My Three-Part Flash Fiction Formula

I write a lot of flash fiction, and I’ve been lucky enough to publish a fair amount of it. What follows is my basic formula for writing stories under 1,000 words. It is not, of course, the only way to write flash fiction or even the best way to write flash fiction. It’s just my way. Okay, with that disclaimer up, let’s dive in.

Before I get to my formula, let’s establish a few things that flash fiction needs no matter how you go about writing it. It needs to have a plot and it needs to be a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. My formula doesn’t ensure these things will happen (trust me), but when I follow my self-imposed rules, I find they’re a little easier to pull off.

Here are the three guidelines I generally follow when I write flash.

  1. Start near the end. What I mean is begin your story as close to the inciting action or event as you can. With 1,000 words or less, you simply don’t have the space for a lot of setup, you gotta get to the meat right away. I notice in a lot of my flash, at least the ones I’ve managed to publish, the inciting event, whatever it is, generally happens in the first few paragraphs, leaving me a lot of space to resolve the conflict I’ve set up.
  2. Keep your character count low. I like a lot of dialog in my stories, and in flash that means I have to watch how many characters are taking up my precious word count with all that talking. As such, I often don’t have more than two characters in my flash fiction (speaking characters, anyway). That way, they can have lots of dialog, which is how I generally prefer to tell a story, and I don’t eat up too much space with it. Having only a few characters also lets me spend some time developing them, again, usually through dialog. Of course, you can have more than two characters in a flash story, and I’ve managed to pull that off a few times, but I probably would still limit speaking parts to two or three.
  3. Limited locations. Same idea as keeping the cast of characters small. I tend to limit the locations of my flash fiction to one or maybe two spots. That way, I don’t have to worry about transitions from one place to another, and I don’t need to spend a lot of time describing new locations. If you read any of my flash, you’ll probably notice a lot of it takes place in a single spot, usually somewhere small and cozy like a bar, a bedroom, a house, a church, and so on.

So, that’s my basic formula, and, again, it is not the end-all-be-all of writing flash fiction. It does work for me, though, and I’ve been fairly successful with it. I’ve also found if I follow two of the rules above, I sometimes have room to ignore one. For example, if I start near the end, and I have only two characters, then I can probably fit in a couple of locations. Or, if I keep my character count low and I limit my locations, then I might be able to start a little further from the end and get in a bit more backstory and setup.

To further illustrate my little formula, here are some flash fiction pieces I’ve recently published where you can see those three guidelines in effect (more or less).

This one is pretty much the poster child for my flash fiction formula. It ticks all the boxes. One small location (a bar), few characters (two), starts pretty much at the end.

So, this is one my stories with more than two characters. I think I have three speaking parts in this one, and a whole town full of people are present. That said, I do start near the end, and I restrict my location to one spot (a church). This is an example of where I follow two guidelines so I have more room to mess around with the third.

Another three for three here. Just two characters? Check. One location? Check. Start near the end? Check(ish). This one has a tad bit more setup than usual for my flash, but following my other two rules allowed me a little more space for it.

This is an example of flash stripped right down to the frame. It definitely follows my three guidelines in that it has one character, one location, and it’s, uh, the end of pretty much everything. Of course, you don’t have to go to this extreme to write good flash, but sometimes a story only needs a bare-bones treatment to work.


So that’s how I write flash fiction. How do you do it? Tell me about it in the comments.

A Week of Writing: 11/19/18 to 11/25/18

Hey, all, here’s another week of writerly workings.

Words to Write By

This week I return, once again, to the hallowed wisdom of Stephen King.

“Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

― Stephen King

I love this quote because it exposes the often brutal truth of the writing experience. Well, for me anyway. Yeah, sure, there are times when I feel like stardust and sunshine are flowing from my fingertips onto the page, but that’s pretty rare to be honest. On the other hand, the shoveling shit thing? The writing when I don’t feel like it? That I am very familiar with. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m not great at judging my own work, especially when I’m churning out the first draft. That feeling of the unknown, of god, I hope this isn’t total garbage, can really color my emotions when I’m creating. Despite those emotions, I have to do what Stephen King says. I have to go on, and I usually do. Invariably, when I go back and read what I’ve written the next day, it’s never as bad as I feared. Hell, sometimes it’s even pretty good.

The Novel

I finished the first draft of my project for Privateer Press and sent it off. This week, I’ll dive back in to revisions on Late Risers while I wait for notes from Privateer. I’d like to finish revisions of the novel by the end of the year. I think that’s doable.

Short Stories

Like last week, I was pressing to finish my project for Privateer Press. Add to that the Thanksgiving holiday, and, well, I didn’t get much done with submissions. Despite that, it was a pretty good week.

  • Submissions Sent: 1
  • Rejections: 0
  • Acceptances: 2
  • Publications: 0
  • Shortlist: 0

So, the one submission and pair of acceptances put me at 113 submissions for the year and 18 acceptances (I’ve since received a 19th). I’m still at 97 rejections for the year, but I have 10 submissions pending, so I should break that 100 mark in the next week or two.

The Blog

Again, sadly, just one blog post last week. I’m back on track, though, so count on at least two this week.

11/20/18: A Week of Writing: 11/12/18 to 11/18/18

The usual weekly update on submissions, rejections, acceptances, and other writerly things.

Goals

It’s back to work on the novel and maybe finish up a new short story or two.

Submission Spotlight

This week I’d like to call your attention to the latest flash fiction contest from The Molotov Cocktail. This one is called Phantom Flash, and here’s a bit about what they’re looking for:

Time to get weird. The Phantom Flash contest focuses on the strange and surreal, on the otherworldly and unsettling, on the things that just don’t have any rational explanation. Let your minds wander to the darkest corners of your imagination, where the fluidity of dreams pours over concrete realities. The parameters for this contest are as boundless as the cosmos.

Final deadline on this one is 1/31/19. Full submission details in the link below.

Phantom Flash Guidelines


That was my week. How was yours?

A Week of Writing: 11/12/18 to 11/18/18

Late again and missing a week, but I’m back on track with another weekly writing update.

Words to Write By

This week’s quote comes from comedian, actor, producer, and writer Carol Leifer.

“As a writer, the worst thing you can do is work in an environment of fear of rejection.”

—Carol Leifer

I think it’s important for a writer to envision every story they send out getting accepted and published, and, at the same time, accepting there’s likely going to be a rejection or two (or ten) along the way. Carol Leifer’s quote resonates with me because while you have to expect rejections, you can’t let the prospect of getting rejected keep you from writing and submitting your work or submitting your work to the best and toughest markets. You have to keep writing, keep submitting, and come to an understanding that rejection is just a part of the process. It helps you get better, it helps you find the best markets for your work, and it helps you develop that thick skin every creative person needs. In my opinion, that’s nothing to fear.

The Novel

Revisions on my novel Late Risers is on hold for a bit while I work on a project for Privateer Press. Last week, I wrote 10,000 words on that project. I’d like to tell you more about it, and I will soon, but for now I’ll just say it’s nice to step back into a familiar story. 🙂

Short Stories

With the new project for Privateer Press and a few other things, I didn’t get a lot done submission-wise last week.

  • Submissions Sent: 1
  • Rejections: 1
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 1
  • Shortlist: 0

With this tiny bit of activity, I’m at 112 submission and 97 rejections for the year. It would be nice to end the year with 100 rejections and 20 acceptances (currently at 17).

The Blog

Just one blog posts last week.

11/16/18: Submissions: No Accounting for Taste

In this post, I take a look at how editorial taste can influence rejections and acceptances.

Goals

I’m going to finish up my current project with Privateer Press this week, do that Thanksgiving thing, and then get back to work on the novel.

Story Spotlight

My flash fiction story “The Last Scar” was published by Trembling with Fear last week, and you can read it for free by clicking the link below.

“The Last Scar”


That was my week. How was yours?

