length flash fiction collections by Blue Light Press: Measuring the Distance and What We Know So Far. The latter was the winner of The 2015 Blue Light Book Award. He was the recipient of Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry. A collection of his 100-word stories, Bad Motel, is scheduled for release by Big Table Publishing later this year. Robert currently lives with his wife and daughter in San Francisco. Visit him at http://www.rsflashfiction.com/.
September 28, 2016 Flashback SeriesGuest Blogger
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. Writer and professor, Jacqueline Doyle, is the first in this series. She introduces the column by revisiting Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets and Sweethearts, and evaluating their subliminal influence on her writing. Submit your own “Flashback” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jacqueline Doyle
The spine of my mass-market Laurel paperback of Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets is broken, whole sections falling out, the paper brittle and yellow. A price sticker on the blue cover reads $3.95. On the flyleaf: my name and “Ithaca, July 1983.” I was back in graduate school at Cornell then, following a hiatus from my studies after my divorce. It was humid and hot. I had a summer scholarship and I was in love, spending a lot of time at my new boyfriend’s studio apartment downtown, long lazy days when I could read for fun. I don’t know how I described the very short stories in Black Tickets to myself at the time. It would be years before the term “flash” meant anything to me. My boyfriend was a writer in the MFA program, but I was working on a PhD, where we barely touched on contemporary literature. It would be years before I became a writer myself.
That summer I was also reading Edgar Allan Poe for my dissertation, who favored compression, the “short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal,” cautioning against “undue brevity” but even more against “undue length” (his own tales requiring less than half an hour to read). I was reading and re-reading “The Waste Land,” beguiled by T.S. Eliot’s juxtapositions of glittering fragments. I was reading Virginia Woolf, who predicted that women writers of the coming century would engage in new experimentation, introduce new subjects (particularly the unrecorded lives of women), produce books “adapted to the body” (“at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work”). I was reading Adrienne Rich, who was “diving into the wreck” of old forms and outworn myths and emerging with new ones, and Audre Lorde, who proclaimed that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Everything I was reading prepared me for what I was going to teach, and write about, and write myself in years to come, but I didn’t know that, stretched out on the green cotton blanket on my boyfriend’s double bed in front of the oscillating fan. Everything was fertile ground for my understanding of Jayne Anne Phillips, but I wasn’t thinking about that either. I only knew that her words jumped off the page and stayed with me.
I might have called the opening story an ekphrastic vignette, if I’d been asked to classify it, though the word vignette suggests a marginal literary form, something slight. Not a portrait as powerful as “Wedding Picture,” which dives below the surface of the photograph it describes to explore the body “under the cloth” of the bride’s white wedding suit, what we can’t see or hear (“Her heart makes a sound that no one hears”), along with the history we can’t know. When “Wedding Picture” was included in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction in 2009, Phillips voiced her objections to the term “flash” (“there’s nothing flashy or spangled or shiny (superficial) about a great one-page fiction”), but also expressed her conviction that such fiction rivals other genres in importance. “The successful one-page fiction is a whole story in a paragraph or three: just as strong, tensile, and whole as the well-written story, novella, novel.”
I didn’t know at the time that Black Tickets originated in a flash chapbook (Sweethearts, from Truck Press, which I’ve miraculously unearthed in the Special Collections of my university library). But I did sense that the 16 very short stories were somehow primary in Black Tickets, not just secondary to the 11 longer ones. John Irving in his New York Times review didn’t agree. He called them “miniatures” (descriptive, but also dismissive), and “ditties” (not descriptive at all, and derogatory). His largely positive review was suffused with sexist condescension, starting with repeated references to “Miss Phillips.” (Surely not all female writers in 1979 were called Miss X? Or maybe they were. The first volume of the Norton Anthology of American Literature back then included only one woman, Emily Dickinson, whom the critics all called Emily, though male writers were referred to by surname.) Irving opened his review: “Of the almost 30 short fictions collected here, there are about 10 beauties and 10 that are perfectly satisfying and then there are 10 ditties—some of them, single paragraphs—that are so small, isolated and mere exercises in ‘good writing’ that they detract from the way the best of this book glows.” He didn’t discount all of Phillips’ short fictions (“I don’t want to suggest that all of her smaller pieces are ‘ditties’”), but expressed the hope that she’d write a novel.
The Great American Novel, the bigger the better! Phillips has obliged by writing a number of great long novels, but no female writers have been credited with writing the Great American Novel, which is surely a male provenance, even a reflection of the expansive imperialism of American manifest destiny. In a craft essay in Brevity, Joy Castro echoes A Room of One’s Own and Tillie Olsen’s Silences when she draws attention to privilege and the Great American Novel: “Every time we praise a literary book for its heft, we contribute to a kind of aesthetic confusion. The sheer length of a text is not a mark of its literary excellence or worth. Rather, it’s a reflection of the material conditions of the author’s life.” She herself began writing flash, she says, when she was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, living below the poverty line, overwhelmed by student loans and the demands of childcare. “Short forms,” Castro writes, “especially flash forms—are particularly amenable to writers snatching time from obligations. Such writers by definition include family caregivers, who continue to be mostly women, and people from poverty and the working class.”
This time around I’m reading Black Tickets as a writer, and paying particular attention to the flash. The narrative point of view varies (first person, third person, first person plural), but all of the narrators and protagonists in the flash fictions are female, most of them below the poverty line, most of them adolescent and preadolescent girls, “white an dewy an tickin like a time bomb.” They sleep together, drink together, read movie magazines together, go to matinees, tell pornographic and scary stories, sing along with the radio, flee boys, take care of their fathers. A stripper gives her fifteen-year-old cousin advice about appealing to the clientele. “With that long blond hair you can’t lose. An don’t you paint your face till you have to, every daddy wants his daughter.” A junior high girl pregnant by her brother, ostracized at school and at home, dismembers her unwanted newborn. “Next morning she sits in the house alone while the others shout and sweat at a revival in Clinger’s Field. The dogs come in with pieces in their mouths.” In “What It Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive,” a girl with a summer job at a theme park watches as a body is carried out of her dormitory: “One day they carried a girl out of the barracks wrapped in an army blanket. They found her in the showers. Sue saw her rounded buttocks sag the olive wool. Inside there she was sticky.” The collection ends with a longer story narrated by a male serial killer. What does it take to keep a young girl alive?
The flash are both spare and rich, image-driven and rhythmically complex, the language lyrical, but also raw and visceral. In her Field Guide essay, Phillips draws attention to the radical compression and subversive potential of flash: “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I taught myself to write by writing one-page fictions. I found in the form the density I needed, the attention to the line, the syllable. I began writing as a poet. In the one-page form, I found the freedom of the paragraph. I learned to understand the paragraph as secretive and subversive. The poem in broken lines announces itself as a poem, but the paragraph seems innocent, workaday, invisible.”
Irving let his critical guard down and unwittingly exposed himself when he wrapped up his New York Times review with the line, “This is a sweetheart of a book.” The context makes his compliment potentially comic. He’d even quoted the relevant passage from Phillips’ flash “Sweetheart,” undaunted by the fact that it’s a dirty old man who hugs the preteen girls and calls them sweethearts: “Stained fingers kneading our chests, he wrapped us in old tobacco and called us his little girls. I felt his wrinkled heart wheeze like a dog on a leash. Sweethearts, he whispered.”
It’s a warm hazy day in September when I drive into campus to look at Phillips’ chapbook Sweethearts, by appointment, in the Special Collections Room at our library. A California State University campus with overtaxed faculty, low income students, and a drastically waning budget, we don’t have the kind of library that houses special collections, or even many books published in the last couple of decades, so I’m surprised and gratified to discover Sweethearts, long out of print. Classes don’t start for a week, and the campus is deserted, apart from workers in hard hats drilling in the parking lots and raising dust in the library courtyard.
The 1976 chapbook from Truck Press in North Carolina is off white, yellowed at the top and bottom, with the sepia wedding photo described in “Wedding Picture” on the cover. I sit down and read the entire collection, 24 flash, none more than a page, 13 of which made their way into Black Tickets in 1979. It takes me a bit over half an hour, well within Poe’s parameters for the ideal prose narrative. In Black Tickets, the flash are amplified by the longer stories, which explore male as well as female characters (often pairs of middle class daughters and mothers). The men are sad and divorced, old and sick, angry and violent. Reading Sweethearts is a different experience, focused more on the private world of young girls. “Chloe likes Olivia,” Woolf observed of the fictional Mary Carmichael’s experimental novel, imagining fiction in the future that would focus on women in relation to each other and not solely in relation to men. “We lay on a cot pretending we were Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee, touching each other’s stomachs and never pulling our pants down,” Phillips writes in “Stars.” “The Lettermen did billowing movie themes. There’s a summer place, they sang. Where our hearts. Will know. All our hopes. She put her face on my chest. You be the boy now, she whispered.” Summer over, the other girl writes letters to the ten-year-old narrator. “Just because you’re a year older than me, her last one said, is no reason not to answer.” Sweethearts vibrates with the energy of the girls’ intimacies and betrayals. I love reading the flash gathered together on their own.
Rereading Black Tickets and reading Sweethearts for the first time has been a revelation. I’ve kept up with Phillips’ novels, even taught Machine Dreams, but I haven’t thought about Black Tickets for years, or about the graduate student lounging in front of the fan during that hot Ithaca summer, innocent of her future. Pressed to name a literary influence on my upcoming flash chapbook The Missing Girl, I might have said Joyce Carol Oates, maybe Sherwood Anderson. But now I wonder whether Jayne Anne Phillips played a greater role, both her formal innovations and her themes and sensibility, even though I was unconscious of it. The effects of my first introduction to flash may have lingered and reverberated for over thirty years.
The one-page story continues after the last line, according to Phillips. “Fast, precise, over. And not over.”
Jacqueline Doyle’s flash chapbook The Missing Girl (forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2017) won the Black River Chapbook Competition. She has published flash in Quarter After Eight, [PANK], Monkeybicycle, Sweet, Café Irreal, The Pinch, Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence (White Pine Press, 2016), and many online journals. Her creative nonfiction and fiction have earned two Pushcart nominations, a Best of the Net nomination, and two Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband (the MFA with the studio apartment) and their son.
September 22, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from April Bradley explains how her long-term memory loss influences her flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By April Bradley
Hematologists at Yale-New Haven Hospital discovered I had the genetic blood clotting disorder Factor V Leiden as they treated me for massive pulmonary emboli, pneumonia, and a collapsed lung just after the birth of my son, Henry. Since then, I cannot say now how many blood clots I’ve had—too many to track without reference to extensive medical records—but when I was 29, an MRI revealed evidence of several older, small ones in my brain. One lasting effect of those clots has been permanent long-term memory loss.
