There are some forms of fiction that I thought I’d never touch. More fool I.
When I decided to Become a Writer, I just knew that I would be writing novels. The real treasure troves lay in books, and it’s certainly true that you have leaped over an important barrier when you’ve published a book.
Somewhere along the way I grew up and decided that my way of conquering the nightmare auditorium was going to be more gradual than for others. First, there’s the ongoing blogging and the freelancing, which replace the harried newspaper reporter phase in the growth charts of writers past.
Then there’s the ongoing short fiction. Very short fiction.
Step 2. Flash Fiction.
I had always blown off Flash Fiction as a dead end, and not something that would help me on the path of the Great American Novel. I primarily thought this because Flash Fiction is extremely short–pieces end up in the 500-1000 word range, maybe going to the 2000 word range but that’s getting into “short short story” area.
I had respect for short stories, but flash fiction just seemed too trivial.
For some reason–whether it was because I’d had too much caffeine, too few meds, or had gone crazy in trying to promote the blog–when I stumbled across my first Flash Fiction Carnival, I decided to try it out. I actually had come in so late that there was less than 24 hours left for submission.
I’m an impulsive type, and I decided, what the hey. Let’s see what I can boil up in an hour or so. Obviously rewriting is not an option at 10:00pm that night.
My first thought was that 1000 words is not a lot. Indeed, it is not. Neither is 500. So I’d have to go for as much content as possible, compacted into as much space as possible. Waste no words nor phrases, and trim ruthlessly at the end.
I started off with
- a clear technique goal: work on sense of place and time.
- a clear voice goal: fairy tale.
- random pictures from a Flickr search on “palace blossoms”.
- two sketched characters (one doesn’t work for me even in longer works).
- yes, at some point the theme was considered.
I wrote in Scrivener, which updates word count as you type. I paid strict attention to how much I had written, and tried to pace such that at the halfway mark, something interesting happened, then have an ending cap.
Since I didn’t have much experience with fiction, I drew from the large amounts of advice I had consumed from 10 or so good books on the subject of writing techniques. It was important stuff, like
- start every scene as late as possible,
- techniques to draw people in at the start,
- techniques to end cap with a bang,
- touch upon as many of the senses as possible,
- always have tension,
- balance summary and show,
- do not engage in tons of back story, focus on the current story,
- no, no, build UP the suspense,
Without this advice inside me, I would have been much worse off, both in the writing phase and the editing/cutting phase. (I guess that’s my advice for new writers; don’t try to skimp on the writing books unless you want to spend more time on the road than necessary. Forums are great but are NOT structured enough.)
Much cutting then ensued, removing 500 words to bring the count down to 1000, give or take a hundred.
Afterwards, I wasn’t sure what the hell I had tapped into, but it resulted in this. Here’s an excerpt:
She dreamed she was floating above a sea turned liquid gold from the sunset in the Northwest, walking on low-flying clouds like the Immortal Bieu-hang, patron of artists and–in her daydream, anyways–mathematicians. Around her, thoughts were crystalizing into white foam carried away into wisps on the playful sea breeze, curling upwards above and high into the sky, filling it like a sea of white plum blossoms in the palace gardens in spring. She stopped and admired the shapes it formed: airships, steam-driven contraptions for all manner of purposes she did not always know, clockwork. Somehow, clockwork always found its way in.
This is not like me. I don’t pace so slowly and yet draw people along. I don’t have florid descriptions that sink the reader in. I don’t world-build with so few words. I don’t do a lot of things that I do in this piece.
Ye gods, I thought. What have I wrought? Could it be that the shortness focused my techniques like one of those kitty death laser eyes?
I tried again, without the high-falutin’ phrasin’, and also with approximately an hour to kill. Similar approach. That seems to have worked too.
Flash fiction was definitely where I learned to cut down and write fabricated text very quickly. Non-fiction has an existing story in the real world; fiction does not.
However, flash fiction’s audience is not live; your audience’s reactions aren’t interleaving with your writing. Flash fiction is as self-contained as any short story or novel; in other words, it’s not serial.
At that point I decided to try something remotely crazy.
Step 3. Twittering Away.
This is Twitter: it’s a text stream that users around the world send messages to. The public timeline updates in a matter of nanoseconds; just hit refresh instead of waiting for the page to update in four minutes and you’ll see what I mean. Twitter is a broadcast, rather than directed, text messaging system; whatever your text to Twitter is available for all to see (unless you activate some non-default privacy settings).
Twitter is fun, because you can follow the text streams of specific folks and watch what they say. And because “Tweets” are so short–140 characters–Twitter timelines are easy and addictive to read.
Some people post their status, some people post what they’re currently doing and feeling, some people post poetry and haiku. Some people use Twitter for “microblogging” reviews and thoughts. People chatter amongst themselves and coordinate for meet-ups in coffee houses. There’s a Twitter account that twitters the first line of a random book every few hours. Here’s a good small mix of Twittering.
I thought about using Twitter to create a fictional account, akin to what has been going on with a few of the fictional blog writers. I’d send 140 character status updates, only they’d be more like story material told in first person.
I would update their stream in real time, as if they were an actual person twittering. And besides, precedent was already set.
This has turned out to be more difficult than it sounds. If flash fiction taught me to be merciless with cuts, Twitter was a harsh mistress. With only 140 characters to work with each time–spaces and punctuation included–the tweets of your story needed to have beats that fit into that. Sure, you could use 280 characters across two tweets, but that’s lame and defeats the purpose of the exercise.
One of my biggest takeaways is that what happens in the off-beats is as important as what happens in the beats, meaning that from beat to beat (or tweet to tweet), enough information should be given so that the reader can fill in what happens between the beats. This reminds me of comics, or sequential art; what happens between panels is as important to consider as what goes into the panels themselves.
Twitter has a definite real-time audience (especially once people start following you individually from the public timeline). I think Twitter is the closest thing to speaking on the stage (with bigger rests).
If you’re going to engage in this sort of thing, I suggest you pick a character who doesn’t live in a timezone 8 hours offset from yours. Ms. Joan Ascott’s appointment… was an exasperating late, late evening.
I run Anachronistic Holmes and am still doing so. When I end up at a point of closure in his timeline, I bottle up the tweets, order them chronologically from top to bottom and preserving timestamps, then post them to Anachronistic Holmes’s blog. Tweets from “live” stories remain purely on Twitter.
At this point I was basically writing serial fiction under stricter and stranger rules than are usually applied to it. Obviously the next place to go is heading towards a more traditional serial.
Until next time, I happily Twitter my life away.
Articles in the “Writing on the Stage” series: