ABCs of Flash Writing: I for Intentional

Posted by on Apr 26, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: I for Intentional

Writing Flash prose is a wonderful challenge, creating a full story in a barbaric little format. A piece of 750 words or fewer is little more than a billboard. This doesn’t necessitate that the writing is flat or unimaginative. If a novel is a five-course meal, Flash is an amuse-bouche, a perfect bite containing complex flavors and layers in one mouthful. Which is more challenging than it sounds, and is reminiscent of the famous quip attributed to Blaise Pascal: “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.” Good Flash, fiction or non-fiction, comes down to revision and editing. Which brings us to our title: I is for Intentional.

The tools for creating Flash writing follow the same rules of prose, whether it is fiction or creative non-fiction: strong story, vibrant language, surprise, clarity, voice, et cetera. But there is an urgency to get the story happening. While you may want to create intimate, inspiring, indefatigable piece, you will not have time for a long backstory or infinitesimal descriptions in every sentence. Think of instantiation, taking something abstract and making it tangible and concrete. Be direct. Flash needs to be trimmed like a topiary, not spread and ignored like wild seeds. The intentionality and editing that is necessary for creating Flash writing is closer to poetry than novels or longer writing. Poetry has little room for words that don’t move the poem forward or serve a function. Flash is a little less stingy than poetry, but not by much.

I love stream of consciousness writing, where words flow like rushing water over a broken dam. Editing is less fun but far more important. The author Patricia Hampl states that “A careful first draft is failed first draft.” Every word needs to be intentional. You need to be merciless with your scalpel and not leave visible incisions on the work. Sometimes the redacting work is sentence by sentence.

I found a wonderful line in a fiction workshop where the writer was describing a nervous first date: “She sat nervously across from him in the diner booth, her left foot juddering under the table where he couldn’t see it.” My comments to her were simple: cut a few words: “She sat across from him in the diner booth, her left foot juddering under the table.” Unless this is a glass table, he wouldn’t be able to see her foot.  And juddering, a verb that means to shake rapidly or spasmodically, suggests the young woman’s elevated nerves.  The great line was there, but with a few extra words.

George Saunders’ excellent flash story “Sticks” is a brief look into the life — or the parts of a life that can fit into a piece originally less than four hundred words —of a stingy and cold man told from the point of view of his surviving children.  Saunders quickly captures the suffocating pettiness of the father: “We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream.” If rationing crayons isn’t stingy enough, perhaps the apple slice or the ketchup or the cupcakes will do it. The cupcake alone is telling, a paltry, smaller version of a cake. The strangeness of the situation is the father’s draconian behavior, not the familiar objects Saunders uses to illustrate it. 

Here’s another sample of writing, this one with a lake:

Kimball scanned the lake for loons and licked his finger then held it in the air to check the direction of the wind. The green canoe bumped slowly against the dock. One of its bumpers had gotten loose and the frunk clunked against the faded cedar with each wave. The day was very warm but he suspected the water would be cold. It always felt cold. He could never look at a lake, not even a map of the great lakes, without thinking of his sister Bailey drowning. She had been such a strong swimmer. It had been years, but the memory persisted as if it had been tattooed inside his brain. He dipped his toe into the water.

We have character names, the setting and some detail and some backstory rolled into a paragraph. Not terrible, but probably more than we need for a flash piece. It needs to be far more direct:

It had been thirty-eight years since Kimball had looked at a lake and not thought about drowning. It was ninety-five degrees today but he knew that the water would feel as cold as the day of his sister Bailey’s funeral.  He dove in.

The same main ideas are included: the protagonist and his troubled relationship with lakes and drownings, specifically because of his sister. The second example loses some details, but makes others more concrete and succinct like the number of years since the incident (thirty-eight) and the temperature (ninety-five degrees). For a flash piece, it isn’t important that the sister was a strong swimmer or that Kimball looked around for loons or that the green canoe was loose. It is clear from the second part that the cold of the water is psychological and due to past trauma. I also used more active language for the second “Flash” version and had the character dive in instead of tarrying on the dock. The sister drowned, clearly, but the character is reflecting on drowning and perhaps his own mortality.

Everything included in writing is intentional because it was put there by the writer, and this goes triple for shorter works. But you will need to groom and edit your writing with the precision, intensity, and care of tending a Zen Garden. Especially since Flash prose is a format the size of a desktop Zen Garden. Don’t be afraid to attempt this rewarding type of writing. But to paraphrase The Fly: Be intentional. Be very intentional.

Christopher Madden writes fiction, essays, and sometimes poetry. He is the co-director of BRAG performing artists, a group that creates poetry based on art and holds quarterly public readings. He is a founding partner and editor at Woodhall Press, and an adjunct professor at Fairfield University.