Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Flash Editing: An Experiment, Sort Of

Yesterday I spent time and effort on two writing projects that were totally unrelated, but one of them made a considerable impact on the other. First, I had Chapter 16 of the novel-in-progress to finish. Next, I decided to write a short story that was exactly 600 words long, including title. It's for an NPR thing.

I have never written flash fiction before, but surprisingly the 600-word limit really appealed to me. Possibly it was the puzzle aspect of writing it: if I was in paragraph 10, for example, and I wanted to add a word, I had to find and delete a word from paragraphs 1-9. This forced me to write with a great deal of conciseness, cutting things down so that I was able to say what I wanted in the fewest number of words while being able to say as many things as possible. It was some tricky. I'm still not finished with the story, but forcing myself to do that sort of very tight editing/revising made me impatient with any sort of writing that wasn't as terse and to-the-point as possible. Which was cool, in its own way.

However. I also have that novel-in-progress. The language of the novel is a sort of Elizabethan English which is expansive, additive, cumulative. Wordy, that is. A bit on the fancy side, especially in dialogue. When I sat down to finish the scene I'm working through I was still in my "600 words is all I get" frame of mind, and so I would cut almost everything I tried to put into the scene. "Too much," I said. "Not necessary," I barked. "Reduce! Compress! Cut cut cut!"

After about an hour I had written about 500 words, but I had crossed almost all of them out and the voice of what I had left didn't match the expansive, ruminative voice of the rest of the book. Fail, as the kids say.

So what I think I've learned is this:

1. Flash fiction is cool. The challenges are numerous and rewarding, and you really begin to look at stories in a different way. You can sort of reimagine them and restructure them easily, because there aren't that many moving parts, unlike a novel. Writing them also gives you an awareness of how much you can really say with very few words.

2. Flash fiction may not be a good introduction to writing longer things. Maybe all of the good points will help you write longer pieces that have no fluff or filler, but if you are going for something relaxed and a bit diffuse, your flashified brain will eat all of that expansive feeling up and spit it out and contract your prose so much that it's not at all what you want. At least that was my experience yesterday.

So a question or two: Who here writes both flash fiction and longer forms like novels? Do you/did you have a similar experience to mine? How do you balance it? Do you try to write longer fiction using the same brevity that flash fiction demands? Am I just an idiot and nobody but me has these problems? 'Cause that's possible.


  1. I don't know which came first, my attempts at writing flash or my concision. I think even in long fiction, I tend to have a flash mentality, which I've decided results from low self-esteem and my fear of taking up people's time. I try harder to be wordy these days because I do feel like it makes for better writing as long as it's not too extreme. But, it's an unnatural process for me. I think that, again for me, my best writing comes from paring down something longer. But, rarely do I find myself in that position. I usually end up having to flesh things out, and on my worst days I use salt water and artificial preservatives.

  2. I wrote 2 pieces of flash recently... AFTER I finished the 3rd draft of my novel. I don't know if I could write them at the same time... I ran into the same problem you did.

    However, I love writing flash. After writing 100,000 of a novel, 1,000 or less for a flash seems a breeze! Plus I think there are a lot of transferable skills: learning to tighten the prose and heighten the emotional impact.

    Perhaps a suggestion: Don't work on a piece of flash and your novel on the same day? Allow a good night's sleep to run interference between the two? That helps me at least.

  3. I don't write flash fiction but I found that when I wrote my Regency romance (with almnost the same flowery dialect and prose as you are with your 'Hamlet') and then tried to write my contemporary women's fiction, I couldn't do it. My mind was still tuned into proper English language and verbose narration. My women's fiction is stark, to say the least and the accent is Italian, shades of Saturday Night Fever.

    I now keep them as far apart as possible.

  4. I do both and always have. My "will never see the light of day" chest includes novellas, shorts, short-shorts, and novels. I love writing for word count-limited contests and flash.