Much of my past remains vivid—enhanced even. Some memories have vanished, including relationships with others and the details of the experiences we shared. Some memories are entirely fiction—my mind has manufactured them to replace too much fractured time. Some of what I’m left with are ephemeral flashes of multi-sensory recall, a different sense of memory than what I possessed before, strong emotional responses to those of whom little to no recollection exists beyond a brilliant, few moments. I grieve this loss and am grateful for those who are my memory-keepers, who tell me about shared histories and make sense of what’s missing or confabulated. Flash is how I convey this sense of memory and time.
Narrative is time, and “[F]iction is a temporal art form,” Robert Olen Butler tells us in my well-worn copy of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Compelling fictive narratives typically contain time’s duration by introducing a reader to characters in situations who change and grow over an interval in a fulfilling dramatic arc. Characters are beholden to and act in time. They move in a recognizable sequence in a demarcated narrative to achieve momentum within a plot: a beginning, middle, and end.
Flash narratives, especially flash fiction, allow for more elastic experiences of time, and its porous boundaries permit more temporal fluidity and slippage. This impermanence of time in flash is a unique feature of the genre. More so than any other form, flash is a wonderful physics of narrative due to its simultaneous contraction and dilatation with its layered condensation. As I wrote in a blog for Words in Place, “…various elements of flash each influence the way time is re-ordered internally and externally.” We change time; we change everything. Flash provokes writers, readers, editors, pedagogues, and critics to reconsider what is good writing.
When I write, flash is what ends up on the page. When I read, flash is what intrigues and excites me the most. It’s an achievement when I write long, and although I’m writing a novel-length work, the chapters resemble flash. After working intensely with flash as both a writer and an editor, I noticed that the longer-form works I cherish contain flash narratives, worlds within worlds, flashes of stories within stories. I’ve been marking up texts for decades, unaware at the time that what I found fascinating within them was flash.
Flash is not a diminutive short story; it’s a genre with many subgenres. While long-form narratives demonstrate how to accomplish elegant, masterful craft, flash calls for far fewer requirements. What is essential to creative and fictive forms of flash endure in long-form narratives: momentum, resonance, immediacy, emotion, weight, pace, tension, language, effect, setting, character, theme, voice, subtext, force, but not necessarily all at once and certainly not in a hierarchy. Compression, concentration, and brevity work in tension to unfold a sense of story that endures beyond the flash, a literary Big Bang. The rules of shifting perspective, time and tense, character arc, plot, and setting, aren’t merely flexible in flash, they are different. Flash resists confinement beyond its forms and structures while challenging our vocabularies and aesthetics to describe and define it.
One evening when I was first hospitalized for the clots in my lungs after Henry was born, my physician told my then-husband, Peter, not to leave the ward because she was uncertain I would make it through the night. She spoke, he tells me, in terms of “if April gets through this,” not “when.” I recall only brief moments from a morphine haze and wasn’t aware of how ill I was: a coven of doctors in white coats surrounding me; my friend Allison sitting next to the bed; my neighbor, a med student, talking to me in an elevator while I was going to radiology; speaking with my sister on the telephone; a mercury thermometer reading 106 degrees; my grandmother holding my hand. For years I thought Peter and I stopped for Thai at my favorite place on York Street after I was released. The memory of our meal there is especially detailed but brief. However, it did not happen. When I mentioned the meal a few years ago, Peter was floored that I thought he would do anything but take me directly home: “You nearly died!” All the more reason to eat Thai food, my mind must have determined. A flash fiction of my own.
My experience, my own narrative—my life, my writing—especially regarding memory and time, is flash. The numerous clotting from Factor V Leiden altered my body, mind, history, and relationships. The unexpected and fearsome gave way to something marvelous: I discovered flash.
April Bradley is the Associate Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Literary Magazine, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Narratively, and Thrice Fiction, among others. Find her at aprilbradley.net and at @april_bradley.
September 15, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
In honor of the release of The Best Small Fictions 2016, this week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from collection contributor Rosie Forrest examines the hidden life within flash stories. Buy The Best Small Fictions 2016 online at Amazon, and learn more about the collection on the Queen’s Ferry Press website.
By Rosie Forrest
I did not know my grandfathers. The one who worked with wood died long before I was born, and the one who welded steel passed away when I was three. I do remember that second grandfather lying in a hospital room after his heart attack. An orange door with a rectangle of tempered glass sat way above my head, but if I jumped high enough, I could see all the white inside his room—a hollow cloud—and his small frame so far back from the door, he looked like a doll. I bounced and bounced until a nurse told me to quit it, to find a chair and draw.
A black frame hangs on my bedroom wall, a shadow box with a glass pane that opens on a hinge and a back made of pincushion. I’ve had this frame for years, a gift from a friend, who knows my penchant for small things. Over the years I’ve filled it with photographs and pieces of dress fabric, notecards and postcards and stamps, and strange little nothings that buzz with meaning when I hold them. When I move to a new location (and this has happened often), I empty the box and fill it again. I won’t call it a ritual, but it has become a habit, preserving miniature worlds behind glass.
There’s a mid-twentieth century artist, Joseph Cornell, who is famous for his shadow boxes, small structures with images and trinkets inside that convey a story larger than the actual thing. He is known for juxtaposition, layering cinema references on top of celestial ones; birds and children appear to float nearly out of view, and objects dot the landscape with precision and purpose. Most of his work went untitled, and critical essays often point to his art as a metaphor for a reclusive, basement life, but who doesn’t want to shrink themselves down and wander inside these perfect capsules?
Padlocked or lidless, ceramic or cardboard, boxes of all sizes give shape to space and what lies within; they create hierarchies, definition, contradiction, and silence.
Sometimes I like to imagine that I’m from a long line of craftsmen who work in miniature, the same way I can drop my Italian heritage into conversation or map the generations of tailors on my father’s side. I think about the ways tiny secret things entertained my only-child brain, handwritten code for a made-up language, closets as reading nooks and bottom bunks as hideaways draped with bed sheet curtains. A metal case, purple with my name in fat letters, sat for years on my nightstand. It held folded paper fortune tellers, a geode pendant, a photograph of my grandmother, five dollar gift certificates for McDonald’s (from my grandmother), a cassette tape of songs recorded off the radio, and probably some puffy stickers.
In elementary school, fish became my obsession, and fish tanks—boxes of sorts—were places where little realms bubbled with life. It began with a goldfish (it so often does) from the county fair, who went belly up within a week. Then, a blue beta fish came home with me from a strip mall pet store, disgusted by his eight ounce glass bowl as one should be. For my twelfth birthday I got a hexagonal tabletop tank for my dresser and filled it with fake plants and dozens of small fish, until I’d cramped a habitat for the fish to navigate. I bought the monster 20-gallon fish tank from the classifieds with my allowance. It had its own stand, and the silver hatchet fish skimmed the top, flinging themselves into the air if the lid was off for feeding. The lights flickered and the filter growled at night. I could barely sleep.
I’m drawn to flash fiction the way I’m drawn to ghost stories, as if each story has a life of its own—unaffected by external happenings. There’s so much that we never see, and I’m lucky to spend a few minutes inside, to catch a glimpse of something that captivates, holds, then carries on without me. The flash in flash fiction is not a fried fuse. These stories with their three-digit word counts and five-minute readings are defined by their length—of course they are—but in short we don’t have less; in brief, we don’t have flat. It’s not an interrupted line. It’s fully embodied with texture and heart.
I’ve been asked if I like to pillage thrift stores because they make frequent appearances in my stories, that and a plethora of yard sale items, toys and wicker rocking chairs, teacups, and old radios. For me, this is the stuff of the story, the tangible wood and iron that smell like a life and give history to a grand or almost nothing moment. The stuff is magnetic and reflective; the stuff must be handled or ignored; and the stuff creates architecture within a clip of time. But the stories themselves are objects too, and I wonder if I approach flash not like a poem or a traditional short story but like a forbidden room, a Cornell box, a glass bowl that hums with dissonance, or at the very least, uncertainty.
For the multitudes, for the minutia, flash fiction lifts the lid, pops open a corner and invites the reader to peer in. The diorama can be so fragile that you hold your breath, but if you do away with daintiness and instead Alice-in-Wonderland your whole self inside, the enormity dwarfs you, becomes magnificent and dangerous; you hardly know where to look first.
Rosie Forrest is the winner of the 9th Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest, and her flash fiction has been published with Literary Orphans, Hobart, Wigleaf, Word Riot, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. She was the writer-in-residence with Interlochen Arts Academy and holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire. Now in Nashville, Rosie oversees the adolescent programs with Vanderbilt Programs for Talented Youth. You can find and follow her @rosieforrest and rosieforrest.com.
September 13, 2016 Reviews
By Eshani Surya
Joy Williams gives her Antigone Bookstore reading with sunglasses perched on her face, though it is evening and we are inside. Perhaps this is enough to give a sense of the confidence that Williams exudes and lends to her collection of stories. Outside, Tucson rumbles on a Friday night—I can hear the streetcar honking, music blaring from the cars that whiz by a little too fast, patrons making their way to the bars on 4th Ave. This is the land of college students back from summer break just a few weeks ago. But Williams’s voice keeps a steady, calm pace as she reads the micro-fictions that make up Ninety-Nine Stories of God.
She ends her reading with one of my favorite stories, number 98. In it, the Lord—a recurring character throughout the volume—tries to adopt a tortoise. The Lord asks, “May I have two?” He is denied for fear that the tortoises will breed. He is told to find a square of grass from Home Depot. On the way home, both the Lord and the tortoise brood about “this adoption business.” The title, “A New Arrangement,” comes at the end of the story, as all the titles in this collection do.
How ridiculous this premise sounds, and yet what Williams achieves in one succinct story is mighty. In this story and throughout the book, Williams considers human institutions/social niceties, benevolence, and control. She asks what constitutes as God’s intervention? What makes up a story of God? Where is God in stories of tragedy?
Even with the heavier questions, the stories—ranging in length from a few sentences to a few pages—are funny, even funnier when read aloud, as evidenced by the raucous laughter in the bookstore, where Williams is able to make every line a joke just by the weight she gives each word. And she likes making people laugh—I can tell, because when they laugh, she smiles a little below the sunglasses. Humor is integral to this collection; it keeps the stories fun and allows them to explore strangeness, like the Lord never being able to come up with twelve guests for His dinner parties (from number 31). Williams’s descent into peculiarity heightens some of her thematic preoccupations: loneliness, discomfort, imperfection.
This isn’t to say all the stories work. Some don’t quite come together, like 18, which includes drawing of a rolled up tarpaulin and explains that the drawing is not a maze. These are the stories that read like good beginnings or witty one-off observations. With these, the title, which often works as a punch line, doesn’t seem to add much. One might be left asking, “Well, so what?” And sometimes the perfection of each line feels too manufactured, too measured. The distance does make sense for a collection that is about looking at faith, miracles, and the relationship humans have with God and the natural world, but it can also lack energy. Generally, the best stories are the ones that include the Lord, a grounding character who is puzzled by his own creations. The detached tone—one of matter-of-fact confusion—serves these stories the best, by giving a satirical edge to anything the Lord observes.
