Flash Fiction Matters

Innovation_Inspiration

I’ve had a few requests to detail how I write the stories on my blog, To Cut a Short Story Short, so here is an article explaining just that, with the hope that the reader may find something herein they can use or adapt  to help in their own writing.

I’ve divided it into two sections. 1. Ideas and inspiration and 2. Mechanics of writing (‘my system’).

1. IDEAS AND INSPIRATION.

The stories on my blog are generally written in response to two kinds of prompts. Either to use designated words to start and be included in a story (for example, Everybody to start the story and must and celebrity to be included elsewhere) or a theme, such as, ‘write a 500 word romantic comedy.’

All the 100, 200 and most of the 300-600 word stories were written using designated words (for a writing group). Most of the others were written for flash fiction competitions using a theme.

Sometimes the theme/starting word etc. will suggest an idea. Other times I’ll have an idea in mind and adapt it to the theme/starting word etc. The rest of the time it’s down to hunting through story prompts, looking for an idea that will fit the words/theme.

Sitting down and actually writing the story requires the leap to inspired thought – maybe visualizing a scene, hearing dialogue in the imagination, ‘seeing’ characters interacting, having a story line (maybe very simple) flash into the mind. This is an imagination-based process, and as such, improves with practice.

Sometimes this leap occurs spontaneously. A story scheduled for 3rd June, Angels and Cards, just came into my head, even the ‘punchline’! Sometimes, it’s a minimal stimulus. Just seeing a word (‘Dreamstealer’ led to Steal a Little Dream) or a scene (seeing my father’s grave led to Scene in a Lincolnshire Churchyard) or thinking ‘what if?’ (What if I had a nuclear bomb in my car boot? led to The Biggest Bang!)

Sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to dream the whole story (The War and Starvation Diet, Flip Side, Don’t Know What to Write?). 

So where have the ideas come from for the stories on my blog? Well, I’ve had a look through all my posts and identified the genesis of every story/article.

Inspired by starting/designated words to be used

41

Autobiographical/personal experience plus fantasy element – ‘what if?’

22

Writers’ Digest (Brian A Klems)/miscellaneous prompts

14

Writing group assignments

13

Almost wholly autobiographical

11

Competition theme

11

Other

7

Miscellaneous ideas from fiction/videos

6

Inspired by true events (not personal)

4

Dreams

3

WordPress blogging course

3

135

A vague prompt isn’t enough of course. ‘Write a 500 word romantic comedy’ isn’t much use. Adapting it to ‘Write a 500 word comedy about a divorced female piano teacher who is middle-aged, not unattractive, scatty, forgetful and has two enormous dogs.’ Then you’re in business! Not hard to think of what someone like that might get up to and the result was Clarissa’s Missives and Clarissa’s Missives – Part Two.

An example of a story that was stimulated by the starting word I had to use, Communion, was Here Comes the Sun. The song Communion with the Sun by Todd Rundgren came into my head. That features the lyrics Ra!, Ra!, Ra!, and I imagined the sun rising, a huge orange disc, above a mountain plateau and a sacrifice to the sun god. Then I visualized a man and a woman walking up a mountainside trail carrying torches. That was enough to get going!

Once an idea has made that leap to inspired thought, I’ll either write it down for further investigation, even if it’s just an outline and a couple of lines of dialogue, or preferably make a start on it there and then.

Often I don’t know how a story will end. That will usually come as I’m writing. If not, then an ending has come to me subsequently, often in the shower, which is where I’ve had some great ideas! Something to do with running water, warmth and relaxing I imagine…

Once I’ve got some thoughts on what I’m going to write, I start typing and usually find ideas really start to ‘flow.’ For instance I write some dialogue and I can imagine someone answering it. Whilst doing that I might suddenly have insight into what could happen later in the story, and so on. As mentioned in the second section of this article I personally don’t do much editing on the first draft, I just let the ideas flow and get them down, with an eye half on the word count! I think regular practice helps here. I’m finding it much easier and quicker to write stories now than a year ago. It hasn’t done my editing skills any harm either!

