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It’s true! Writing very short fiction can improve your novel.

I’ve had great success teaching flash fiction, and my students have gone on to be more widely published, and better writers. But I often hear from people who say something like:

“Oh, that sounds cool, but I don’t write short stories. I mostly write novels.”

Fear not, friend. Flash fiction is for you, too.

Writers Digest suggests learning to write flash because “no matter what you write, stringent word limits can challenge and sharpen your skills in ways that can improve even your long-form work.” Writing great flash requires the same skills as writing a great novel: descriptions that show instead of tell, concise language, poetic (compact yet evocative) style, and clear vision.

Microfiction (work that begins, ends, and feels complete under 1000 words) isn’t a fragment of a story. It’s not a scene without an anchor in the rest of the tale. It is its own moment. That kind of writing focuses on using the best words to speak clearly to your reader, giving them the impression of something larger than that space allows, so they don’t walk away unsatisfied. You want to give enough information so that the rest of the story, the history and potential future, are hinted at, but the reader doesn’t need to see them spelled out in order to have enjoyed what they read. If you can do that with a handful of words, you can do that with a hundred thousand. Even better – you can take away all the bits you don’t need before they get in the way of the words you want, confusing or even boring your reader.

Writing and reading short fiction show you successful ways to tell a story with the excess stripped away. I’ll help you learn the two major approaches to handling the challenging word count: how to write into the space that you have, and how to edit down to your limitations. Applying the lessons from my workshop to your novel will help you cut the fluff from your pages, turning your epic into a lean, thrilling, can’t-put-it-down adventure for your readers. Who doesn’t want that?

Keep an eye out for my next flash fiction workshop! I’ll post my teaching schedule here.

#SFWAPro

Seven Bits of a WIP

Various people tagged me in a meme that’s going around about finding the seventh page in the seventh book that you wrote for the seventh brother on your wedding day, or something like that. Rather than tag a bunch of others to do the same — because I am nothing if not an enabler of you keeping things to yourself — I’m posting seven sentences from one of my novels-in-progress here, no strings attached:

Determined not to be the first casualty, caught unawares by a child in a bloodstained nightgown waiting silently for her wake up so it could feed, she focused on the enemy Romero gave her. She packed watertight plastic containers with dried food, wooden matches, camping gear, medical supplies, and knives (in assorted sizes). She refused to live on the first floor, since a second-story apartment was more defensible. And she kept her doors locked when she was home, even when she was awake, so nothing could sneak in.

Years of paranoia and preparation, and in the end, none of it mattered. It was all made useless by the sudden realization that the something lurking in the darkness wasn’t foreshadowing a future apocalypse. They were only ghosts.

What a fucking waste of time.

This is from my urban gothic (aka “No, she should not have a tramp stamp on the cover god dammit”) novel, tentatively titled “Shades of Grey” because my sense of humor demanded I use this until the book is done enough to tell me its real title.

If you do decide to post your excerpts as well, and want me to see it, leave it in the comments and I’ll take a look.

Writing Process Blog Tour

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam invited me to join this blog relay on writing craft. Her post is here.

1. What am I working on?

I’ve got three big projects right now, as well as a couple of short stories I need to revise, and my editing work. I’m concurrently writing two novels and compiling a mosaic novelette of SF poetry. The working titles are:

  • Sonnets for the Rocket Queen – 144 Shakespearean-style sonnets about love, loss, and space ships.
  • Shades of Gray – first person, female protagonist, modern day, ghost story. Urban fantasy without the tramp stamp. Miéville noir with a female lead.
  • Caudal Ballad – third person PoV, multiple protagonists, surreal/interstitial. Borges meets Nabakov, with traces of Burroughs and Poe.