Still, Joy Williams is a master of language and sentence construction, and for that reason alone it would be worth picking up this collection. Past that, one can enjoy the challenge of encountering the divine in the mundane and the mundane in the divine. Though the book could easily be read in one sitting, a better reading experience would likely be reading a few of the stories at a time, as a sort of amuse-bouche before sleep.
Eshani Surya is a current MFA student in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also teaches undergraduates. A former Associate Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter Online, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, First Class Lit, and Minetta Review. Eshani also serves as a reader of fiction at Sonora Review. Find her on Twitter @__eshani.
September 7, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong is pleased to announce the addition of two editors and two readers to its staff. Please join us in welcoming them.
Tyrese Coleman is SmokeLong’s new associate blog editor. Tyrese is a writer, wife, mother, attorney, and fiction editor for District Lit, an online journal of writing and art. A 2016 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a nonfiction scholar at Virginia Quarterly Review’s 2016 Writers’ Conference, her prose has appeared in several publications, including PANK, Buzzfeed, The Rumpus, Hobart, Washingtonian Magazine, and listed in Wigleaf’s Top 50 (very) short fictions. More information on her and her writing can be found at tyresecoleman.com. A story Tyrese loves: “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid.
Sherrie Flick is a SmokeLong staff reader. Sherrie is a long-time contributor to SmokeLong and the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness, the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting, and the short story collection Whiskey, Etc. Her work has appeared in Flash Fiction Forward, New Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction Funny, Flashed: Sudden Stories in Prose and Comics, You Have Time For This, Sudden Stories: The Mammoth Book of Minuscule Fiction, and The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in the MFA and Food Studies programs at Chatham University. A story Sherrie loves: “The Coat” by Lex Williford.
Huan Hsu is a SmokeLong staff reader. Born in the Bay Area and raised in Salt Lake City, Huan is the author of The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China. As a staff writer for the Washington City Paper in Washington, DC, and the Seattle Weekly, he won two Society of Professional Journalists awards and received recognition from the Casey Foundation for Meritorious Journalism. His essays and fiction have appeared in Slate, The Guardian, The Literary Review, and Lucky Peach. He received his MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and currently lives in Amsterdam where he teaches journalism and creative writing at Amsterdam University College. A story Huan loves: “Fish Were Drowning” by Zeynep Ozakat.
Meghan Phillips joins SmokeLong as the associate editor for social media and marketing. Her flash has appeared or is forthcoming in Corium Magazine, Maudlin House, Chicago Literati, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and WhiskeyPaper. Meghan is the fiction editor for Third Point Press. She lives in Lancaster, PA, and tweets @mcarphil. A story Meghan loves: “This Whole Majestic Thing” by Anna Lea Jancewicz.
September 6, 2016 Reviews
By Marie Schutt
My first unwitting introduction to flash fiction, or something like it, was when I picked up Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories as a bored teenager. Though he’s best known for his novels—Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, Beauty and Sadness, among others—Kawabata wrote his “palm-of-the-hand” stories (a term he coined) over fifty-odd years. They span his writing career and are, as is written in the introduction of my edition of the collection, where the “essence of his art was to be found.”
That book changed what little I understood then about reading and writing fiction, and has continued to shape my approach to writing more than ten years later. Most importantly, it showed me how much of a story can live off of the page, even when its printed attachment to this world counts for less than 1,000 words.
Some of the stories are surreal (“Goldfish on the Roof,” haunts with its carp-invaded mirrors and mothers) some are quick “slice of life” vignettes (the autumnal “The Silverberry Thief” is a personal favorite) and others span months or years of characters’ lives (“The White Flower”). They all, in only so many words, project entire worlds of hope, curiosity, dread, regret, and nostalgia, populated by complex and familiar characters.
“Goldfish on the Roof,” written in 1926, is one story I’ve revisited, and grappled with, multiple times in the years since I first read it.
The story’s protagonist is Chiyoko, a young woman whose father is Japanese and whose mother was a “concubine in Peking.” She is haunted by her heritage and an expressive mirror hanging opposite her bed. Distressing visions appear there: apparitions of the goldfish her father raises in tubs on the roof. “Her mind was worn down like a phonograph needle because of the clarity of these visions.”
Those goldfish become a family obsession. Initially a hobby of her father’s, they eventually become Chiyoko’s responsibility. “Growing more and more melancholy by the day, she did nothing but gaze at them.” Suitors come and go, but all Chiyoko asks of them is to fetch her some water fleas to feed the fish:
“‘Where can I find them?’
“‘You might look around in a ditch.’”
When she is twenty-six, Chiyoko’s father dies and disowns her in his will. Upon hearing the news, a few things happen to her in rapid succession. She sees her mother in the mirror, and then runs to the roof to confront her.
“Where had she come from? And when? Her mother was standing by the fish tank, her face dark. Her mouth was full of lionhead fish. The tail of one of them dangled from her mouth like a tongue. Though the woman saw her daughter, she ignored her as she ate the fish.”
What happens next disturbs and disappoints me on two levels: 1. Chiyoko pushes her mother to her death, and 2. Kawabata abruptly follows that powerful passage up with a literal “and then she lived happily ever after” to end the piece:
“With this, Chiyoko was freed from her mother and father. She regained her youth and set out on a life of happiness.”
This tightly written and emotionally complex story deserves a much more effective ending than that. The reader is shunted from a potent and lingering image – “Her mother tumbled against the glazed brick and died with the goldfish in her mouth” – to this bland and unconvincing non-ending, which feels as though it was tacked on as an afterthought. As though, what the hell, maybe Chiyoko deserves a little something for all her suffering, after all.
This is why I love and hate “Goldfish on the Roof.”
I love it for its weirdness, for its tense layering of family dynamics, for its dreamlike descriptions, for allowing Chiyoko and her world to be formed out of a masterful give and take of dark and light rather than hard-drawn lines and character clichés – and for accomplishing all of this in a little over 1,000 words. The same things that I love about many of Kawabata’s stories.
I hate it for that ending. An ending, I feel, that betrays the reader, and undermines everything that the story had achieved leading up to those last few lines.
Kawabata’s stories were my first lessons in economy of language. The “palm-of-the-hand stories” occupy small spaces, but possess limitless expansive power, and that unexpected power of evocation blew open my early notions of how storytelling could—and should—be achieved. This was a precious thing for a young aspiring writer to discover.
But, no artist is perfect. Everyone misses the mark sometimes, and I think the reason that “Goldfish on the Roof” has remained important to me is that it embodies both the best and the worst of what I’ve encountered in flash fiction: captivating storytelling with the power to thoroughly immerse the reader in a small space, and an awkward, unsuccessful attempt to give closure to that story within the same space.
Compressing the space and the time in which we get to tell a story magnifies every stylistic choice, forces us to whittle the story down to its essentials. That is, ultimately, the thing that pulls me to flash fiction: it demands the essentials. Kawabata’s stories make their own demands, and sometimes they aren’t met. But I have learned to value those stories as much as any other, because their imperfection offers a glimpse into the workings of a great author’s craft that no engaged writer can afford to ignore.
Marie Schutt is a writer and editor based in Chicago. She edits Liminoid Magazine, which is launching its fifth issue in October 2016. Her fiction can be found in Sundog Lit. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.
August 25, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Mark Budman muses on his journey toward writing flash in a second language. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Mark Budman
Everyone who ever put together the words “flash” and “fiction” knows that the resulting term describes a very short genre of literature. Even I, who was born in the former Soviet Union and came to this country as an adult, knew that when I was learning English as a second language. I figured that while my ambitions were gigantic, my vocabulary was small, my time limited, and my patience virtually non-existent, I still could write flash fiction.
Since I knew what a subordinate clause was and could use a semicolon and other punctuation marks correctly, I reasoned I could write something short—a relatively easy task even for a recent immigrant and a student of English.
I concocted my first flash, full of wisdom, punctuation marks (including a healthy dosage of semicolons), and long strings of subordinate clauses, but short on definite and indefinite articles that are absent in Russian, and promptly mailed the story to The Atlantic. They didn’t take it. I was offended. I called them and asked in my halting English, “vai not?” I don’t remember exactly what they said. It was an intern who answered the phone, so she may not have had much editorial wisdom to share. But I sat down and figured out what she was supposed to say.
She was supposed to say that while the renown writers like Dan Brown and the bestselling author of too Many Shades of Gray can and do sacrifice individual sentences on the altar of the plot, the flash writer cannot. Every word counts and every sentence is king. It’s like a stone arch where every stone is the keystone. If you remove one shade of gray, 49 will still hold its light-to-non-existent weight. If you remove the keystone from the flash, it will collapse.
So I listened to the intern, sat down and wrote “And Counting.” A story that is intense, concentrated and full of hope in the face of mortal danger.
The flash fiction I like is layered. First goes the simple, surface meaning. Boy loves girl but she loves another girl. Dig deeper and you discover allusions and clues. Words have multiple meanings that create hidden connections between the protagonists and actions. Maybe things or characters’ reaction to them are not what they seem or are open to interpretations? Maybe this love is far from what we expect? Maybe the boy and the girl are the same person? Maybe the boy loves the girl to death and maybe the other girl is death incarnated? Maybe the reader needs to cooperate with the author to resolve the story’s hidden mysteries? I sought to achieve this kind of effect in my own story, “All Points East.”
Even this short essay contains some word play. Is it complete without them? Probably. Can we have a garden without flowers? I guess so. Is it complete? I doubt it.
Flash fiction. If you don’t have time to read them, then fine literature is in trouble. Worse yet, you are. That can be said and understood in any language, from the first to infinity. So, do yourself a favor. Read flash. You have time for this.
Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union. His writing appeared in PEN, American Scholar, Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Daily Science Fiction, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine, McSweeney’s, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou’wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Flash Fiction Forward, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, Short Fiction, and elsewhere. He publishes Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press, and he is at work on a novel about Lenin running for president of the United States.
August 18, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
In this week’s installment of “Why Flash Fiction?”, Ashley Chantler, co-director of the International Flash Fiction Association (IFFA), looks back at his path-breaking (and occasionally potholed) essay “Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story.” Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Ashley Chantler
Ten years ago, in 2006, I rather rashly offered to deliver a conference paper titled “The Short-Short Story.”
I was inspired to do so because I was a fan of the 101-worders in Dan Rhodes’s Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories (2000), particularly “Innocence”:
I thought my beautiful fiancée was innocence itself until I met her parrot. She had taught it to say terrible things. Wank. Minge. Fist fuck. Stick it up your Jap’s eye. I was disillusioned to find she had taken such delight in training an unknowing bird to swear. My love diminished, but I didn’t cancel the wedding. The parrot was in the church. When the man asked whether anyone knew a reason for us not to marry, it squawked, “Cunt flaps.” My bride bent double with laughter, and even though we made our vows I knew that the marriage was over.