As flash fiction is so short I don’t normally write out a plan but with the longer stories I sometimes write a list of scenes in advance and allocate a word count to each.

I would just add that I’ve found the ability to touch-type invaluable, and if you are relying on the ‘hunt and peck’ system I highly recommend learning it. The time spent will be repaid time and again.

To end this section, here are some books and websites I used that you might like to check out.

The Short Story Writer’s Toolshed  Della Galton

Busy Writers Guide series  Marcy Kennedy

Master Lists for Writers  Bryn Donovan

The Five Minute Writer  Margret Geraghty

Solutions for Writers  Sol Stein

Stephen King on Writing  Stephen King

http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts

http://www.writepop.com/category/1001-story-ideas

http://www.wordola.com/

2. MECHANICS OF WRITING (‘My System’)

I’ve developed a system of writing flash fiction which I’ve found very helpful, and which can be applied to longer works too with some adaptation. 

The basic procedure, in a nutshell, is to write freely up to about twice the word limit I’m aiming for, or a bit more. Usually I’m writing for a 300 word limit (with a view to posting a longer version on my blog) so I may write 500-800 words. Then I will create several versions of the story by editing out 100 words at a time, usually one a day or sometimes one in the morning and one at night. This makes it a whole lot simpler and easier!

Having reached the final 300 word version I’ll then go back through the versions, from shortest to longest, incorporating improvements found at the shorter levels. As this generally means that the versions will be shortened I can then borrow a phrase or two from the next longest version up.

Finally, I’ll check all the versions from longest to shortest and make sure they are consistent. Then I’ll post the shortest version in the 300 word story group I run, the longest (usually) on my blog, To Cut a Short Story Short, and the intermediate versions are available for flash fiction competitions etc.

That probably sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is, so here is an example.

Away with the Fairies

With this particular story (scheduled for June 18th) I had to write a 300 word story beginning with the word ‘Everybody’. In this instance nothing came to mind for a few days so I looked in Master Lists for Writers by Bryn Donovan. There I found – ‘The outlandish thing a ‘crazy’ person kept insisting was real? – it’s real!’ Nice prompt! But what crazy idea? Soon the idea of someone insisting they have fairies in their garden came to mind.

The first draft was saved as ‘300 story 16-2 first draft 780 words’. It’s very important to keep track of all the versions!

I don’t spend time editing the first draft, I just focus on getting the ideas down. I’ll keep an eye on the word count but if it runs on a bit, then I’ll let it. Then I’ll correct spelling and obvious grammatical mistakes, save it and forget about it. If I fancy doing more writing I’ll work on something else.

Then, the next day I read through the first draft, make obvious corrections and, in this instance, saved a copy under the filename ‘300 story 16-2 700 word version’ (which seemed a good target for the ‘blog’ version, bearing in mind Stephen King’s received wisdom, 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%). I went through this, cutting out redundant words/sentences and rephrasing others, until I got it down to 700 words. Once again save and forget!

The next time I look at it, usually the next day, I’ll repeat the procedure. In this instance, first save a copy and name it ‘300 story 16-2 600 word version’. Then go through this, again cutting out 100 words. Sometimes aspects of the story have to be completely cut out, but I know they are in the full version so can be posted on my blog!

The next day, save a ‘300 story 16-2 500 word version’ and cut another 100 words out. Once again, save and forget!

I’ll repeat the procedure until I arrive at the 300 word version, simply entitled ‘300 story 16-2’ in this instance. Sometimes this stage is a bit trickier, particularly if starting at 600-800 words! But I’ve always managed it and kept the essence of the story, except once when I had to rewrite a slightly different version.

Which begs the question, which is the real story? Is the 300 word story a cut down version of the long version or is the long version an expanded version of the 300 worder?! If you didn’t know how it was created you couldn’t tell.

So, now I have a streamlined 300 word version for my writing group, hopefully still containing some of my favourite sentences.

