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YMMV: Write More Flash Fiction

⚡The Fastest Things on Two Feet...

There's a scene in one of the last few episodes of Ted Lasso where the character Nate is visiting his childhood home and picks up his old violin and begins to play it. It is the most honest depiction I've ever seen of what it's like for a musician to return to an instrument that they haven't played in years. He's not playing anything flashy, he's not stumbling over himself, he's just playing something simple and concentrating on getting each individual note to sound right. He's losing himself in the instrument, remembering why he used to love it. Anyway, this is why you should...

Write More Flash Fiction

Last week I talked about my Friday Flash Fiction project in which I posted a new piece of 600-word original fiction every Friday for two years. I said it was one of the best things that happened to my writing career because it taught me how to write to a word count. This is all true. But it was great for a number of other reasons as well. It was practice writing to a deadline. It was practice writing economically. It was practice at beginnings and endings. The common thread here: it was practice.

Writing is different from the other creative arts in that it doesn't involve muscle memory. This is essential if you are a sculptor or a painter or a musician, and since I'm only one of those, I'm going to talk about it in the context of music. A lot of musicianship is quite technical. You have to be fairly precise in how you hold the instrument, how you apply your fingers to it, how hard you play, and how all of those qualities work together to inform the emotional resonance of the music. You have to know how to play gently without being so quiet you can't be heard. You have to know how to play loudly without turning the notes into noise. And you have to do all of this without thinking about it.

This is why you practice. If you tell me to play a D chord on a guitar, I don't have to think "okay, this finger goes on the second fret of the 4th string, and this one on the third fret of the 5th string, and this one on the second fret of the 6th string, and when I strum I need to make sure not to play the 1st or 2nd strings." Even though that's what I'm doing, I don't think about it; I just play a D. My left hand knows where the fingers need to be and can get there quickly. My right hand knows how it needs to strum. I know different voicings in case I want it to sound thicker or bouncier and I know different ways to strum if I want it to be crunchy or extra jangly. I know how it's going to interact with other common chords. I know what kind of trills go naturally with it. I know that if a verse riff starts on D it's probably going to resolve on D, but if a chorus riff starts on D it's more likely to resolve to an A or a G. And I know all of it intuitively because I've been playing this danged instrument for almost thirty years.

The point here is there are several layers of technicality working together here. The first is just muscle memory--how to put your fingers in the right places at the right times. The second is making it sound musical. The next is making it expressive. Then you start challenging yourself with more complex pieces. Then you start understanding the music theory that ties it all together. All of these are things that you can learn by playing other people's music and internalizing it. But there's a final layer that you can't learn that way, and that's adding in an element of creative artistry. You can develop this skill by re-interpreting other existing music or writing new music yourself. Make no mistake: you will suck at it at first, but you're using this to figure out what you like. What feels good to you? What sounds good? What's fun to play? What do you want to hear that other artists aren't writing? What do other artists write that you love and want to pay homage to? For me, I'm a sucker for Picardy thirds and Dorian modes. I love the fullness of an E major chord. This is why half the songs I've composed in the last few years feature a Bm going to E somewhere in the chorus.

Look, if you know, you know.

So that seems like a bit of a digression--an interlude, if you will--but I swear it has something to do with writing flash fiction. I'm getting there. You see, I talked about all of those layers of technicality, and the importance of muscle memory and how you learn from playing other people's music. Those layers of learning--you're doing all of those at the same time. It's part of what makes music so joyful. You're stretching all these different muscles at once each time you play a song. You may be playing the same thing over and over and over, but with each iteration you're able to find something new about the song or about yourself.

But that's not really a thing in writing. You can't just write the same thing over and over. You can't practice by writing out other people's prose. It just doesn't work that way. The technical skills of putting words on paper are things we hammer out pretty early in life. People learn how to read and write decades before they decide they want to "be a writer." I don't want to minimize it because the ability to read and write is a wonderfully complex skill and it's amazing that we're able to do it. But apart from that, there's just not a lot of muscle memory to develop. I mean, sure, knowing how to type is very helpful, but it's not strictly required. Some project and time management skills are handy, but lots of people write books without them.

The thing is... there are technical skills that you need to develop in order to write creatively. You need to know how to structure a paragraph or a chapter. You need to know how to manage narrative tension. You need to know how to gauge the pacing of a scene. You need to know the difference between a premise and a story, and how one can be developed into the other. You need to know how to enter and exit a scene efficiently and effectively. And you probably want to be able to do all of this quickly. Some of it you can pick up by reading critically and studying craft books. But the only way to be able to do it without thinking about it is to practice. And practicing an artform that is almost purely creative is freaking draining. Writers talk about putting a little piece of their soul into every story, and you only have so much to go around. Ergo, finding ways to practice writing without expending your entire soul is essential.