Shades and Caudal are set in the same universe, same town, at the same time, and explore a series of events from very different perspectives. They don’t need to be read together.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

No one else has read what I read, in exactly the same way, or lived my life, or shares my exact sense of humor. That’s true of all of us. For that alone, I’d like to think what I write is different. When you add to that mix that I write because I have a story in my head I want to get out — instead of for fame, money, respect, or notoriety — and that if I’ve read the same story elsewhere I no longer want to write it, then what I do produce fits into a small space occupied by not much else.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Have you ever read something and thought, “Oh, yeah, that is true”? You learn some fact you didn’t know before, but based on everything else you know, this thing makes sense. I love to read fiction that has that resonance of truth, and I don’t want to put any of my own writing out into the world unless it speaks to me in the same way. It has to answer a question, or provide a viewpoint which clarifies a confusion you didn’t even know you had. I want to feel more alive, more knowledgeable, when I’ve finished a piece of reading. Even if the knowledge is sad.

I’m also interested in mixes of genres or the places where multiple genres lean against each other. I think that when you work in solid, simple, mainstream, genres, whether it’s literary or epic fantasy or hard science fiction, you’re more likely to be retreading the same old ground. There are stories which slip between the cracks, tales that don’t quite fit, and are therefore told a lot less often. Those are the stories I want to tell.

4. How does my writing process work?

My current writing process was developed over years of failing to produce consistent work. Ideas, I have. Ideas are easy. They’re everywhere. I’m lucky that my subconscious, what I call my lizard brain, is strong enough that I can decide I want to work on a story, spend a little time thinking about it, and then move on to another task, another piece of writing. Meanwhile, my lizard brain will keep writing, until one day, it taps me on the shoulder and says, “Here you go.”

The hard part is always writing it down. I’m chronically overbooked, overworked, and exhausted. I don’t have time to read for pleasure, be with my family the way I’d like. So, how do I find time to write?

I carefully manage what I have, and the rest I need, I steal. The managing comes from being organized — two white boards at home, online spreadsheets, Field Notes books in my bags to scribble down thoughts, post-it notes on the wall, documents saved to Drive so I can work on them anywhere. I manage my time like I structure my writing, so I’ve got spreadsheets for how much time is spent on each freelance project, to do lists, and even my daily word count.

Doing that means I’ve got everything I’ve written down whenever I want it, and knowing whether I’ve spent enough time on other projects that day tells me how much I have left for writing. If it’s not enough to get out the part of the story I’m ready to write down, I take what I need from other places. I write instead of going out. I write instead of getting to bed on time. I write on my lunch breaks, before work, while watching tv, during dinner. Not all of those times every day, but whatever I need to make sure that every day, I am writing.

I’m a better writer because of it, and I think that I more fully enjoy the times I spend with my family, partner, friends because I know what I give up to write, and what I give up to be with them. I cherish everything. To me, making time to write feels like having it all.

* I was supposed to tag two more writers who’d then complete this meme and pass it on. Instead, I am tagging all of you. Write your own posts, and leave me a comment with the link so I can go read yours too.

#SFWAPro

Coming Soon, The Battle Royale Slam Book! Or, where I attack the idea of “anti-feminist” with a machete.

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Synopsis: 

Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale is an international best seller, the basis of the cult film, and the inspiration for a popular manga. And fifteen years after its initial release,Battle Royale remains a controversial pop culture phenomenon.

Join New York Times best-selling author John Skipp, Batman screenwriter Sam Hamm, Philip K. Dick Award-nominated novelist Toh EnJoe, and an array of writers, scholars, and fans in discussing girl power, firepower, professional wrestling, bad movies, the survival chances of Hollywood’s leading teen icons in a battle royale, and so much more! (Table of Contents here.)

… See that bit in the blurb about “girl power”? Yeah, that’s me.

My essay, “Girl Power”, is part of this collection and I am incredibly thrilled to be there. I’d been wanting to get back to academic writing for a while, I’ve been a fan of the story for years, I studied filmmaking and film criticism – particularly in regards to Japanese cinema – so when I heard that editor Nick Mamatas was looking for a few more essays, my hand shot up so fast you all probably heard the accompanying sonic boom.

He ran down the list of subjects already taken, and I immediate noticed the big empty space where I could make myself comfortable: a review and refusal of the “anti-feminist” label so often applied to the film, and (less often) the print versions of Battle Royale. See, this story is about teenagers, and half of the kids are girls, and they’re fighting and fucking and murdering each other, so doesn’t it have to be bad? It is a horror show. We know how those end up… meaning that the girls in this tale must not have any power or agency at all, right?