I also liked some of the 55-worders in Steve Moss and John M. Daniel’s anthology The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death (1999), especially Shannon O’Rourke’s “Easy Come, Easy Go” (about which, more soon). I figured that writing the paper would help me better understand the short-short story form. It did – sort of.
A year or so after the conference, I developed my paper into an essay, “Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story,” which was published in The Short Story (2009), edited by Ailsa Cox. My (necessarily hasty) research discovered eighteen anthologies and collections, which I listed in a section titled “Towards a Bibliography of the Short-Short Story” (my repeated use of “Towards,” stolen from T. S. Eliot, was a cunning attempt to pre-empt charges of incompleteness). I suspected that there could have been more, but the essay was overdue. I’d listed everything that Google had to offer and I had teaching preparation to do.
At the conference, it was pleasing (relieving) that my audience, like me, knew very little about short-short stories. (After I’d delivered my paper, a professor of creative writing, perhaps feeling the need to say something, asked if all short-shorts are misogynistic. The parrot had not amused.) If I delivered the paper today, I could cut the explanations of what a short-short is and get to the close reading much sooner.
In 2007, I edited An Anatomy of Chester: A Collection of Short-Short Stories.
In 2008, I founded, with my colleague Peter Blair, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, which has established itself as the world’s leading periodical of quality short-short stories and serious reviews of flash-fiction anthologies, collections, novels, guidebooks, and critical studies.
We have been interviewed by Grant Faulkner for 100 Word Story and have published interviews of two of Britain’s leading flashers, David Gaffney and Vanessa Gebbie.
In 2015, we launched Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press with the publication of David Swann’s Stronger Faster Shorter: Flash Fictions, followed soon after by Meg Tuite’s Lined Up Like Scars: Flash Fictions. We also founded, in 2015, the International Flash Fiction Association (IFFA). We run the National Flash Fiction Youth Competition, and have been judges on several other competitions. We have given readings at various venues and talks to several schools. Our own flashes have been published in anthologies and magazines.
We teach flash fiction on the BA and MA Creative Writing programmes at the University of Chester.
At Chester, we have also established the Flash Fiction Special Collection, the world’s largest archive of short-short anthologies, collections, magazines, and secondary texts. My 2009 essay listed eighteen books in its bibliography; the collection, to date, has swelled to nearly 500.
In the light of the vastly increased popularity of flash fiction and what I now know about the form, I am going to return to “Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story,” quoting from it and offering updated responses.
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story” began as “The Short-Short Story.” Beginnings are often optimistic. In the middle of my research, feeling pessimistic and mortal after reading so much brevity, I placed “Notes Towards a Definition of the Short-Short Story” at the top of the page. Blankness was to follow. A Tristram Shandyesque essay? A Dave Eggersesque short story? Both? I did not know, but of course had to, Unnamable-like, go on, to fill the page, to banish the silence for better or worse.
What follows, then, is “Notes Towards the …,” a study of the short-short story tinged with the optimism that “The Short-Short Story” might one day be written and the pessimism that it will not be by me.
Since my essay, much has been written about flash fiction. Read together, the following constitute a very good “The Short-Short Story: A Survey of the Form”:
Blair, Peter, “Flash Fiction,” in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2016 (2015).
Casto, Pamelyn, “Flash Fiction,” in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading: Volume 2: E–M, ed. Kenneth Womack (2008).
Hazuka, Tom, “The Short-Short Story,” in Behind the Short Story: From First to Final Draft, ed. Ryan G. Van Cleave and Todd James Pierce (2007).
Masih, Tara L., “Introduction,” in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, ed. Tara L. Masih (2009).
Shapard, Robert, “The Remarkable Reinvention of Very Short Fiction,” World Literature Today, 86.5 (2012); online.
Williams, Tony, “Flash Fiction,” in The Handbook of Creative Writing, ed. Steve Earnshaw, second edition (2014).
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
The short-short boom [in the 1980s] was a sign of the times, as is the form’s increasing popularity: the internet buzzes with numerous e-zines, websites, forums and blogs containing short-shorts, no doubt because they are perfect for the emailing, texting, abbreviating, ADD generation. For the (ephemeral) short-short, the future’s orange.
This is still correct, though it does sound a bit dated. Do we still refer to “e-zines”? My students don’t share their flashes by email, favouring Facebook. There’s no mention of Twitter.
It is now impossible to keep up with all of the flash-fiction anthologies and collections that are being published, let alone all the online magazines. This is a good thing.
I’m not sure about my reference to the “ADD generation.” The kids are all right – they are multi-tasking. Lol.
Several social-media-initiated flash-fiction collections have appeared in print, among them:
Beach, Lou, 420 Characters (2012); first published on Facebook.
Hill, Sean, Very Short Stories: 300 Bite-Size Works of Fiction (2012); first published on Twitter.
Thay, Jacque, Twictions: 140 Stories Each Told in 140 Characters (2010).
If you really want to read one, choose Lou Beach’s. Sean Hill can be quite amusing, but Twitter fiction is severely limited and often inclines towards jokes.
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
There seems to be […] no difference between a flash and a sudden, other than the word count, so why have two terms? To give the short-short form some sort of stability, it would be helpful if editors and authors dispensed with all the different terms and just used “short-short” […].
“Flash fiction” has become the most popular term for stories of no more than c. 750 words.
A prediction: “sudden fiction” will become a term referred to only in critical studies of short-short stories that consider Robert Shapard and James Thomas’s Sudden Fiction anthologies.
Some authors (Vanessa Gebbie and Robert Scotellaro, for example) use “micro fiction” to differentiate their very short flashes from their flashes. Fair enough – we know what they mean.
“Drabbles” (stories of exactly 100 words) are now an established form under the “flash fiction” umbrella. I recommend Grant Faulkner’s Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories (2015) and his online magazine, edited with Lynn Mundell and Beret Olsen, 100 Word Story.
I don’t know if “dribbles” (stories of exactly 50 words) will be written about in the future – they might be mentioned in a footnote. Most dribbles aren’t very good. I’m still waiting for an impressive collection.
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
According to [James Thomas], the “success” of short-short stories “depends not on their length but on their depth, their clarity of vision, their human significance – the extent to which the reader is able to recognize in them the real stuff of real life”.
I still agree. Which is why I think dribbles and other micro micros are often limited.
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
Brevity, when done well, leaves potentially productive narrative “gaps” (more so than in the traditional short story), and I will suggest in the next part […] that the best short-shorts are those where the reader is prompted to question and to write the unwritten. […]
What follows are two short-shorts from The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death. The first, D. Ray Ramsey’s “The Lifeguard,” is an example of a limited short-short; the second, Shannon O’Rourke’s “Easy Come, Easy Go,” shows the short-short’s potential. They are each fifty-five words.
I eyed that chick all summer and she never looked my way. Strutting around the pool, twitching her butt, adjusting her top, drinking Cokes, ignoring me … Then one morning, she almost drowned. I blew my whistle, dove. As I carried her out, she squirted water in my eye and laughed, “Thought you’d never notice me!”
She’d zealously guarded her virginity, so he’d stood her up on Prom Night. Years later, he’s come downtown to see her new film. Now, he watches her image on the screen, realizing his mistake. She has undeniable talent. He should’ve stood by her. Suddenly, the screen goes dark. He searches his pockets for more quarters.
“The Lifeguard” contains “1) a setting; 2) a character or characters; 3) conflict; and 4) resolution,” but it is not very stimulating imaginatively. The narrator’s use of the derogatory “chick” suggests something about him, as does her look-at-me “Strutting,” but there is little else to interest, except perhaps the ambiguity as to whether or not the narrator works out she feigned drowning. In the spirit of generosity, one might argue that the story is shallow intentionally because it is about the shallowness of 1990s American middle-class youth, but there is no evidence to support this.
John L’Heureux has written that “a really good short-short, whatever else it may be, is a story we can’t help reading fast, and then re-reading, and again, but no matter how many times we read it, we’re not quite through it yet.” On these terms, “The Lifeguard” is not “a really good short-short.” “Easy Come, Easy Go,” however, perhaps is because it prompts questions due to gaps in the text: Why did she guard her virginity? Does “zealously,” with its connection to “zealot,” imply she did so because of strict religious beliefs? (He is also a zealot in his uncompromising pursuit of sex.) If so, and perhaps even if not, how did she end up as a supposedly talented porn star? (What is her “talent” and is it “undeniable”? The shift in point of view is subtle and effective.) Did his standing her up have something to do with her transformation? What has happened to him in the intervening years? He could still be single, or with a partner who lacks “talent,” but is he seedy (sordid, prurient; he is probably bursting with seed)? He goes “downtown to see her new film,” which suggests a special journey, but he might have seen her previous films at other venues or on video. She is not a virgin; is he? “He should’ve stood by her” (rather than want to lie with her all those years ago), but who is to say that she would have developed “undeniable talent” if he had? Perhaps she would have converted him (the story is, in part, about transformation); perhaps he would have eventually made her drop her guard, for better or worse.
The best short-short writers know that what is unsaid is as important as what is said. One might be able to speak, but being silent can be productive: into the silences the reader speaks, and thus lengthens the short-short. As Paul Theroux has said, a short-short can contain a novel.
I still agree with all of this. “Easy Come, Easy Go” is a perfect flash. I’m a big fan of Dan Rhodes’s “Innocence,” but O’Rourke’s flash made me ponder the potential of the form.
When asked what my favourite flash of all time is, I used to say “Easy Come, Easy Go,” and also mention David Gaffney’s Sawn-Off Tales (2006; “Pop-Tarts,” in particular, is wonderfully dark). If the questioner had time, I’d now also encourage them to read, among others, Robert Olen Butler, Lydia Davis, Holly Howitt, Vanessa Gebbie, Etgar Keret, Robert Scotellaro, Ana María Shua, David Swann, Tony Williams, and Barry Yourgrau. In the future, I hope to recommend collections by Flash magazine authors Jonathan Cardew, Michael Loveday, David Steward, and Kevin Tosca.
Now, I have a new favourite. It is a masterpiece. Michael Buckingham-Gray’s “And Brings Up Loose Dirt”:
He kneels in front of the cabin. He thrusts his long fingers into the ground, and brings up loose dirt. The sun illuminates him as he digs. He strikes something hard, and pulls out a potato. He places it in front of him like a prize. He plunges a hand back into the earth. A shadow casts over him. He gets to his feet and tilts his head upward: nothing but blue sky. He considers going into town. But he may see the mayor. More than once the elected official has taken him aside and congratulated him on the polished redwood dining tables he used to make. Then the mayor asks why the business shut down. Each time, he fails to respond. He kneels in front of the cabin. He thrusts his long fingers into the ground, and brings up loose dirt.
I could re-read it, and admire it, and envy Buckingham-Gray, every day.