Now, I’ll start a process that I’ve termed ‘back-editing.’ This entails getting the 300 word version and the 400 word version on the screen, side by side, and copying and pasting improved phrases/words from the 300 to the 400 word version. As the story is being streamlined I usually find more concise and sometimes better ways of saying things.

This process can be done in odd moments and I often do it lying in bed!

So for example, in the 500 word version of Away with the Fairies I had this:

In another draw I found a bulky sketchpad. As I turned the pages I was astonished to see page after page of well-executed pencil drawings of fairies. Some had been competently coloured with watercolours. I noticed a number had been dated and on some there were notes. ‘Seen over pond,’ ‘Tianna, sat on bench,’ etc. – 56 words

In the 400 word version it became:

In another draw I found a bulky sketchpad. Turning the pages, I was astonished to see page after page of well-executed drawings of fairies, some competently coloured with watercolours. Many had been dated and on some there were notes. ‘Seen over pond,’ ‘Tianna, sat on bench,’ etc. – 48 words

Finally, in the 300 word version it became:

In another draw I found a bulky sketchpad, full of well-executed drawings of fairies, some expertly coloured with watercolour. Many were dated, and some annotated, ‘seen over pond,’ ‘Tianna – sat on bench,’ etc. – 34 words

Essentially saying the same thing.

So by plugging this into the 400 word version it allows me to ‘borrow’ 14 words (48 minus 34) from the 500 word version that had originally been edited out. And of course, plugging it into the 500 word version I would be able to borrow 22 words from the 600 word version (56 minus 34) etc.

Then I’ll do the same with the 500 and 400 word versions etc. Finally, having repeated this procedure up to the 700 word version (which would probably allow me to incorporate another 20-30 words from the original first draft) I will then check back down through the versions, from longest to shortest to ensure consistency. This is quite a quick process and I might do them all in one session of about 20-30 minutes.

With practice the above procedure is a whole lot easier than it sounds and is quite ‘painless,’ compared to trying to edit, say, 550 words down to 300 in one go. And that would only give one version too.

In the case of Away with the Fairies, writing and editing the story, as detailed above, took about three and a half hours in total, spread over a week. The end result was five versions of the story, from 300 words to 700 words in length, and (I think) a tighter, smoother story in every version, with no ‘typos’ and very few (if any) mistakes in grammar or punctuation.

Of course, one could simply keep a close eye on the word count and not go so far over the limit, then the number of versions would be less, as would editing time. However, personally speaking, I enjoy the process so I don’t mind.

Finally, the finished version is copied and pasted from my word processor, Mac Pages ’09, into WordPress and the formatting adjusted. I schedule at five day intervals so I’ll then slot the post in at a suitable future date. The day before it’s published I’ll have a quick read through just to check it’s OK, then the next day you can read it on my blog!

Also, I’m very pleased to announce that ‘the best of my blog,’ To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories, and a short story, Bound in Morocco, are now both available as paperbacks and Kindle eBooks. Please see Shop in the menu above for full details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on my blog. There are over 130! 
 –

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 300 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

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12 thoughts on “Flash Fiction Matters

  1. Nadine Banna says:

    Wow this is very helpful indeed! Thank you so much for sharing your writing process. I’m new to blogging and I’m into writing fiction but I used to do it in my free time sporadically whenever inspiration hit. Now I find it harder to write and find inspiration weekly to fit my posting schedule. I’m not used to writing with a deadline! This post helped a lot specially from where you get inspired.

    Like

    • Simon J Wood says:

      Hi Nadine,
      One thing that’s helped me is to have a list of writing assignments, arranged in order of deadline, on the wall by my desk. Then it’s hard to overlook starting something in good time (i.e. allowing time for ‘resting’ the piece, and editing). I update and print this out every couple of days or so.

      Like you, I adopted a posting schedule. In my case every five days, to push myself a bit, and to do all the assignments I generally have. Then when you have posts scheduled two, three or more weeks ahead it gives you some ‘space,’ to work in.

