ON WRITING FLASH FICTION
An Interview with Michael A. Arnzen
Conducted by Jerry Schatz
THIS INTERVIEW FIRST APPEARED IN:
FLASH FICTION FLASH:
The Newsletter for Flash Literature Writers #25, March 2003.
A partial list of his major works includes Needles and Sins, 1993, and Fluid Mosaic, 2001 (short story collections), Grave Markings, 1994 (novel), and two poetry collections soon to be published, Freakcidents: A Surrealist Sideshow, and Gorelets: Unpleasant Poems. The venues in which his flash fiction may be found are too numerous to mention here. His website is http://www.gorelets.com/. Readers may subscribe to his newsletter, The Goreletter, through the website.]
Schatz: What do you like about flash fiction?
Arnzen: I like flash fiction that makes the most out of the brevity of the form -- not long stories masquerading as short ones, but fiction that exploits the limitations of space. I've been writing a lot in the form lately as a personal challenge, really. I want to force myself to unlearn all the habits I've picked up from my training in other forms of writing. Writing flash regularly -- sometimes several a day -- has taught me how to edit myself more closely than I've ever been able to -- and it's really got me in a new habit of getting the most juice out of verbs. I also am learning to really appreciate the art of indirect suggestion. I'm really proud of the stories I've written under 50 words that still "work." Those are hard as hell to pull off.
Schatz: What >is< flash fiction in your mind?
Arnzen: All flash fiction lovers should pick up a copy of SUDDEN STORIES -- a brand new anthology from Mammoth Books (http://www.mammothbooks.com). For that book, editor Dinty Moore asked all the contributors to define "sudden stories" for possible use in the intro. I wrote back that I defined them as "efficiency narratives...an icecube of plot whose theme thaws with time." That's how I usually conceive of them. Dense moments that stick with you.
Schatz: Why do you write it?
Arnzen: Although I've been publishing for a long time now, I was very skeptical about electronic publishing at first. Up until about two years ago, I was afraid of the ease of plagiarism through electronic means and I didn't think there was much of an audience for e-texts. But then I finally realized that e-publishing is just one market opportunity among many that are offered to writers, and with the rising affordability of handheld computers (e.g. e-book readers) and broadband internet, I saw the light. So I was determined to test the waters and I started with webzines. And the smarter webzines were publishing flash because they realize that people aren't patient enough (or even visually equipped) to read long pieces on screen. So flash fiction is ideal for the electronic marketplace. And the more I started writing it, the more I understood the experimental opportunities it afforded, much like poetry. The more I researched, the more I read, and the more I fell in love with flash. I discovered sites like The-Phone-Book.com, which were serving up mini-stories written in glyphs and code. I found minima magazine, who put their "small and potent" stories into ground-breaking "flash" animation. And by then I was completely won over.
Schatz: How about the print venues?
Arnzen: Although the reading practices on the internet seem custom-fit for flash fiction, the genre has a long history and a vibrant life in print, too. There's a magazine called QUICK FICTION (jppress.org) which I subscribe to and admire quite a bit. It's a pocket-sized book filled with literary shorts. I also have a fondness for the small press magazines in the horror genre -- WICKED HOLLOW (blindside.net) especially comes to mind -- which celebrate short forms. There are classic books in flash which should be required reading for all writers -- from the SUDDEN FICTION anthologies to Jerome Stern's MICRO FICTION to Dinty Moore's new collection, SUDDEN STORIES. Baudelaire wrote prose poems which are worth studying too, as a birth of the genre, of sorts. And Kafka did a number of a parable-like pieces that I recall studying when I started writing seriously.
The economy of the fiction marketplace influences what we have to read. Because so many print magazines and books historically pay by the word, so many good writers go for longer stories and don't bother with short stuff. If more markets paid higher scales for shorter works (like Vestal Review, flashquake, and the-phone-book.com currently do, for example) then maybe things will change. But because of the way fiction writing is presently reimbursed by word, there's less incentive for writers to try their hand at flash than longer works. And that's why the web is an exciting place for flash -- because the "new economy" on the internet is rewarding those who can write tightly. People who read on-screen don't want to scroll a lot, so longer stories just don't work well online. The form is influencing the market and the genre as a whole.
Schatz: Roughly speaking, about what percentage of your work is flash?
Arnzen: I'm not sure about percentages, but I'd say that I work on flash as often as I do anything else with writing. I have a long-range plan of compiling the best (and darkest) one hundred pieces I produce into a print collection entitled JOLTS. I'm almost finished and a horror fiction publisher has already shown interest. But for me it's not just about publishing the book but producing something really original. And think about how much more you get for your money when you buy a book-length collection of a hundred short stories as opposed to the stock ten or twelve. I think my readers will like it.
Schatz: What are the major differences, to you, in writing flash or longer fiction?
Arnzen: Well, people assume flash is for short attention spans, but I don't think so at all. It's more like haiku.
Longer fiction spends more time with characters and settings. Flash fiction is just as interested in these things, but the plot is moving too fast for the writing to focus on them for very long. Or if it does, the details ARE the plot. There's very little difference, really, except with flash the emotions are condensed onto that "single desired effect" that Poe once spoke of as the goal of all short fiction. Sometimes flash fails because it lacks the character depth. But a skilled writer can imply a lifetime in a character's gesture. Of course, the reader is sometimes required to do more work. Just because flash fiction >looks< simpler doesn't mean it is. The good flash writers just make it look easy.
Schatz: So is writing flash harder or easier for you than writing longer fiction?