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
The shorter the work, the longer the rope to hang yourself. The problem for the writer of the isolated short-short is that you are judged on the one piece. Read within a single-authored collection, though, the reader is likely to be more forgiving, in the same way that a reader will probably forgive a novelist for a clunky sentence or dull paragraph, perhaps even a tedious chapter or two, so long as the work as a whole works: entertains, stimulates, informs, humours, saddens, intrigues, involves …
I like to think, even though I now sigh when sitting down, that I can still be so insightful.
For the conclusion of “Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story,” I wrote a flash about points of view that alluded to Ford Madox Ford’s points-of-view-obsessed novel The Good Soldier (1915). It’s not one of my best short-shorts, but it works in context, if the reader gets the allusion … There are gaps – and there are gaps.
I don’t know how to conclude this essay, beyond thanking Virgie and Annie and SmokeLong for allowing me to do some pondering on flash fiction, a form that is even more exciting now than it was in 2006.
 Dan Rhodes, Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010), p. 37; reprinted by permission of the publisher.
 Dave Eggers’s “There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself” is five blank pages; see How We Are Hungry (London: Penguin, 2005), pp. 201-06.
 In the essay, I wrote: “‘Short-short’ is an umbrella term that covers: micro fiction; flash fiction; sudden fiction; postcard fiction; minute fiction; drabble; byte; ficlet; 55 fiction; 69er; nano fiction; furious fiction; fast fiction; quick fiction; and skinny fiction. Micro fiction, flash fiction and sudden fiction are the most common terms.”
 James Thomas, “Introduction,” in Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, ed. James Thomas, Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka (New York: Norton, 1992), p. 12.
 Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach” (first published in New Literary History, 3 (1972)), in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood, second edition (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2000), p. 193.
 D. Ray Ramsey, “The Lifeguard,” in The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, ed. Steve Moss and John M. Daniel (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999), p. 26; reprinted by permission of the publisher.
 Shannon O’Rourke, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” in The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, p. 28; reprinted by permission of the publisher.
 Steve Moss and John M. Daniel, “How to Write a 55-Word Story,” in The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, p. 217.
 John L’Heureux, “Afterwords: The Tradition,” in Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, ed. Robert Shapard and James Thomas (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1986), p. 228.
 Paul Theroux, “Afterwords: The Tradition,” in Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, p. 228.
 Michael Buckingham-Gray, “And Brings Up Loose Dirt,” Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, 7.1 (Apr. 2014), 20; reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Ashley Chantler lectures in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Chester, where he leads the MA Creative Writing: Writing and Publishing Fiction programme. He is co-director of the International Flash Fiction Association (IFFA), and co-editor of Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press. He is editor of An Anatomy of Chester: A Collection of Short-Short Stories (2007). His flashes have been published in a wide range of magazines, and most recently in A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed: National Flash-Fiction Day 2016 Anthology, ed. Calum Kerr and Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2016). For more information about the IFFA and Ashley’s flash-related work, go to: http://www.chester.ac.uk/flash.fiction
August 12, 2016 Fridge Flash
This week’s Fridge Flash from Aubrey Reiter features illustrations, story, and loads of lovely alliteration from a talented budding writer! Remember to watch out for lethal lake snakes!
By Aubrey Reiter
Aubrey Reiter spends almost all of her free time with a book in her lap. She wrote and illustrated this alliterative story when she was eight years old. Aubrey lives by an estuary and hopes to become a marine biologist one day.
August 11, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Anne Weisgerber likens writing a novel in flashes to traversing a museum. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Anne Weisgerber
Museums : Novels :: Paintings : Language
When I visit a museum, I flit from point to point and confront paintings. By standing close, I can smell linseed oil, and sometimes discern the artist’s range (when standing fixed in front of the canvas, do the brushstrokes radiate from elbow or shoulder height?) Where did the creator stand? Is anything happening on the surface, or below it? What emerges? I don’t stop at every abstract work, as most require prior knowledge to understand on whose shoulders the work is balanced. In this same way, understanding and appreciating a writer’s range, the control of syntax, cadence, or allusion, helps one see where the artist stood, and adds to the enjoyment of flash fiction.
Portraits : Fiction :: Drawings : Sentences
When it comes to portraiture, painting gets mass appeal. Scenes get human. A great juxtaposition in the world of museums, I think, hangs at The Frick. Flanking a single mantelpiece are both the portrait of Sir Thomas More and that of his mortal enemy and executioner, Thomas Cromwell. These two images reunite and preserve a real tension known by Holbein and preserved via physical placement. This orchestrated staring contest, in a museum full of great art, presents timeless, truthful, moral themes. To me it is exactly like a flash fiction diptych, a counterpoint. The intellect of the viewer compresses and commemorates the conflicts. Through use of space and omission, Holbein emerges, for me, a flash pioneer.
Colors : Words :: Surface : Page
In galleries, I traverse the space happily, wandering, wondering how to enter a conversation and with which object, with whose portrait, over what surface. I might orient myself to the curator’s introductory essay; I will be bored by it and skip right to the players, the art. I am free to roll dice and move myself into the game. Maybe I’m in New York or Paris or London, but I look for what the images say. I code what I see as words, and stop when I am amused, intrigued, or grateful. Flash fictions are gambles of intelligence, wit, language. Individual writers, like painters, invite readers to respond intellectually, emotionally, skeptically. Nothing requires a patron to react, either to a museum’s worth of material or to something from the Western Canon; a Denon Wing or Moby Dick; Crime and Punishment or Getty. One powerful image in a whole museum, one 300-word scene in all the language, can orient me in the deep universe of place and time.
Until I started writing flash, I hadn’t appreciated that I am alive in a time where something exciting, very new and powerful, is happening in the language arts. It’s all happening in small adventurous journals, freed from expectations of syntax, objects, conventions, and curated by pioneering editors. The best of it is beautiful to write, and moving to read.
I’m currently writing a novel in flashes. I had this crazy idea to connect all these literary characters named Leggett (or close variations of the name), from Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” to O’Hara’s BUtterfield 8. No sooner did I begin plotting across three continents and time-lining the five generations of this saga than I despaired. The plot hit snarl after snarl, the timeline ticked out of tune, and I was completely overwhelmed, paralyzed, and ready to chuck it. Then I took a flash workshop with Randall Brown; I continued to contemplate my novel as I studied flash. Something happened.
I realized I could craft flash miniatures that added up to something bigger if I intended them to, like dabs in a Seurat painting. In this way, my reader at novel distance will see the rose window, hear the orchestra, experience the video wall of calibrated gifs but within scenes, each pane, each cellist, each meme stands alone. A reader might experience my novel as a flash choir, or pointillism, or whatever it winds up being. Flash forces writers to have the nerve to say: THESE WORDS ARE BEAUTIFUL. So I find myself now writing a huge novel in meditative, colorful spoonfuls. I must remember to look at images my words create, both at the linseed tip of my nose and at twenty skeptical paces. Up close, I worry: How can I honor this life with my writing? At practical, admission-paying distances, I fret: What’s in it for my reader?
I only attest that the act of forming sentences and scenes, the punctuation, the pushed and brushed pigment of vowels and verbs and slow-motion ninja gerund phrases has become a vocation. Flash is an artist’s medium; writing it places one where people care about art.
A.E. Weisgerber has recent fiction in Shotgun Honey, SmokeLong Quarterly, Entropy Magazine, New South, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and her story “Sleeping Beauty: Markson Fangirl” is a Best Small Fictions 2016 Finalist. She reads for Pithead Chapel, reviews for Change Seven Magazine, and is writing her first novel, Unincorporated Area, one flash at a time. Follow her on Twitter @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com.
August 4, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Dot Dannenberg discusses her transition from poetry to flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Dot Dannenberg
Poetry vs. Fiction. In grad school, the divide between the genres sometime felt like the Sharks and the Jets. We poets were flighty. We got hung up on word association and the names of plants. Why were we there, the fiction students wondered? There were no book deals for us. But I could never live in the fog that seemed to be required to write fiction. My fiction-writing friends confessed that they thought about their characters all the time—even dreamed about them. I wanted to be grounded in the here and now. I knew what a good last line for a poem sounded like, and I was going to set up everything else accordingly.
Of course, this is why they shouldn’t let twenty-two year olds into MFA programs. Because we know nothing, Jon Snow.
Though I was trailing down the academic path of becoming a poet, the truth was, all I ever read was fiction. I was the kid who broke bedtime rules with a novel and a flashlight under the covers. I have novels I re-read every year, those old friends who keep revealing new truths as I age. Even in grad school, I convinced my advisors to let me add fiction to my reading list. “It’ll, uh, help my narrative poems,” I said.
So maybe, for me, leaving poetry for flash was inevitable.
I came to flash fiction because I am greedy. Maybe it’s because I’m a millennial woman and I want to Have It All. I want the job and the babies. I want the wordplay and the narrative. Flash fiction, to me, combines all of the best elements of poetry with those of my true love, fiction. In flash, imagery and characterization are equally important. Space is at a premium, but you may still need a plot. Flash fiction seems easy, but can be incredibly technical. W.B. Yeats said a poem should “click shut” like a box at the ending–the best flash also has this quality.
Flash fiction showed me that through using poetry, I could dip a toe into the immersive fog of fiction writing. I could make the fog work for me.
Writer Pam Houston once said that the brain has two halves to it: the Creative Unconscious and the Analytical Bitch. The Creative Unconscious is where all the best stuff comes from. The brilliant ideas. The dialogue that writes itself. The Analytical Bitch? She tells you that you suck, you don’t know how to spell, your vulnerability is embarrassing, and you will never get published. Writers need all the help they can get to turn off the voice of the Analytical Bitch and let the Creative Unconscious do its work.
The poets figured this out first. If you’ve ever tried to write formal verse, you may have found that you focus so hard on the rules that your sonnet about your boyfriend turns out to be a sonnet about soccer. A better sonnet about soccer than any love poem you could ever write. Following the rules gives the Analytical Bitch something to do, so the Creative Unconscious fills in the content and delivers the poetry magic.
While novel writing still feels unwieldy and intimidating to me, flash fiction, even without a prompt, is built on something my control-freak self loves: constraints. The internet is teeming with requirements for flash. Exactly 250 words. No more than 500. I’m an editor at 1:1000, where, after the old adage “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” we ask writers to craft a 1,000-word story inspired by a photograph.
I like that Flaubert quote–“Be regular and orderly in your life…so that you may be violent and original in your work.” The constraints of flash make me feel safe and orderly while I jump in over my head. The human brain is a wild tumbleweed. Tell me to write whatever I want, and I will stare at my notebook for fifteen minutes and then start scrolling through Instagram. Give me a photograph and a word limit, and suddenly the winds of distraction stop blowing. The mind stops wandering. The flow state fog sets in. The pen scratches. Magic.
Dot Dannenberg is a contributing editor at 1:1000. She lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and writes about life and culture shock in her newsletter See & Say. She holds an MFA in poetry from Pacific University.