    I am a hue fan of tight, concise writing. I didn't always manage it myself, but it's what I sought in reading materials. The more flash and other enforced short things I have written, the more concise my longer fiction has become.

    If I have something I want to right in a more flowery voice, that's not really an issue for me because I so thoroughly assume the intended voice that they just don't mix very often, unless the voices are just too similar in the first place.

  5. Scott, you're not alone. You know I've written micro fiction, flash fiction, a novella, and novels. The broad spectrum, I guess. I haven't had this problem too extensively, but I've never worked on two things in the same day, either. With flash fiction I usually overwrite and have to go back and pare down as you did. Lately, though, I've gotten better with just cutting things out in my mind before they even get to the paper, and that's nice. I've also been writing flash fiction for over 11 years and I've experimented a lot.

    I know I'm going to have a hard time moving into my "literary novella/novelette" I would like to start soon since it will be a completely different feel than Cinders.

  6. My first novel came in at just over 180,000 words which I cut down to 130,000 words. I didn't want to do that again so I wrote a bunch of flash fiction before starting on my second, the result was a total disaster. At 20,000 words I had a thousand year history of the war between Vampires and humans, the main characters full back story from kindergarten to his mid 30s. Substantial details of his wife's past and hints about the bad guy's back story.
    People who read the first 20 pages told me, Ow my brain is full.

  7. Oh, the allure- the addictive qualities of Flash. I have only just discovered this (thanks to The Literary Lab and works by Davin and Michelle, actually...) and it's amazing because anyone who has ever read even a single comment I've made here knows that I don't know when to, well, shut my yap! How could someone like me love Flash?

    Yet I do, oh how I do.

    I've written my novella/novel manuscripts like I talk- in that wordy, ambling way. So I thought I'd hate Flash but I was so wrong.

    I've really only done a couple of pieces now but one of the most recent is one I really loved and being it had to be 250 or less for a contest I really had to work at the "I need a word here- I have to steal from here, oh *!^! that's really two I need there, dang it..." but eventually I got it down to 248 (not including title as that didn't count though that would have put me right at 250)

    Maybe it's because I have written for so many years in installments- a chapter at a time in long running series stories with friends that I can switch back and forth pretty easily (that experience having given me a middle ground between writing the big stuff and Flash) the only problem I have now is that I'm afraid I might really prefer writing stories in short powerful packages. I'm not sure what it means yet...

    I do know that my novel ms is taunting me...revision *sigh* and I know that my new flash experiences will definitely help me there. Snip, slice, hack!

    Sorry I don't think this was any help at all LOL but I loved your post. "Flashified" is now a permanent part of my vocabulary.

    Coffee anyone? Yes, I think I shall.


  8. When I first began writing I had real problems with discipline. My first completed novel, a speculative fiction, came in at 200k. My second draft was longer.

    I didn't think I'd be able to write short fiction - I didn't think I'd find it satisfying - until I tried. I started by analysing my chapter structures, and realising that they were not too far off the short story form themselves.

    Now my primary focus - at least for the moment - is flash fiction. I began by adapting some rather regrettable poetry pieces into prose form. Thinking of a story in poetry terms - the economy of language, the emphasis on imagery - has helped me tell complete stories in few words, and I think (hope) has made me a better writer.

  9. I am not very experienced with writing flash fiction but I like it. I have not quite got it down. That's probably why it hasn't affected my novel writing much. Plus, I approach them differently and listen to different music.

  10. Ha! Scott writing flash? Good on you, good sir!

    Y'all know I started with flash and worked my way up to short stories and the novel-in-progress. And yes, the flash specialization has taken some time to ameliorate. I have to remind myself that the reader can't assume as much as I expect them to in a longer work. And it certainly took a while to allow myself the liberty of longer sentences and extra words where I wanted them.

    Also, I didn't know NPR was running another flash contest. I shall check this out. Thanks, good sir!


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