Arnzen: I think I write both equally well, but I find it easier to edit flash. One can get lost tracking down loose threads in a novel-length piece; if it's all on one page, it's remarkably easier to work with what's there and see the "big picture" at the same time. Though, of course, editing flash fiction offers its own difficulties. Like knowing when to >stop< cutting. Sometimes I find myself hacking out large chunks of what I've done in an effort to condense...and then I'm left with over simplistic narrative or a vignette that implies too much, like a vacuous haiku poem. And because there are fewer words on the page, flash does require an extra close attention to diction and rhythm...luckily, I write poetry, too, which helps me in this department.
Despite many editorial guidelines or calls for clarity in workshops, many flash writers are writing prose-poetry and vignettes rather than narrative fiction. For me the distinction is rather moot; I think it's all poetic. But flash still has to "pay off" the way good fiction pays off. Conflict has to dominate the piece and spur the movement from plot point to plot point (and most flash pieces dramatize just one "plot point" and imply the weight of the rest). It doesn't require resolution, but a cagey ending that implies either closure or irony "cinches" a good flash piece and lets us feel like we've just read fiction. The structure of many flash pieces is the structure of the joke...and, purists be damned, that's fine! If a flash story is a joke structure masquerading behind rich evocative language, then it will likely pack a powerful punch. I'm not saying it has to generate a belly laugh, but, instead, catch us off guard and play off our expectations the way a really good joketeller can.
Flash can be really subversive that way. It's so deceptively simple. So "innocent" in its invitation to those with short attention spans to pay more attention!
Schatz: Do you write every day? Do you have a writing regimen you adhere to, or try to adhere to?
Arnzen: I try to write every morning for two hours, over the first cups of coffee. I'm a full-time writing teacher, though, so sometimes grading and preparations and other things get in the way. This is why I like flash: I don't feel like my whole day is required to draft and compose. I know before I ever start writing a flash that I can >probably< finish a good draft in one sitting and revise it later. Not always true. It's like "baby steps" -- easier to climb a hill than a mountain. Sometimes teaching gets in the way, but I try to remind myself that my own writing is just as important as my students'.
There are times when I'm not in the mood to write, and to be honest, I don't when my body and spirit tells me not to. I force myself to write daily because I know that if I start, the ideas will come and I'll get so immersed in the writing that I'll be productive. It's like diving into a pool -- once you're in, you swim. So trying to write every day in the morning is kind of like diving into the pool and seeing what happens. I never get writer's block. But I do get language burn-out. Editors reading this can empathize -- too much reading of other people's words, too much critiquing and editing and talking kind of wrings out the sponge. So there are times when I dive into that "pool" I was talking about, but there are too many other people in there, swimming around, and I get distracted.
Schatz: Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
Arnzen: In the reader. It's that simple. I don't try to come up with ideas; they come to me. I find them at the bottom of that pool I was talking about before. Dive in and it's there. The well hasn't run dry yet. I know that as long as I can surprise myself, I can surprise my reader, and so writing -- especially horror writing -- is like a constant search in the murky unknown on a quest to be surprised. I do outline or plot out ideas sometimes, but I let the story take charge once I've started writing and edit it later.
Schatz: What are your thoughts on online critiquing groups?
Arnzen: Editors and writers used to have a teacher-student relationship; the writer is like an apprentice to the craft, under the editor. I don't think that's the case so much anymore, because the competition is so fierce for publishing spots that editors expect writers to be full-blown pros when they get them. So writers need to share their experiences and bounce ideas off each other to really learn to develop those skills that editors are expecting you to have.
Although some would disagree with me, I think formal educational programs are still the best. You're likely to get an experienced professional as your guide and many writing workshops that are attached to schools do incorporate an online component these days. At Seton Hill, where I teach, we offer a combination of "intensive residency" with distance learning so our Master's students get the best of both worlds. Learning doesn't necessarily have to come through a degree program however (though I would say that there you'll be likely to get the most practiced "teachers"). Community workshops, writer's retreats and genre conventions can really open your eyes to the business quite a bit. Online critique groups can help a lot, too. The more formal, the better, I think -- otherwise you risk the blind leading the blind. I like the model that Zoetrope Studios (zoetrope.com) has instituted, which enforces collaborative learning -- you have to critique five stories before you can post your own for workshopping by others. I understand the FlashFiction-W workshop listed in this newsletter has a similar requirement. Others are lead by pros that require some form of payment to enroll...those can be useful too, if the leader or moderator knows what they're doing and is not just good at writing, but also good at teaching with technology. I've heard nothing but good things about Pamelyn Casto's flash fiction workshops, for example. Overall, the internet is often compared to a library -- and in a way, the whole web can become the "textbook" of an online course. Good programs will produce good writers who will keep authoring that book well into the future.
Schatz: How important IS formal training in creative writing?
Arnzen: It's not crucial, but it's very useful. You can make connections and network with folks you'd never meet otherwise. Learn shortcuts. Relearn the basics. Cultivate the writer's mind. Find out what to read. Get feedback without the painful and slow process of getting it from editors. And -- most importantly -- you can find a community of like-minded spirits and connect to a history of others who are just like you. I recommend it to all writers, if only just one class or one online workshop. Writing can be such a lonely, alienating business that schooling really helps to make it real and make it social. I teach in a graduate program for Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. People from all genres come together to critique each other and study together under the tutelage of published novelists. Everyone learns a lot. But most people leave the program with friends for life. People who they can "talk writing" with and swap stories and pat each other on the back. That's more important than any printed publication -- be it a book, a story...or even a diploma.
And I should add that I've been using selected fifty-word fictions to teach writing strategies in the program, too. That's how much I believe in the genre. Good flash fiction distills good fiction to its essence and every writer can learn a lot from one simple tiny story.
-- (c) 2003 Jerry Schatz