July 28, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Carmen Maria Machado analyzes the famous six-word story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Carmen Maria Machado
Whenever I teach a class or unit on flash fiction, I always begin the same way: encouraging my students to dismantle one of the most famous tiny stories in the English language:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
I know, I know, I can hear your eyes rolling. For most folks, even non-readers, this little story became a cliché a long time ago. It doesn’t even have a proper title, just a multi-segmented body, like a centipede or string of pearls: for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn. The story was, allegedly, written by Hemingway (also, allegedly, to win a bet?), but that’s all apocryphal. No one knows for sure.
When I write for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn on the board, there is always a collective groan of recognition from the class. Then I ask: how many characters are in this story? They usually stare at me for a moment, but once I say “Well, there has to be a mother, yes?” the answers start rolling out.
Depending on the group’s enthusiasm and imagination, the list of characters varies, but usually we end up with something like this:
- A biological mother
- A biological father
- A baby, maybe
- The person who placed the ad
- The reader of the ad
Granted, some of these are stretches, and some of them could overlap, and there are certainly more inventive choices missing, but this list is a fast way into various interpretations of the events of the story, and can lead us down wildly divergent paths of understanding.
For-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn can be a tragedy: A baby is dead and the family is selling off the infant accouterments. Or, it can be a comedy, a tall tale: A baby was born with amusingly large feet, and the shoes are unneeded. (A1924 Omaha newspaper once speculated on the potential narratives behind a similar, real-life advertisement that had run in the paper, about a baby carriage: “Why was the baby carriage never used? Is the little fellow waiting by himself until the Heavens be no more, or were mother and child buried in the same grave? Or did some old bachelor win the baby carriage at a raffle?”)
This exercise can go on for a while. A man buys his pregnant girlfriend baby shoes, and then discovers she’s had a miscarriage. An adolescent attempts to sell off his unwanted younger sibling’s gifts, piece by piece. Well-to-do parents realize that their offspring has way more clothing than is necessary, and tries to spread the goodwill around. An on-the-outs n’er-do-well tries to sell off a box of junk he stole from someone’s garage. A teenage girl discovers she’s pregnant, buys baby clothes in a fit of sorrow, and then has an abortion. A couple prepares for their adopted child to come home from a foreign country, and then learns that bureaucracy is standing in the way of the process. A woman undergoing fertility treatments buys the shoes on a whim, and after the treatments fail, decides to get them out of her house. And this doesn’t even touch on the potentially infinite non-realist readings of this story.
How you interpret the events of for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn might depend on many factors, all of which have to do with you, the reader. Are you melancholy, or relentlessly optimistic? Do you enjoy irreverent playfulness, or are you a serious character? What genres of literature do you gravitate toward? Have you heard for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn before, or was this the first time? Have you ever worked for the classified section of a newspaper? Are you young enough that you’ve never seen the classified section of a newspaper? Are you thinking practically about how much money someone might make from the sale of baby shoes, and how an ad in a paper would be more expensive than any recouped costs?
Maybe, most importantly: Have you ever lost a child? And if so, how?
I teach this little story because it’s a quick way to demonstrate one of my favorite properties of flash: its ability to reflect back on the reader. All good fiction has some level of flexibility: open to shades of interpretation. But the shorter the piece—the more spare the details—the more you, the reader, are required to rush in to fill the space.
In her essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” Kate Bernheimer talks about the function of “flatness” in the traditional fairy tale. “[Fairy tale characters] are not given many emotions,” she writes, “and they are not in psychological conflict.” Why does this technique work? Bernheimer posits:
This absence of depth, this flatness, violates a technical rule writers are often taught in beginning writing classes: that a character’s psychological depth is crucial to a story. In a fairy tale, however, this flatness functions beautifully; it allows depth of response in the reader.
Flash fiction borrows from this idea. It is, by definition, short; it leaves things out, it relies on inference. It doesn’t necessarily have psychological flatness, per se—though it can look like that, sometimes, depending on the story—but possesses missing details (the right missing details) and flatness (the right kind of flatness) that creates a vacuum that begs to be filled.
And who is on hand to fill it? A reader, an entire complex ecosystem of experiences and opinions and preferences and instincts, with a profound desire to have the thing in front of her make sense.
One of my favorite short-short shorts is Amy Hempel’s one-sentence “Housewife.”
She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, “French film, French film.”
When I first read it, I was a wee thing, in college. I marveled at this little jewel of a story, how much was folded up inside those words, inside that one sentence. “She’s cheating on her husband,” I thought of the protagonist of “Housewife,” “and she’s excusing it by romanticizing her life like it’s a French film.”
But years later—seasoned with experience and after a stint of relationships, good and bad—I revisit it again, and my reading has changed. Suddenly, I slide between wondering if she is referring to infidelity or polyamory or something darker and less consensual. I wonder if she incants “French film, French film” to concede to the tropes of the genre, or to convince herself that she is happy or cosmopolitan or right or safe. I notice the word “exploit,” which pulses like a wound, and the passive voice of “whatever was left to her.” I also notice, ten years later, that the story incants the word “day” three times—a full seven percent of its length (only the word “the” is used more)—as if convincing itself of something, too.
So now, a decade after my first encounter, I see that “Housewife” contains new and different truths, and even more mysteries. But it hasn’t changed—I have.
I arrive now at the part of the essay where I have to find a neat, useful, and poignant image, a helpful metaphor for flash fiction, like: it is an iceberg or ice melting on a hot stove or a single raindrop that “engulfs its own blue pearl of light” or the world in a grain of sand.
So what of this quality that I am so obsessed with? What is it like, in a way that you (the reader) will carry with you long after my name, and the specifics of this essay, have vanished from your mind?
It is not a mirror. I know the word “mirror” is in the title of this piece, but that’s because it’s an image I considered and discarded. A functional mirror returns to the viewer what is put before it with reflexive faithfulness, and no good piece of flash—hell, no good piece of art—can say the same.
An echo, then. Language hollered into a canyon. The story is the space, the crevices and hollows and peaks, and the reader is the caller at the end of a long walk, and their voice always returns to them altered.
A student once said “The fairy who stole the baby and left the changeling child in its place!” which delighted me. I’ve also entertained plots about alien abductions, ghosts, wormholes, parallel universes, and infant-eating cribs, all of which introduce a unique cast of characters to the exercise.
 She once told an interviewer at The Atlantic that she she’d first written it and thought, “Oh, this is the first line of a story, and two and a half years later I’m like, Nope, that is the story.”
 This is actually Hemingway.
 And this, Joyce Carol Oates echoing Robert Frost.
 Stuart Dybek!
 Good ol’ William Blake.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.
July 21, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Ravi Mangla writes about flash’s role in interstitial spaces and why the form is a middle finger to capitalism. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Ravi Mangla
For the past month I have been a writer-in-residence at an art museum in Western Massachusetts. Each day, at lunchtime, I walk across a tracery of gilded cracks in the pavement. The installation (Sidewalk Kintsukuroi by Rachel Sussman) is part of The Space Between, an exhibition that shines a light on those peripheral spaces that most of us—as the distracted, harried, and (let’s be honest) flawed individuals that we are—tend to overlook.
Flash serves a similar purpose. It gives voice to stories in the margins, the ones deemed too slight or elusive for more conventional narrative modes. And the deeper I get into the practice of writing, the more I am drawn to this interstitial space: between sense and scene, snapshot and story, silence and sound. By illuminating the underseen, we reveal a world more fully realized, in which small gestures resemble events, and a single moment can carry the weight of years.
It was nearly a decade ago that I encountered my first piece of compressed fiction and I still find the elasticity of the form enlivening. Novels surprise me less and less (especially those turned out by major publishing houses), but flash regularly upends my expectations, leaves me dazzled by its distillations and odd constructs. “Its littleness is the agency of its power,” writes Steven Millhauser in an essay on the short story. Though one could just as easily affix this quote to flash.
The market urges writers to think bigger, act bolder, be more ambitious. But flash doesn’t care a whit about the market. It’s a middle finger to our whole system of capitalism, its demands and imperatives. There is no such thing as a commercial flash fiction writer. No Thomas Kinkade or Michael Bay. We don’t do this work for remuneration. (Partly because there is none.) We do it to be accomplices to beauty, to produce pieces that aren’t mediated by the latest taste or trend. I’m talking art in the margins. In the recesses. In the tiniest of cracks.
Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies (Outpost19). His very short stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, The Collagist, American Short Fiction, Gigantic, and Tin House Online. Follow him @ravi_mangla.
July 14, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Rolli posits that his love for flash fiction may be pathological. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
I’ve never sat down with the intention of writing a very short story. I’ve set out to write longer things… But my novels erode into short stories, my short stories into flash fictions. This is probably pathological.
Yet I’ve written three novels. Improper novels, mongrels. A pair of novels-in-stories, a novel-in-poems. Purebred novels terrify me—and bore me. They’re so plumped-up with filler that one has to read hastily to make headway. Forcing readers to see only every tenth word has been the fashionable ambition for centuries. But it isn’t mine.
That’s flash fiction’s real virtue: it can’t be skimmed. Skim, and you’d miss everything. Flash gives you permission to read as slowly as you like, to savor. To read as bookish children do: deliberately, with pleasure. Or why bother?
Of course the challenge of a lean medium is that every word needs to be the right word, the best word. So it can take as many or more hours to write a good flash as a mediocre 4,000-6,000 word story. But to write well and efficiently, to write “good parts,” only… That’s my objective, always. My ambition.
It’s thankless work, naturally, and unprofitable, and if I had more sense (and less self-discipline), I’d write that important four hundred page opus and drag my wagonful of prize monies into the Swiss sunset. But I couldn’t do it. Not to stave off starvation, not to save my life.
Like I said… It’s probably pathological.
Rolli is a writer and cartoonist from Regina, Canada. He’s the author of six books, including the flash fiction collection I Am Currently Working on a Novel, which was longlisted for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and shortlisted for the ReLit Award and the High Plains Book Award. Guernica Editions will publish his flash novel The Sea-Wave in the fall. Visit Rolli’s website (rollistuff.com) and follow him on Twitter @rolliwrites.
July 7, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Claire Polders describes her journey discovering flash fiction. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Claire Polders
Once I wrote my first flash I was hooked. So much so that I often need to remind myself I have a novel to finish.
It all began when I brought home The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis from the American Library in Paris. It was my introduction to flash fiction, or so I thought, and I loved it. Was this a genre? Davis’ interpretation of what a story could be made me curious about what else was out there. I looked up which magazines published her work and what other authors they featured. Whenever I liked a specific writer, I would click and discover where their stories had also appeared. Incredible how many fantastic venues there were! This was a world I wanted to explore.
I paused my novel (which was good timing anyway because I’d just finished a draft and needed some distance) and tried my hand at flash. Could I tell a story, or at least communicate an interesting idea, in a thousand words? In fifty?