Submissions: No Accounting for Taste

The old saying goes one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. That’s applicable to a wide variety of creative endeavors, and writing is no exception. What I mean is that when you send out submissions, whether or not you get published is due to a number of factors. The two biggest are write a good story and make sure that story is appropriate for the market. Another important one, I think, is editorial preference. Even if you nail the first two elements (good story and good for the market), the person reading your story has to, you know, like it, and that is a pretty subjective thing. Let me see if I can illustrate the point with some of my own submissions.

The chart below includes eight stories and five markets – two pro markets, two semi-pro markets, and one token market. I send a lot of stories to these five publishers and they all generally publish the same type of material, namely speculative fiction that includes, fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. I also end up sending the same story to these markets after one or more of them rejects it. Take a look.

Pro 1 Pro 2 Semi-Pro  1 Semi-Pro 2 Token 1
Story 1 Accepted Rejected
Story 2 Rejected Rejected Accepted Rejected
Story 3 Accepted Rejected Rejected
Story 4 Rejected Accepted
Story 5 Accepted Rejected Rejected
Story 6 Accepted Rejected
Story 7 Accepted Rejected
Story 8 Rejected Accepted

I’m not using the names of the stories or the names of the markets because I don’t want to give the impression that any of these publishers are wrong for rejecting my stories or right for accepting them. This is just a sampling of my submissions to illustrate my point that editorial preference (which is neither right nor wrong) plays a role in getting published.

If editorial preference plays a significant role, how do you improve your chances of acceptance? Well, that’s where submission targeting comes in. For starters, you should read sample stories from the magazine, which’ll give you a good idea of the content the editors like. That said, I find once I start getting responses from editors in the form of rejections or acceptances, I can really drill down on their preferences (especially if they’re kind enough to give me some feedback).

Sometimes you hit the mark right off the bat. For example, pro market 1 and semi-pro market 2 accepted the first stories I sent them, and that helped me narrow down what to send them next. The result? I’ve been accepted by both markets a number of times. On the other side of that coin are pro market 2 and semi-pro market 1. I had seven and ten stories rejected by those markets respectively before I broke through. The stories they accepted had a very specific style and that told me A LOT about what I should be sending these publishers.

The take away here, for me at least, is there’s no exact formula, no foolproof plan to getting a story accepted. You have to commit to perfecting your style and craft, be diligent with your research, and, yes, accept a fair amount of trial and error. In addition, don’t give up on a market just because they’ve rejected you a bunch. It might be that you simply haven’t sent them the right story yet.


Thoughts on editorial preference? Tell me about them in the comments.

One-Hour Flash – The God in the Lake

Time to share another bit of flash fiction that didn’t quite make the grade. I haven’t done one of these in a while, so just as a reminder, this is a story that I wrote in one hour as part of a flash fiction writing exercise. I’ve done a lot of those over the years, and many of the stories have gone on to publication. Many others have, uh, not. This is one of those. This is basically the story I wrote in an hour back in April of 2014, and though I’ve tinkered a bit here and there, it’s still pretty first draft-y.

Anyway, here’s “The God in the Lake.”


The God in the Lake

“There lies the death of gods.” Alexios drew his sword and pointed the short length of honed bronze at the lake. His blue eyes gleamed cold.

“Don’t do this, Alexios,” Hesiod said. “It won’t bring her back.” He had counselled his friend for days since they discovered the lake and that what lay within it was more than the fevered obsession of a broken man.

Alexios lowered his sword but did not return it to its scabbard. Hesiod saw the old hurt crash into him, the grief that had torn his world apart. But grief had not killed Alexios. It had done worse; it had eaten his soul and breathed hatred into the space left behind.

“I know,” Alexios said. “I’ve accepted that.”

“Then why are we here?” Hesiod gestured at the crystalline surface of the water, looming, white-capped Olympus behind it. The lake had taken ten years to find, and Hesiod had thought it no more than a myth, a place that could not exist. He’d kept the dream of the lake alive in Alexios because it was better than watching him drink himself to death or spend his life and blood on another senseless war. Now they stood before it, the doom it held a terrifying reality.