Wrong.

Sure, one the people who survives to the end is a boy, but the other one is a girl. The bad kids have a couple of slasher psychopaths and one of the most vicious? She’s a girl, too. And while they do spend the typical amount of time being catty and stealing each other’s boyfriends, the schoolgirls of Class 3-B don’t do it because they have nothing better to do. They do it because they recognize who’s got the power in their society, and they’ll do what it takes to get that power for themselves. Unlike Katniss or Bella or Babydoll, these girls make choices that directly affect their fates. Just because they’re splattered with blood at the time, doesn’t take away from their agency.

These girls are clever, resilient, independent, loving, insightful, maternal, vindictive, strong, and terrifying, when they choose to be. What could be more powerful than that?

Want to read the essay? Pre-order the book here.

#SFWAPro

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Writer Wednesday: Jessica May Lin

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Today’s writer is Jessica May Lin. I discovered her when I read her amazing flash piece, “Mortar flowers”, in Nature‘s Futures section, and then read her “Dark, Beautiful Force” at Daily Science Fiction, found out we have friends in common, she’s going to school in the first town I moved to when I left home after high school, and she’s a fellow Codexian. Naturally, I had to ask her a million questions. (Okay, ten. Ish.)

When she’s not writing, Jessica is a student at UC Berkeley. She is also an acrobatic pole dancer. You can find her at www.jessicamaylin.com.

1. How does your life as a full-time university student inspire and/or detract from your writing? Does your major influence your writing, or do you keep the two separate?

I think the exciting thing about being a student is that every day, you get tons of new stuff thrown at you from all sides, which is inspiring in strange ways. Once, after being unable to fall asleep all night, I misunderstood some theory my physics professor was describing, which eventually inspired me to write a story with the title “The Insomniac’s Guide to Collapsing Universes.” I’m majoring in Comp Lit, which has introduced me to radically different ways of storytelling that depart from the Western emphasis on plot and interiority, my two current favorites being Chinese vernacular literature and Soviet avant-garde cinema.

That aside, my writing life, my student life, and my dancing life are all pretty different from each other with very few overlaps, and I like to think that each one engages a different side of myself. It’s kind of like living in 3 different worlds at once with the ability to jump between, but I like it that way. When I get overwhelmed by one, I can easily slip into another. That way, everything I do always feels fresh.

2. What local authors groups or online communities do you actively participate in?

I’m very close with the Odyssey Workshop Class of 2012, who are the first writer friends I’ve ever had. It’s been pretty exciting, watching their careers blossom over the past year and getting to cheer them on from the sidelines. More recently, I made a lot of new friends at Taos Toolbox 2013, who I’m still in touch with. I’m also a member of Codex Writers Forum, which is a supportive, insightful resource that throws the best contests.

3. You’ve written and published some excellent very short fiction. You’re also working on a novel, A Dream of Burning Cities. Do you prefer one kind of writing over the other?

I’m a novel person through and through. When I get an idea I’m super excited about (which happens like, once a year), I want to hold on to it and explore it in as much depth as possible. Sometimes I think I get too invested. I do feel like there’s more room for experiment in short stories though, so every now and then when I stumble across a catchy concept that I can’t stop thinking about, I will write a short story.

4. Which publication are you most proud of, and why?

The bit of writing I am most proud of is actually something I wrote this summer. It hasn’t found a home yet, but I like it because it forced me out of my comfort zone. It was definitely a risk, but one I’m glad I took.

5. You’ve already attended a couple of writing workshops (Taos, Odyssey), which is unusual for a young writer so early in her career. What did you get out of those experiences, and which workshops do you want to attend next?

Before attending workshops, my writing was pretty much an explosion of feelings and ideas without much organization. I liked painting pretty pictures with my words, but I had no idea what a plot was… I think I’m much more disciplined now. Also, I’ve met some incredible people and mentors, who have been there for me through thick and thin. However, I think I’m done attending workshops for a while. For me, there are two parts of learning to write, which are 1) learning to write and 2) living and growing. I’ve been spending a lot of time learning to write but I don’t think I’ve been on an adventure in a while, so I think I’m going to do that next summer. (more…)