I wrote dozens of pieces for which the only rule was an economy of words. I’d never felt so free. When I heard a voice, I let it speak. When I saw a scene, I described it. When a character presented herself, I focused on her life-changing moment. There was no need to slave beforehand on plotting or callbacks or arcs. If the flash amounted to nothing, I would toss it aside and write another one. No time wasted. If the flash showed promise, I would develop it further. Could I make it stronger by changing the setting, the perspective, my storyteller’s identity? I wrote and rewrote, editing my best pieces over and over again. Short as they were, they demanded attention to detail. I discovered the joy of honing, of getting as close to perfection as possible. My love for the English language intensified as I weighed and cherished each word.
After this wild spree, I studied the genre more. From the bookstore came Etgar Keret and a Norton flash fiction anthology. Online I discovered authors like Roxane Gay, Shasta Grant, and Amber Sparks. I began to understand that my love for Kafka, Calvino, Kawabata, and Borges had a lot to do with the brevity of their prose: I had loved flash even before I knew what it was.
I examined what could be excluded from a story without leaving the reader clueless. How to condense a narrative? I experimented. Although I’d always loved the postmodernists, their deconstruction of plot and character, their fabulism and fragmentation, I’d never done much in that department myself. I didn’t believe I could keep it up for an entire novel. But for five hundred words? I liked the challenge.
When the time came to send out my work, I tried to match my stories to the magazines. To my surprise some of my flashes were accepted. There were rejections, obviously, yet they were rarely absolute. Kind editors on the other side took the time to comment on my work. Encourage me. Make suggestions to improve my craft.
My novels may remain character-driven, with plots that can be summarized, but I hope my flash will keep escaping my design. Flash allows me to test my voice in a myriad of stories and experience how readers respond to each. Flash is my playground, my freedom, my way of expressing myself. Flash is an addiction I’m happy to have.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author of four novels. Her flash fiction appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, matchbook, Literary Orphans, Minor Literature[s], Superstition Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, and elsewhere. Her flash nonfiction was published in Tin House (The Open Bar), Word Riot, Fiction Southeast, and Atticus Review. If not writing flash, she’s polishing up her first novel in English. You may find her on Twitter at @clairepolders or at http://www.clairepolders.com.
June 30, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Alvin Park discusses how his father’s short-lived rule that the family speak only Korean at home laid the groundwork for his love of flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Alvin Park
My parents tell me this story often: I was three or four when my father ordered that we only speak Korean at home. While my brother did fine, I didn’t have enough words, Korean or English, to navigate. I used what little I knew, but mainly stayed silent. My mother tells me that I would point and gesture, lips closed, but mainly stayed to myself.
As a writer, I started with bad poems. I was drawn to poetry’s rhythm, flow, and length. I was amazed at how so few words can cut to the bone, haunt me, or make my heart swell. Except that my poems had no real form, reason, or intent. They were nonsensical floods of words turned into columns that didn’t fit together. They felt frantic, desperate, and insecure.
Around the same time, I took a class on Faulkner. We read Absalom, Absalom!, and my professor pointed out the paragraph-long sentences broken down by parentheses, semi-colons, and ellipses. He suggested that the lengths that these narrators—Rosa Coldfield, Quentin Compson, Shreve—spoke was born from a need to keep secrets. The denseness of the story was undercut by the idea that none of the characters were actually saying what they wanted or meant.
A substitute instructor asked us to write a one-page story comprising one sentence. I tried to write with the rhythm of poetry but measured each word so that the story still made sense. I wrote about a man breaking a mirror, stripping off his clothes, and taking the moonlight into his skin. Frantic, desperate, insecure, but in a different way.
Flash for me works on this balance between what needs to be said and what doesn’t, choosing the right words and understanding how they work with the words that aren’t there. It forces me to focus my writing, doing away with long descriptions, drawing on the reader’s own memories and assumptions.
One of the first pieces of flash that stuck with me was Joey Comeau’s “Red Delicious.” It’s about a blind woman navigating the world. It’s about colors and flesh and blood. It’s about love. The narrator talks about how she prefers rolling car windows down manually, just the way she did when was young:
Emmett’s mother let him take the car once, to go for groceries. It had windows that you could roll down. I couldn’t get over it. When I was a little girl I used to roll and unroll the window when we went for Sunday drives. Now our car has electric windows. Everybody’s does. With a button, god knows what is happening. I like to feel the window move. I like to know. I rolled down the window and fastened my seatbelt. Then I rolled it back up again. Then I rolled it down.
That image of rolling down the window during Sunday drives offers smells, colors, the feel of the wind on her face, the plastic handle, all unwritten but still there. I think about riding in my brother’s car along the coast, windows down, stereo turned up. This sense of controlled freedom, safety, and escape.
I’m still learning. I think more about word length and syllables. I think about colons and how they can convey place and passage of time. I’m trying to be more honest and vulnerable with my flash. I’m trying to incorporate and connect with the Korean culture I pushed away for so much of my life.
My father eventually lifted the Korean-only rule because of my mom, who was afraid I would grow mute. Part of me feels like I’m still struggling to find the right words, still pointing and gesturing. Part of me realizes that all I need to say is already there.
Alvin Park lives and writes in Portland. His work has been featured in The Rumpus, the Mojave River Review, Wyvern Lit, and New South Journal. He has a long way to go. Follow him on Twitter @Chipmnk.
June 23, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Hillary Leftwich explores how her son’s epilepsy has informed her fiction. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Hillary Leftwich
Ten to fifteen seconds. The average time of a seizure. Enough time to cause brain cell death. Enough time to affect learning and memory. Enough time to cause death.
My son has suffered from seizures since he was a baby. I didn’t know what they were. His face would twitch and his eyes would move left to right, right to left. His pediatrician always gave him a clean bill of health. When he was two years old he suffered a generalized tonic-clonic seizure or grand mal seizure. He was visiting my friend and her children in Colorado Springs for the day and I was doing laundry in my apartment in Denver. The phone rang and I answered. The man on the other end of the phone told me: “This is the fire department. Your son stopped breathing. We had to resuscitate him. We are taking him to the hospital. If you’re driving down, whatever you do, don’t speed.” I jumped in my car and immediately started the 45-minute drive from Denver to Colorado Springs. I must have been going 100-120 miles an hour. Enough time to dry half a load of laundry. Enough time to consider every horrific scenario of what was happening to my son. Enough time to make the drive in thirty minutes. Years later, I wrote my first flash fiction story called “119 MPH.” This is how I became a flash fiction writer.
I was introduced to flash fiction during my master’s program. Except it wasn’t called flash fiction. I knew it as micro fiction. Or sudden fiction. Or postcard fiction. My professor in creative writing during that time, Marty McGovern, told me he didn’t care what it was called as long as it was under 1,000 words and contained all the elements of a story. Easy, I thought. The end result was a sorry attempt at a flash fiction piece that my dear professor sent back with a note stating: “I don’t think you understand what micro fiction is. Please read the assignment again and revise this piece.” I dug my heels in, determined to figure out the genre that was eluding me. Like every other assignment I was faced with during my master’s program, I decided to research it. I went online and found every journal that published flash fiction I could find. I kept a log of every flash writer published in these journals, along with their flash pieces. I read every story I could locate by that writer and read those, too. During my research, it was inevitable I found myself reading Kathy Fish. Almost every journal I stumbled upon had a Kathy Fish story. The first story of hers I read was “Warrior” in Alice Blue Review. It is precisely 115words. For weeks afterwards I couldn’t get the final lines out of my head: “She regards him with a terrible precision. ‘You are my brilliant boy,’ she says.” This resounded. This did not tie everything up nicely. It was an unanswered question. I knew everything I had written up until that point was about to take a completely different direction.
There’s an article in The Review Review by Becky Tuch called “Flash Fiction: What’s it all About?” Some of the best editors and flash writers such as Mark Budman, John M. Cusick, Stace Budzko, and Tara Masih offer their advice on the world of flash writing. My favorite insight comes from Grant Faulkner, editor of 100 Word Story: “The joy of flash fiction as a writer and a reader is found not only in the words of the story, but in what is left out–the absences can be almost spectral, haunting what’s been told, only guessed at.” There’s a Twilight Zone episode, or maybe it’s from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, about a missing puzzle piece. Two characters—perhaps a husband and wife—find an old puzzle in a bookstore, or maybe from an old trunk in the wife’s grandmother’s attic—the details aren’t important. The puzzle’s box has no front picture to tell you what the image will be. So, husband and wife get bored one night and decide to start putting the puzzle together. The longer they keep at it the more they start to realize that the scene is very similar to their own living room. The man and woman in the puzzle look very much like themselves. There is something terrifying outside the living room window. In the end, they can’t find the final puzzle piece, but they won’t know what is outside the window until they do. That missing piece is everything in flash. The tension should just about kill you.
Three years after my son’s first known seizure, I found myself living in a hospital room in the children’s intensive care unit. The cause of my son’s seizures was still unknown. He was comatose, for the most part, and not likely to survive. He was diagnosed with a series seizure disorder with an unidentified cause. What Faulkner said about flash fiction was proving to be true to my own life. My son’s diagnosis haunted me. Not knowing if he would recover drove me to the point of hysteria. By our second night in the hospital, a patch of my son’s hair had turned gray from the stress. Six days under the care of the neurology department and my son’s seizures were finally under control. By the time we left the hospital my son was alive, but he could barely walk and his speech was slurred. But he was alive. During this time, I was completing my final semester at CU Denver for my undergraduate degree. I returned home with a broken son, a pile of homework, and over a week absence from my job to catch up on. My son recovered very quickly. He began a series of medications that were able to control his seizures. I was told children are more resilient than we think. Eventually, I began to reorganize my life much as I would a flash fiction story: I started at the point of action and focused on a single moment in time. I didn’t allow myself to become overwhelmed by too much detail. I kept everything short and sweet. I realized the impact of all the unknowns in my life. The possibility—even today—of losing my son to epilepsy. How frightening and yet how important the absences in our lives can be.
Thirty minutes. Enough time to make dinner and feed my son. Enough time to do half a load of laundry. Enough time to have my son read “Willy Wonka and the Great Glass Elevator” up to chapter three, right when they are hurdling through space. As a single mom, time is always elusive to me. Is there ever enough time? Probably not. Raymond Carver once said, “Write what you know, and what do you know better than your own secrets?” The same holds true for our writing lives. Our experiences, good or bad, are the heart of our writing. And let’s face it, the wicked moments—the times when you want to punch something (or someone) and curse everything, those are the moments we die for in writing. Those are the moments are hearts ache for when we read them. One piece of flash is never the same as another. There’s no pinning flash down, and that’s what is so mesmerizing about it. Flash fiction is the lover you never get bored with. The affair is unending, always changing, always thrilling over and over. How can you not fall in love with it?