Alexios’ eyes burned with something equal parts joy and rage. “I want them to feel what I feel. I want the mighty gods of Olympus to suffer as I have suffered, and that!”—he turned and stabbed his blade at the lake — “is the only thing that can hurt them.”

He took the horn from his belt. Finding it had been as difficult as finding the lake. It was carved from something black that was not antler, wood, or stone. The symbols etched onto its surface were a tangle of angles and spikes. They were not writing–something far older than that.

“You followed me for so long, my friend,” Alexios said, his mouth trembling. There were tears in his eyes. “Will you not stand beside me while I blow this horn? Will you not join me in bringing justice to Althea?”

Althea had been Alexios’ wife, but Hesiod had loved her as well. Watching her die, wasting away, the physicians helpless to ease her pain, had been as torturous for him as it had to Alexios. He, too, had prayed to Hera, to Zeus, to any god that would listen, begging them to heal Althea or let her die swiftly. They had done neither. “There is no justice in this,” he said.

“Vengeance then,” Alexios replied.

“You may gain vengeance, but all the world will suffer for it.”

She was the world to me.” His eyes flashed, and his face twisted into something nearly as monstrous as the creature he sought to wake. “I will take the world from them.”

Alexios’ wasn’t paying close attention to him now. Hesiod could take two steps, draw his own sword, and drive the blade into his friend’s back. He could save the world from this madness. But for what? Althea would still be gone. For ten years he had been a surrogate to Alexios’ pain, nurturing it while his friend focused on reaching the lake. That pain had grown to maturity now, and it replaced everything Hesiod had been or could be. If he killed Alexios, he would be alone. He would be nothing.

Hesiod sank to the sand before his friend. “Then do it. Wake Cottus. Maybe the death of the world will suck the venom from your soul.” And the emptiness from mine.

Alexios raised the horn to his lips, drew in a deep breath, and blew. A sound like the dying screams of a thousand men rushed out in a low, blatting roar. It shook Hesiod’s teeth and raised the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck. He heard the knell of doom.

The lake’s surface boiled and writhed, and a great black shadow appeared beneath the churning foam. Alexios stumbled backward, his sword falling to the sand, and sat next to Hesiod.

“We will watch their doom,” Alexios said, his lips drawn in a mad smile. “We will die knowing she is avenged.”

The hecatoncheir broke the surface of the lake, a roiling mass of hands and heads. It blotted out the sun, the sky, and the towering mountain behind it, a monster not even the titans of old could overthrow. It would destroy the gods, but the destruction would not end there.

Hesiod heard Alexios speaking beside him. He thought his friend was praying, but Alexios simply spoke to the gods. He told them he had unleashed their doom.

The shadow of Cottus engulfed them, and Hesiod closed his eyes and covered his ears. He saw Althea’s face, her long black hair, and her soft brown eyes. He had loved her, even though she had chosen Alexios. He held on to that love and hoped it would follow him into Hades.


I rarely have a clear concept in mind when I write these one-hour flash stories. Generally, I see the prompt, and I go with the first thing that pops into my head. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. With this one, I had a very clear idea. I wanted to write a story that mixed Greek mythology with Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The hecatoncheires are certainly fitting for that kind of treatment (even if I did take some liberties with their myth), but the story just never came together. The backstory of Hesiod and Alexios needs more fleshing out as does their quest to find Cottus, and that’s a tale that needs more than a 1,000 words to tell. Still, I dig the concept, and like most of these failed experiments, there might be something worth returning to at some point.

Check out the previous installments in the One-Hour Flash series.

A Week of Writing: 10/29/18 to 11/4/18

Another Tuesday update. Here’s the writing week that was.

Words to Write By

This week’s quote comes from heralded science fiction author Larry Niven.

You learn by writing short stories. Keep writing short stories. The money’s in novels, but writing short stories keeps your writing lean and pointed.

