...Find out you might not be terrible at this "writing" thing. The Indiana Writers Center, of which I am again a member (oops! My membership had quietly expired and I had to renew) offers verious weekend classes and one that turns up every few months is "Flash Fiction," which is what I knew as "short-short stories," except now they have grown up to 750 words or less and have become High Art.
This, for me, requires a kind of willing suspension of something, perhaps modesty or good sense, as I don't aspire to much past Competent Craft: stories people don't fall asleep or wander off during, with a healthy side of Having Not Abused Grammar Beyond Reason. Then there's the whole Room Full Of Strangers thing, but heckers, I can out-strange eight (seven if you live in a really big or very small city) of the next ten people you meet, so--
So I went. The instructor was both pleasant and pleasantly competent, one of those cross-disciplinary folks who see with both eyes what most of us peer at through a monocle. In her case, a career in Art History (paintings, that is, and how nice to listen to someone who knows who Magrite was and uses a Degas painting to illustrate a story arc) coupled with an insatiable itch to write. Not to mention enough skill at it to be published and reprinted widely.
She spent a lot of time describing and even more time showing examples. We read aloud. (One student demurred. And I think I'm shy?) We talked about the essential images in the stories, about using and having effects without being gimmicky, and by and by it was time for the part "we rarely have enough time for." Writing. From prompts.
"Prompts?" It's a germ; more how you will tell the story than what it is about. Nothing specific. For example:
A. "Describe following someone: where, when. Describe who you are following and the process of following. Indicate your feelings. Last of all -- why are you following them?" And Leatherstocking, Sherlock, Sam Spade? You've got a whole 750 words in which to work.
B. "You're taking a journey How do you feel about it? What do you think will happen when you arrive? Do you arrive? What actually happens?" You've got to tease a whole story from this, not just a vignette. It's got to have a beginning, a middle and a satisfying end. You're not supposed to ditch the reader on a train unless you can convince them that's how it was supposed to happen.
C. "Describe two people in a relationship with emotional strain between them; then describe them in earlier times, in a romantic moment." The instructor remarked that her students never wrote from that prompt. Oh, lady: challenge accepted.
I had my used Surface Pro* out already; I'd been working on something else when we took a break halfway through the three-hour class. The other writers had pen and paper; I guess I'm just not romantic. My handwriting is either legible or fast and thoughts are only too fast, so for me, keyboard beats pen.†
Okay, I was cheating. I already had my people; we last met them on the Hidden Frontier, watching a meteor shower and listening to the evensong of the trap-door weasel in the outback of Kansas II.
300 words later (call it one double-spaced typewritten page or just over), I looked up. "It's too short."
The instructor shook her head. "No such thing. Is it a complete story?"
"I'm pretty sure."
"Then it's long enough."
We had fifteen minutes left. I spent it tightening things up, replacing a too-specific reference with a generic one and catching at least half the typos.
Come reading-aloud time, one of the other students led. She had a nice start, but it turned out to be a "Why I can't write this assignment" piece. Disappointing, as she clearly could have -- if she'd felt she could. Writing is an act of immense hubris -- no, really, it is -- and sometimes you daren't look down.
Another student had an image-rich "journey" story; I won't crib his work here but it was nicely jarring. He hadn't quite got an ending but you could see it through the fog.
Yet another had picked up "following," and borrowed noir tropes only to subtly subvert them. Good stuff. Alas, he was not sure about how to end his, either. --Hey, you try writing narrative haiku and see how far you get. The shorter, the more difficult.
I lucked out: I knew my people. I knew their situation. I wrote 'em. When my turn came, the story was well-received. Even the instructor had only a little (well-founded) criticism -- and she does fiction-as-art, and gets paid actual money for it, too. Okay, the typical pittance short fiction gets,‡ but in lit'ry circles, what you usually get paid in are extra copies of the book or magazine and the occasional coup-counting scalp. Good enough to get paid for it means when she talks, I listen.
I'm going to polish this thing and shop it around. Why not? And I'll file off the serial numbers and use it as the basis for a bridge piece in the Hidden Frontier "Stardrive Engineer Bobbi" arc. There's nothing at all science-fictional in it but I can crib from my own work and I've got nearly 450 words for world-building and miscellaneous background.
* Surfacii (Surfacea? Surfectants?) are crazy-expensive new, at least looking from my pocketbook. Vendors on Amazon offer used ones, clean-slate and checked out, for a third or less the price.
† Which means, of course, that keyboard >> sword. It's all fun and games until some literal-minded type lumbers by and clonks you over the head with a plowshare.
‡ A recent survey set the average writer's income from short fiction at $7500 a year. Pretty sure Steven King responded to the survey, so unless you're him, you might want to keep your day job. Black Mask is gone; The Saturday Evening Post is gone in all but name. New Yorker does one short per issue, the SF mags are still around, and all of their slushpiles are immense. Past that, you'll be getting the price of cheese sandwich or less, if you get published at all. (You can still read Black Mask online.)
T. R. MCELROY'S STREAMLINED TELEGRAPH KEYS
9 months ago