Hillary Leftwich resides in Denver with her son. In her day jobs she has worked as a private investigator, maid, and pinup model. She is the associate editor for The Conium Review and Reader/Marketing Coordinator for Vestal Review. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart and appears in a number of journals including Hobart, Matter Press, WhiskeyPaper, NANO Fiction, Monkeybicycle, Dogzplot, Cease, Cows, Pure Slush, FlashFiction.net, Gone Lawn, The Airgonaut and others. You can find her at https://hillaryleftwich.contently.com/ or follow her on Twitter @HillaryLeftwich.
June 21, 2016 Interviews
Writing prompts are nothing new, but they can always be helpful in sparking the imagination and generating new content. SmokeLong editor Tara Laskowski recently stumbled across a casual Facebook microfiction writing project that intrigued her—The Tool Project, started by horror writers and editors Ellen Datlow and Kaaron Warren.
The concept? Ellen sends Kaaron a photo of an old and obscure tool (she’s a collector of them) and Kaaron has to write a story about it, without doing any research about its original purpose. They’ve published seven tool stories so far.
Tara caught up with both of them recently for an email Q&A.
How did all this start?
ED: Kaaron and I started chatting on Twitter about my collection of weird tools. She volunteered to write a micro-story about each one I photographed. And so it began.
Tell me more about the tools? Where do you find them?
ED: I have been collecting them for many years. I have no idea why I began. I think I was at a flea market in London’s Covent Garden market and saw a tool that neither I nor the dealer could identify, but it was so pretty I bought it. My rules for buying tools are that they must be interesting looking, cheap, and small.
How many of these weird tools do you have? And where on Earth do you keep them?
ED: I have no idea how many tools I’ve got. They’re spread all over my apartment, displayed on cabinets, windowsills, on my kitchen wall grid (where one hangs pots and pans and other kitchen items that I use regularly). I’m always looking for new, strange (small) tools and objects. They’re not all tools—for example, the metal teeth that Kaaron wrote about.
To me, the most interesting are those that I have no idea of their purpose.
What has surprised you all most about the exercise?
ED: How inventive Kaaron is with her fictions
KW: How many fascinating items Ellen owns.
Kaaron, do you write a lot of flash fiction? Was is it that draws you to this form?
KW: I do write a bit! For my last year of high school, my major project was a series of micro stories. I love that you can be precise and very focussed in this format, and that you don’t always have to have all the answers. I love working to the restraints, as well. For the high school project, each story had to be exactly 50 words.
How many of these tools did you know or could guess their purpose? Did you find it mattered when writing the stories?
KW: Most of them I have a good, if not specific, idea of their purpose, given their design. I tried not to think too hard about their actual purpose, though. I wanted to find the story behind them.
Many of the stories seem to end on these sort of dark, hopeless moments. I especially enjoy the bleakness of the ending of Tool 5. It reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode, and is quite haunting. Do you think the bleakness of the look of the tools themselves lend themselves to bleak stories? Or is that kind of theme/feel what you’re normally drawn to when writing?
KW: I’m definitely drawn to the darker stories in my writing. And, given I’m writing these stories for (with!) Ellen, who is drawn to the same stories, they were always going to be quite bleak.
Any old object carries a certain sadness with it, I think. A reminder that things change, are lost. Each tool has a story behind it and in these stories I’m imagining the past (and, with Tool 5, the future as well). Imagining the people who owned and used these tools. So that brings a bleakness, in a way, because those people are long since dead and gone. Maybe they’ve left behind memories, family, friends. But someone, at some stage, decided the tool (and, we can assume, many of the other belongings) were no longer needed. No longer important.
How many tool stories are you planning on writing?
ED: Depends on time and energy (mostly Kaaron’s). It’s easy for me to photograph each tool, and I doubt I’ll ever run out before her time and energy does :-)
KW: I’m still enjoying doing them, and I’m finding they are helping me work on other, commissioned stories that I am on deadline for. If ever I’m stuck in a story, I’ll go for a walk, or I’ll sit down and write a bunch of tiny stories like these, because it’s a way for the subconscious to be freed. If you don’t have to worry so much about long plot lines, deep character development, back stories, all that kind of thing, then the idea itself comes to the fore.
I’ve heard people say that it’s hard to write really good funny flash fiction and really good scary flash fiction. Do you agree? What common mistakes do you think people make when trying to write horror flash?
KW: It is tricky, because you don’t have much time for the ‘set-up’, so vital in both funny and scary stories. It can be done, though. You just have to choose your words more wisely.
The most common mistake is people thinking that because they don’t have many words, all they can do is describe something. So they spend the whole 100 words or whatever in a descriptive piece that isn’t actually a story. They’ll use MORE words to describe something than they usually would! I reckon you can tell a story in a short space, but you can’t indulge in descriptive words. You need to be specific, rather.
Ellen Datlow has been editing sf/f/h short fiction for over thirty-five years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and currently acquires and edits stories for Tor.com. She has edited almost one hundred anthologies and won multiple awards for her work, including the 2012 Il Posto Nero Black Spot Award for Excellence as Best Foreign Editor. Datlow was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre”; has been honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgment of superior achievement over an entire career, and the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award for 2014, which is presented annually to individuals who have demonstrated outstanding service to the fantasy field. She lives in New York.
Award-winning author Kaaron Warren has lived in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Fiji. She’s sold more than 200 short stories, three novels (the multi-award-winning Slights, Walking the Tree and Mistification) and six short story collections including the multi-award-winning Through Splintered Walls. Her latest novel is The Grief Hole (IFWG Publishing Australia, coming out in August) and her latest short story collection is Cemetery Dance Select: Kaaron Warren. She Tweets @KaaronWarren.
June 16, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Berit Ellingsen provides an overview of flash and shares selections from Lightspeed Magazine’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Flash Fiction! special issue, which she guest edited. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Berit Ellingsen
Some of the first stories I got published were flash fiction, such as “Sovetskoye Shampanskoye” in SmokeLong. As a new writer, I was immediately attracted to the flash fiction form, because I didn’t know it was possible to tell entire stories in just a thousand words or less. Thus, flash fiction was new and so fun to read and write, with a great variety of voices and styles and writers getting published online.
But what characterizes flash fiction? Most literary publications define flash fiction as being prose that is less than 1,000 words long. Some publications limit the length to 750 words, others at 1,500 words, and some at 300 words. There was even a site, Safety Pin Review, edited by Simon Jacobs, that published stories in 30 words or less and which were worn by people.
With online literary journals flash fiction has become widespread the last five years, but writers have been writing flash fiction for much longer than that. Gaius Petronius (cirka 27-66 AD), the author of Satyricon, who lived in ancient Rome under Nero’s reign, wrote at least one flash story, “The Young Widow” (reprinted in the anthology Flash Fiction International), a story about a young widow who gets locked inside the tomb of her dead husband together with her new love. In 1933, W. Somerset Maugham wrote “An Appointment In Samarra,” a retelling of an ancient tale about death and trying to escape the inevitable, a riveting story told in less than two hundred words.
Like its name indicates, the best flash fiction is brief and jolting, and leave a lasting impression, like the scorch path of a lightning bolt. Yet, despite their brevity, flash fiction stories have the power to create whole worlds, describe full and complex characters, and an unforgettable plot, all in just a few hundred words. Such as Kathy Fish’s “Spaceman,” about a crashing astronaut who still has almost infinite possibilities, and Allie Werner’s “Mars,” which speaks volumes of how human beings interact and long for one another. Both these stories take a single concept or emotion and bring it out into a full and deeply moving story.
This is of course not always easy to do. It requires the writer to focus on the essentials of the story, its core, or centers of gravity as I have heard other writers call it, and maybe even pare that down a little, depending on what word count needs to be reached. The writer must also be as accurate and as right on point as possible, with both plot, characterizations, descriptions, and voice, so as not to waste space and dilute the essence of the story.
Yet, despite its short length, a flash story is not simply an outtake from or part of a longer story. Neither is it a short version of a longer story. A flash story is a tiny story all of its own, with a clear start and middle and beginning that is independent of any larger context.
Neither does the small word count and the restricted space mean that you can’t do a multipoint plot structure with rising and falling tension, or describe the characters and surroundings and landscapes in exquisite detail. In fact, flash writers should do this, but only insofar as it adds something and is central to the story. Such as in Faith Gardner’s “Behind The Silver Window” and “Out in the Desert” by Seth Seppala, where the story really is in the details.
Perhaps because there is so little room, the narrative voice in flash fiction is often very strong and highly characteristic, such as in Kevin Jared Hossein’s story “Hiranyagarbha,” about an environmental catastrophe that slowly starts to eat the Earth and all living beings. Or Teresa Naval’s “An Offertory To Our Drowned Gods,” which also tells of future disaster, but in a completely different form than Hossein’s story.
Often, the events in flash fiction are sudden, unpredictable, catastrophic, but not always. Sometimes they can be quiet and soft and seeming to amble on their path, but this is just deceptive. Like the slow, yet extremely forceful winds on Venus, these stories gather momentum slowly to completely bowl the reader over at the end. Like Ethel Rohan’s powerfully moving “I Love You.”
With the smaller word count of flash fiction, it might sound like the form has a lot of limitations, and maybe it has from a certain point of view. But some of the trick is to utilize the lack of space instead of being limited by it. All the best and most memorable flash fiction does this successfully.
Thus, the form itself encourages experimentation and trying out new and unusual structures and approaches. Some flash fiction work is more on the side of prose poetry, such as Kristine Ong Muslim’s linked vignettes “Age Of Blight,” or poetry, or is a hybrid between the two. Other experimentations number or alphabetize sections, or the stories are written as one entire sentence or without punctuation, or backwards or in an otherwise unusual sequence.
The short-short form lends itself well to both fiction and creative non-fiction (for the latter, see Brevity Magazine). This too, encourages experimentation and moving outside of one’s usual genres or themes. With less time and energy required to craft a whole story, flash stories can be the first forays into new thematic territory or to try on new and different modes of storytelling.
It is also possible to write a whole novella or even a novel as flash fiction, with each chapter having the form of a flash story, or the novel consisting of several linked flash stories. Such as in Matthew Salesses’ novel I’m Not Saying I’m Just Saying. And some flash stories, once started, may turn out to be larger stories, even whole novels.
The stories I have mentioned here are only a few that display the great range and variety of flash fiction. SmokeLong is one of the best places to get a sense of contemporary flash fiction. So is Wigleaf’s yearly selection of the best flash fiction across the web.
More great tips on writing that are applicable to flash fiction (but not only to flash fiction) are found in Matthew Salesses’ “A Month Of Revision” in Necessary Fiction.
Berit Ellingsen is the author of two novels, Not Dark Yet (Two Dollar Radio), and Une ville vide (PublieMonde), as well as a collection of short stories, Beneath the Liquid Skin (Queen’s Ferry Press). Her work has been published in W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Litro, and other places, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. Berit travels between Norway and Svalbard in the Arctic, and is a member of the Norwegian Authors’ Union. Learn more at http://beritellingsen.com.