– Larry Niven

I wrote a lot of short stories before I attempted a novel, and I agree with Larry Niven’s quote. Short stories do keep your writing lean. For me, a lot of that comes from the word count limits you’re have to deal with when submitting short fiction. Generally, that means anything longer than 5,000 words is a tough sell. I also write a lot of flash fiction, limiting myself to just 1,000 words. I think the most important skill I’ve learned in writing short stories is to get to the point as quickly as possible. That’s a handy skill when it comes to writing novels, and, I find, helps me keep my story moving. Of course, with flash especially, you also learn to remove everything that is not essential from a story, which is a skill that translates very well to novels.

The Novel

I’m still working through the third revision, and I’ve fixed a couple of big problems. The best thing about this current revisions is that it’s revealed to me how to fix two or three of the major issues with the book, and that’ll be my focus for the next go-around. The tough part of this whole process, for me, is that clawing urgency to get the book finished, get it out there, get it done. But that won’t serve me in the long run, and sending out a half-finished manuscript is certainly not a path to anything resembling success.

Short Stories

I got back on track with submissions last week, and I’m making good progress this week too.

  • Submissions Sent: 3
  • Rejections: 4
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0
  • Shortlist: 0

The three submissions last week put me at a grand total of 108 for the year (I’m up to 111 as of today). All the rejections last week came from the same market at the same time, which I was more or less expecting.

The Blog

Two blog posts last week.

10/22/18: A Week of Writing: 10/22/18 to 10/28/18

The usual weekly writing report.

10/26/18: Submission Statement: October 2018

My monthly report card for all things submissions.

Goals

The usual. Keep plugging away at the current revision and send more short stories out.

Submission Spotlight

This week I’d like to draw your attention to a horror market that has just reopened their doors for submissions. After a long hiatus, Shock Totem is back in action. I have very fond memories of this market because I cut my flash fiction teeth on their bi-weekly one-hour flash fiction challenge, participating over fifty times. Many of the stories I threw together in an hour have gone on to publication, and I’m thrilled to see Shock Totem reborn and accepting submissions again. Shock Totem is a pro market that accepts works up to 5,000 words (they also take reprints). Full submission guidelines in the link below.

Shock Totem Submission Guidelines


That was my week. How was yours?

Submission Statement: October 2018

October has come and gone, and here are my submission endeavors for the month.

October 2018 Report Card

  • Submissions Sent: 10
  • Rejections: 11
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 3

Ten submissions is solid, and it puts me at 106 for the year. Lots of rejections this month, and for the first time in a while, no acceptances.

Rejections

Eleven rejections for October.

  • Standard Form Rejections: 8
  • Upper-Tier Form Rejections: 2
  • Personal Rejections: 1

As usual, lots of standard form rejections with a smattering of upper-tier and personal.

Spotlight Rejection

The spotlight rejection for October comes from a big market I really hope to crack some day.

Dear Aeryn, 

Thank you for sending us [story title] for consideration. 

We appreciate the opportunity to read your work, but unfortunately this one isn’t for us. 

Please note we received more than 1,750 submissions for approximately 20 slots, which means a lot of very, very good stories are not making the cut. (There are even some great stories that just aren’t right for our market.) 

Please keep on writing, revising, and submitting to the very best markets you can find. It can be an arduous journey, but a fulfilling and rewarding one as well. And with each new story you write, you’re honing your craft. No effort at your writing desk is ever wasted.

We wish you the very best of luck with your work. 

Some of you won’t have much difficulty figuring out which market this rejection comes from, but I shared it because of the submission numbers the editor included. This is a good example of the kind of odds you’re sometimes up against with pro markets. Here we’re looking at 20 slots for a whopping 1,750 submissions. That’s around a one-percent acceptance rate. As the editor points out, this means very good and even great stories are going to be rejected. It’s good to keep that in mind when you’re submitting to big markets so those form rejections don’t bum you out too much.

Publications

Three publications in October, the first of which is free to read online.

“When the Lights Go On”

Published by The Arcanist (free to read)

“Burning Man”

Published by Havok Magazine

“Time Waits for One Man”

Published by Factor Four Magazine

 


And that was my October. Tell me about yours.