Now, some people will tell you to journal. That's fine. It is a way to practice many of these things. But writing creative non-fiction involves a slightly different skill set than writing pure fiction. I'm not saying it's any less valuable--just that it's different. Other people recommend freewriting exercises, where you don't let your pen stop moving for five minutes and see what comes out. This is also a perfectly fine way to practice, and will teach you some of these skills. But it leaves out the planning and structural aspects of fiction writing, and those are competencies that need to be cultivated. And that's why I recommend writing a lot of flash fiction. Like... a lot. Seriously, a lot of it.

I want to re-iterate how great this was for me. My very first professional sale was a story that I wrote for my Friday Flash Fiction project. But it was a hair too long and I didn't really want to cut any of it because I felt like I'd really landed on something special with that story. So rather than publish it on my blog, I submitted it to Daily Science Fiction, and they bought it. It's called Leaving Home and at time of writing it is still hosted on their website. Now, I can't promise you that if you crank out a hundred stories that you'll be able to sell any of it, but the point isn't the sale. The point is practice.

Here's what writing a sh'ton of flash fiction can get you.

For one, also a very producible length. Six hundred words is something a typical writer can churn out in an hour. If you decide six hundred is too restrictive and want to go for a thousand, that's your prerogative, but then you're looking at maybe two hours to write it. But if we're considering this a writing exercise, I'd suggest keeping it shorter.

This actually gives you a lot of freedom. As it turns out, flash fiction is a great place to be experimental. There is an inverse relationship between the length of a story and what your reader will put up with. Remember the Attention Budget? You should, because I harp on it constantly. It's really easy to buy six-hundred words worth of a reader's attention. So you can go pretty nuts with it.

There are some amazing stories out there that are under a thousand words and you read it and you find it delightful and you intuitively understand that there's no possible way that it could have worked if it were a few paragraphs longer. I will never not recommend Jenn Reese's darkly hilarious All 9,203 Episodes of 'How I Met Your Broodmother,' Ranked. Or there's Laura Pearlman's I am Graalnak of the Vroon Empire, Destroyer of Galaxies, Supreme Overlord of the Plant Earth. Ask Me Anything. My last sale to DSF was about a Martian Elder God who is obsessed with funnel cake, told in the form of a geological survey. I've got a story coming out this summer about bowling pins that is the most bonkers thing I have ever written. Seriously, go wild, and then go even wilder. Because flash is a great way to challenge yourself. How can you ever discover what you're capable of if you don't test your limits?

Of course, the opposite of experimentation is hewing to formula, but it turns out flash is good for that too. It's a great way to internalize the fundamentals of story structure because the structure of a flash story is very simple: Setup, complication, reversal. Present your premise and protagonist. Introduce conflict. Resolve it in an unexpected way. It's the same structure you find in any joke that's longer than a one-liner. Setup: "A mushroom walks into a bar." Complication: "The bartender says 'hey, we don't serve your kind here'." Reversal: "The mushroom says 'why not, I'm a fun guy'." This is about a boiled-down as a three-act structure can get. As such, it becomes very obvious very quickly if you've got things wildly out of proportion. If you spend two-thirds of the story introducing the protagonist, you will be very aware that you've done something wrong.

This is probably separate post, but you can parlay this very basic structure into an entire short story--or a chapter--by nesting and stretching it but retaining its shape. So, put a pin in that.

I like thinking of flash fiction as jokes, because a) so many flash stories are basically just long jokes anyway, and b) it reinforces the idea that this is all very low-stakes. If you tell a joke and it doesn't land, you move on with your life. Similarly, if you write for an hour and hate what you've written, you can trunk it or woodchipper it. And if you're not familiar with those terms, that's because writers have developed their own vocabulary to describe either burying things or recycling ideas because we as a species are terrified to ever throw anything away. We are narrative hoarders. And, hey, that's something else that we can learn from flash: how to write things you don't care about and throw them away when they're not working. That is a skill you need to develop. I'm not saying that it's wrong to have a story or a book that you have heavily invested yourself in; I'm just saying that everything you write doesn't need to be that.

Because here's ultimately what practice does: it takes your focus away from the product and puts it on the process. I haven't been playing guitar for thirty years because I love the music--although I do--but because I love playing. This is why I brought up Nate's violin-playing from Ted Lasso up in the preamble. Because the act of writing can become something transcendent that you lose yourself in. Even if you're just writing something simple. You begin to find the beauty in the individual sentences and the playfulness of a turn of phrase, while also seeing how they fit as part of a larger whole. You begin to love writing even if you don't care what you're writing about. And those pesky things like knowing how to succinctly describe a person or how to end a scene with a bang...

Those become things you can do without even thinking about it.

Next week, let's talk about starting and ending chapters...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.