      Recently I’ve found myself doing twenty minutes per piece on getting up, either writing or editing. I’ve usually got one or two stories on the go. Although my body (usually!) feels tired I can think clearly. I also like very late at night too.

      When you have story ideas it’s good to write them down for future use, especially for those times when you just can’t think of something, and the prompts in books and online don’t seem to fit the bill. I sometimes get good ideas from dreams or when just waking up. Then I’ve learnt to be bothered to write them down! As I said in the article, sometimes it’s just a word, or a sentence, or one idea that’s all you need to get started.

      The other thing that’s really helped, as I mention in the article, is to write the first draft freely, I’m even omitting speech marks now. Then to edit that draft down with successive versions done on different days. The final result is much more polished. Usually I will then go back through the versions incorporating improvements found at the shorter levels. It all depends on whether you have a use or not for them. Fortunately I do as I post them on my blog!

      So, thank you for the feedback and it’s great you found the article helpful. Good luck with your writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jason Powers says:

    Thanks for the tips! I often get intimidated by looking at how much I have to write and then again how much I have to cut, this will be really helpful with managing the workload.

    Like

    • Simon J Wood says:

      Hi Jason, yes, I’ve found that system to take the chore out of editing. It’s so much easier to just cut out a smaller number of words a day than one big session. The result is more polished and the longer versions are always available for use, nothing is wasted!

      Like

  3. AggieSoon says:

    Thank you for your post! As a new blogger I am just throwing out new stories without much thought to the editing process. Your post has made me think about analysing my work and polishing it before to put it up. I found the tip to write longer and edit down very helpful.

    Like

    • Simon J Wood says:

      Hi there, I’m really pleased you found the article helpful. I have to say I’ve sometimes read stories by quite accomplished bloggers/writers containing numerous ‘typos,’ confusion over who is saying what in dialogue, no white space etc. etc. which has spoiled the reading experience, especially as I can tell they’ve hardly bothered to edit it! It also puts me off reading further posts by those people.

      I just published ‘the best of my blog’ as a paperback (details under Shop in my menu) and I read through 111 stories before incorporating them into the manuscript. Because I’d edited them properly in the first place I had to make very few changes, just clarifying a couple of endings and tightening up paragraphing in some earlier stories.

      So I know your work will read so much better for analyzing and polishing. Best of luck!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Simon J Wood says:

      Hello Courtney (?), I nearly always write to a word limit and found I was very bad at sticking to it! Rather than beat myself up over that I found that I could write over the limit, and then edit it down a little bit every day. It is SO much easier that way. Even when it seems impossible to knock, say, another 100 words out, I get up the next day and nearly always see a way to do it, sometimes quite easily.

      Personally speaking I do have a use for the longer versions (my blog!) so I developed the method of ‘back editing’ I describe in the article.

      Just the other day I wrote for a 400 word flash fiction competition and, despite trying not to, ended up with 800 words and only three days to go. However, I took 200 words out the next day, 100 the day after that, and 100 the day after that. So got it down to the limit 12 hours before the deadline. Quite easily too. Usually I never leave things that late though, it’s always good to let a story ‘rest’ for several days!

      Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Mary M-D says:

    Simon,
    This is a fantastic tutorial! Thank you for sharing your process. There are several aspects I’m going to incorporate into my writing! Valuable information.

    Like

  5. Matthew says:

    Hi Simon, from reading this I can tell you put your heart and soul into writing, and it got me wondering: Do you write full-time, or is this a hobby on the side? Matt.

    Like

    • Simon J Wood says:

      Hello Matt, no it’s just a hobby but something I’ve thought about doing for a long time. When I finally started (18 months ago) I found I really enjoyed writing flash fiction. It grew from there to me starting a blog and now I’ll be publishing the best of my blog (111 stories) in a couple of weeks’ time on Amazon! So you never know what’s around the corner!

      Liked by 1 person

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