I wrote the following as an addendum to my first book of fiction, Zen Madman’s Flash Fiction Folio. Perhaps ironically, I am posting it now because I don’t feel like writing at the moment.
FORMING FLASH FICTION FANTASTICALLY FAST
That’s the most succinct advice I can give you for becoming a writer instead of not a writer. If you’re not there yet, turn the page. I’ll expondicate.
FORMING FLASH FICTION MODERATELY FAST
Inspiration. Have an idea. It can come from anywhere.
Sketch. Write one sentence each about your character(s), setting, and plot.
Outline. What happens in your story? Without description, scrawl out a sequence of events.
Write. No editing. Just pen to paper, fingers to keys, words to page.
Revise. Now edit. If your outline was good, you’re mostly proofreading and swapping a few words. If larger changes need to be made, start with those.
Read. From beginning to end, view your story through a reader’s eyes. If you’re unhappy with it, re-revise, then re-read. Do not repeat ad nauseum.
Publish. This step is important. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a blog with three readers or an international publication. Put your work out there for others to enjoy.
FORMING FLASH FICTION IN FULL
Still not there yet? Fine. I can prattle on for pages about this stuff. I’ll take each of the seven headings from the last section and expondicate on them.
Who knows where inspiration comes from?
Sometimes I’ll have a weird dream, then wake up and start writing. Other times I’ll see one thing that makes me think of another thing, and I’ll write about that. On occasion I’ll solicit ideas from friends, or receive them without solicitation.
One thing I’ve often read is that there are only two ways to improve your writing. Reading and writing. Both of these are essential, but there are other, subtler ways of improving your writing. Speaking, listening, watching, seeing, feeling, breathing, thinking and simply living can all improve your writing if you have the right mindset.
Finding inspiration is a little bit zen. If you look too hard, you’ll usually miss it. But when you’re open to it, you’ll find it everywhere.
My advice is to write stuff down. You have an idea for a story? Write it down. Just a character sketch? Write it down. Funny piece of dialog? Write it down. You visit an interesting place? You get the picture.
What you put in your idea box may not immediately spark a story, but it will give you a folder of inspiration.
There are three parts to (almost) every story: character, setting, and action. You can start with a real person, a real place, and a real event if you don’t want to rely on your imagination. Jot something down about each aspect of your story. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sentence or a paragraph. Order doesn’t matter either. You can start with setting or action instead of character if you prefer.
It’s been said that novels are driven by character and short stories are driven by action. That’s all well and good, but if you accept that action is driven by character, then so too are even the shortest stories.
When thinking about characters, you can start with stuff like gender, race, nationality, sexuality, occupation, and physical appearance. All of these can be useful in describing a person to the reader. But these are often non-essential components of a short story.
Having read my stories, you may think that I skip over this step of thinking about character. I don’t. I never start writing without a strong idea of who my characters are. While a character may remain nameless and faceless, action reveals all.
Strictly speaking, you don’t need a setting. It can be useful, however, if you want your characters to do stuff. Action and character may dictate where your story takes place, but if they don’t, choose between somewhere you know well and somewhere that inspires your imagination. The former will provide you with a convincing level of detail, and the latter will prompt you to make stuff up.
The action of your story will get fleshed out in the next step, but first ask yourself a simple question. What happens?
If you can’t answer this in one sentence, you’re probably not writing flash fiction. Even a novel or a film can usually be summed up in a few words. For example: big boat sinks.
While an outline isn’t strictly necessary for any story, I find it helps. You don’t have to slavishly follow your outline. Its purpose is to free you from getting stuck.
There’s no need for all the big I, little i, big A, little a, 1, 2, 3 business. Bullet points will do. All you need is an ordered list of things you’re going to write about.
It’s very simple. You’re basically telling yourself what each paragraph will be about. You won’t need more than ten paragraphs, so the outline can be brief.
A story I read as a child bore the moral: begin at the beginning. When you’re ready to begin writing, the beginning is a great place to begin. But when you’re making an outline, here’s a tip: start with the ending. If you don’t know where you’re going, you probably won’t get there.
Put words on the page.
Follow your outline and use your setting, but if the story changes on you, let it. If your characters want to do something different, let them. It’s their story, after all.
Don’t edit yourself while you’re writing. Spelling and grammar count for nothing in a first draft. If a sentence is awkward, leave it. You’re pumping out unrefined oil in this step, not producing fuel for clean consumption. Don’t judge, don’t edit, and don’t look back.
Now is the time to fix all the spelling and grammar and crap that you ignored while writing your first draft. If you have someone you trust to double check your grammar and usage, feel free to phone a friend. It’s okay to break rules, but it’s good to know when you’re doing it. I’m an advocate of verbal jaywalking, but I try to look both ways before crossing the language.
Tighten up loose sentences and paragraphs. Trim the fat. Never repeat yourself. Let me repeat. Never repeat yourself! Not unless it’s really important. If you said something twice without a good reason, pick which phrasing you prefer and erase the redundancy. Be merciless with your own words. If one of them is sitting there doing nothing, eliminate it. Flash fiction has no patience for lazy words.
If you outlined well, you won’t need to make any huge changes. Your story is mostly done.
I think they teach this in the first grade.
Experience your story the way your audience will. If your story is under one thousand words, it should be quite easy to read from beginning to end without distraction.
If you don’t think your story works, you can go back to the last step and make larger changes. If a word or two cries out for replacement, go ahead and fix it.
This step is about quality control. Avoid second guessing yourself. If something sucks, make it better. But don’t agonize over everything. Once you’ve followed the first six steps, you’re ready for the last one.
Sharing your work with others is what makes it more than a journal. If you want to write a journal, that’s great and I support that. But if you bother to spend your time writing stories, please share them with us.
The digital age has made it exponentially easier for writers to connect with their audiences. Simple self-publishing is as easy as starting a blog and posting your story online. There’s not much money in it, but there are a host of websites thirsty for regular contributions of flash fiction.
If you have a story that you’d like to see published on Free Association, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Yeah, that place isn’t there anymore.)
If you have a collection of stories that you’d like to publish, we can help you put it together and publish it in PDF, Kindle, and hard copy. We offer editing, copy editing, proofreading, cover design, illustration, and interior book design. There are many other websites offering similar services, and I expect the industry to continue its expansion.
There are a million ways to write a story, but all of them come down to putting ordered words on a page. That’s what writing is. For many writers, however, too much time is spent staring at a blank page instead of putting words to one.
The goal of this essay is to give you an easy way to start writing fiction. If you’re already writing fiction, then perhaps this will help when you get stuck. It also applies to non-fiction, but that’s another story for another day.
The point of writing something short is to let you finish something. I think it’s the best approach for anyone new to the game, but it’s especially useful for someone who already has “too many projects going on.” I’m one of those people, and I found a way to put this collection together in a relatively short time.
You may not have time to write a novel right now, but who can’t squeeze an hour out of a day to write a flash fiction draft? The whole project can be spread over a few days, taking at most a few hours in total.