Katey Schultz, an award-winning author, knows how to flash. Fiction, that is—flash fiction, as we saw in her brilliant collection Flashes of War published in 2013. Katey will teach a course for the 49 Writers Center in Anchorage, Alaska and she asked if she could share some of her pre-course thoughts with Quivering Pen readers. I, of course, said yes...in a flash.
My relationship with technology has been strained since I was a grunge-fuelled teenager. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest during the height of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I saw Everclear perform for a cover charge of one can of beans (donated to the local homeless shelter). That was my kind of technology—person-to-person, pay it forward, experiential. By the time I moved out to go to college, I’d become one of those people with a “Kill Your TV” bumper sticker and have opted to live without television ever since. Smartphones? Suffice it to say, I made Verizon deactivate email capabilities on my phone and requested “the dumbest smartphone you can find” when signing my latest contract.
So what does being a Luddite have to do with flash fiction (and an online course, at that)?
Flash fiction is a genre marked by diminished resources. The stories can only be 250-750 words (1,000 max). There’s no time for tremendous backstory and there’s no need. These are the stories that begin immediately, featuring characters who are outsized by their circumstances and have no choice but to react with whatever’s on hand. Maybe in some small way, I feel outsized by the huge technological advances myself and other Gen-Xers have seen in a relatively short period of time. Maybe by writing stories that evoke a world of possibility with something as small as a can of beans, I’m always trying to get back to the feeling that what I had as a child—or at least as an angst-filled teen—would be enough in the end.
Circumstances that outsize us in life and on the page, technology included, force us to react without time for pretense. This means we have a conflict and a desire, and when we put the two together, we get what I call yearning. Yearning, when paired with metaphor, is the secret sauce that makes any flash fiction sing.
A few examples: Jacob doesn’t want just any girlfriend; he yearns for Cynthia with the red flip-flops and A+ in biology—Cynthia, whose father the postmaster once caught Jacob trying to steal stamps, just so his Mom could mail the overdue bills. Or Meredith, who isn’t simply excited about an upcoming wedding anniversary; she yearns for her husband Tom to look at her the way he did when they first met, back at the Cape, back before they’d agreed not to have children and set their sights on world travel instead. Those little asides (stealing stamps, back at the Cape) are backstory, but in the fully realized version of these flashy fictions, the mention of such backstory will stay just as succinct as it appears in this paragraph. In other words: just enough detail to color every sentence that follows.
What Jacob doesn’t know yet is that, as cute as Cynthia is, what he wants even more than her companionship is to experience freedom from the past—a past he feels wasn’t even his fault. What Meredith can’t see is that, as lovely as this year’s wedding anniversary might be, what she wants even more than Tom’s recognition is a sense of purpose and ritual in her life. There’s plenty of room for a story to take place in either one of these scenarios, so the question with flash fiction is: What matters most? We only have a few pages to get the job done. We can’t take half of those pages detailing Jacob’s crush on Cynthia, then slowly coach the reader toward the real issue.
We have to get in, get out, and be done with it. There are Luddite Swing Riots to get back to, after all, not to mention a few Discussion Board posts to create.
Click here to learn more about the online flash fiction course at 49 Writers.