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Two new stories

June 1, 2018

Two of my stories are being published this month, both of them somewhat peculiar (of course) but otherwise very different.

“Minus the Angels,” in Pif Magazine‘s June issue, is what I consider a very short piece, less than 1,500 words, though the magazine calls it “macro” fiction. However they label it, I’m grateful for the publication. It’s about a couple vacationing in Italy while one of them, the narrator, is recovering (or not) from an illness. Interestingly, the sex of the narrator is never specified, but the magazine has a photo of two men in the header. As I wrote the story, I did imagine the narrator as a man; but when I realized on revision that I hadn’t assigned a name or a pronoun, I decided to leave the gender unstated. If you could read the story without seeing the picture, and without knowing that the author is male, what assumption would you make?

Now, if you want REAL “macro” fiction, my story “Survivors” in The Piker Press is over 10,000 words—or will be, once all three installments are up. This piece is about a long-delayed reunion of a broken family, a get-together that perhaps should have been delayed even longer. I think there should be a prize for readers who survive all the way to the end of the work, but I don’t know what to offer. Maybe, if you contact me, I’ll burden you with another free story.

An Early Call

December 31, 2014

Flash Fiction Magazine Headline

On New Year’s Eve, here’s an early summons by the year 2015:

http://flashfictionmagazine.com/blog/2014/12/31/an-early-call/

It’s a very brief story of mine called “An Early Call” in Flash Fiction Magazine.

The first comment, before I even saw the story myself, was from Miles White, who I gather from his blog is a journalist, flash-fiction writer, and ethnomusicologist. He wrote, “Interesting. I think I got it but I’m not sure.”

Miles, I totally agree. If you figure out who’s calling, let me know, but I don’t think we should answer.

New Stories

December 13, 2014

Two of my recent stories have come out this month, and a third is evidently on the way:

Rathalla Review Cover“Commitment,” a tale of tornadoes, family relationships, and a young woman’s struggles to find peace with herself, appears in the fall issue of Rathalla Review. Thanks to fiction editor Joe Magee and the rest of the staff for choosing the piece and interspersing some great photos by Enrico Pagliarulo.

Tethered by Letters CoverI’ve also been indulging in some flash fiction, and one of those pieces, “A Little Girl’s Mouth,” is in the fall issue of Tethered by Letters. The contributions in this issue aren’t yet accessible online, but the print version can be purchased at the magazine’s store. This story took shape in my mind after I read the phrase “a little girl’s mouth” in Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s wonderful novel Tumbling. The story has no other relationship to the novel, but that phrase stuck with me. Thanks to DMW for writing so well that even my sluggish brain gets energized!

flashfiction magazineFinally, I’ve just heard that another flashy bit, “An Early Call,” a semimystical piece of less than 200 words, will go online December 31 at Flash Fiction Magazine. I guess it’ll be an early call to 2015, and if anyone can figure out the import of that fact—or what the story itself means exactly—please tell me.

Yesterday I was doing some research into the theory of “flash fiction” or “microfiction” for an upcoming event at Musehouse. I spent at least half an hour at it—the most research I’ve done in decades, and it was exhausting. My principal discovery was that theory about microfiction renders me as drowsy as other literary theory. Beyond that, however, meticulous googling did turn up a couple of interesting tidbits from a journal called Short Fiction in Theory and Practice. Both items are from the 2011 inaugural issue, which is offered for free online. (There’s no need to waste croissant money on research.)

One notable idea comes from Ailsa Cox in the journal’s introductory editorial:

“Short story theory is unique in that it emanates almost entirely from its practitioners.”

I’m not sure I believe that—there’s still a large element of “those who can’t do, theorize” in academic literature departments—but if it’s true, it’s a nice trend. Yet if writers are indeed developing “a more sophisticated awareness of the methodologies available to practice-led research,”* as Cox believes, I hope they’ll use livelier language to explain their discoveries.

The other item of note comes from an essay by Ursula Hurley that focuses on Joyce’s Dubliners. She argues, citing Joyce Carol Oates, that short fiction differs from longer work in that it requires the “active participation of the reader.”

“What I am getting at here is that the genre itself, the very nature of the short story, means that the three-dimensional wrap-around fictional dream of the realist narrative is much less likely to occur. Short fiction gives us glimpses and fragments of fictional realities, where the reader uses their own resources** to reconstitute a richly detailed world from the concentrated stock that the narrative provides.”

Beasts & MenIf Hurley’s observation is true of short stories in general, it must be ultra-true of flash fiction, which, to achieve its brevity, may leave out information usually considered essential—place, time, ages of the characters, even the characters’ names. But does the reader necessarily “reconstitute a richly detailed world” from the condensed version, or does the reader accept the author’s floating, unanchored world for what it is? In reading Curtis Smith’s recent microfiction in the fine collection Beasts & Men, I found that I wasn’t filling in missing details; rather, in the best of the stories, the characters became archetypes of the human condition who existed in a fairy-tale-like place of their own—a parallel dimension, you might call it. Instead of making up particulars for their lives, I was content to meet them in that dreamspace where specifics are less important than the overall atmosphere. And maybe that matches a deep sense of the unknowable world embedded in our psyches. My psyche, anyway, because I’m often aware of how little I understand of what’s happening around me.

Roughly, then, my notion of flash fiction is that, like all other fiction, it can be anything the author and reader want it to be. Such is my exhaustively researched antitheory. However, for those who want to pursue these ideas further, two good starting points are the sites maintained by Randall Brown of Rosemont College: Matter Press and FlashFiction.net.

Snarky, impolite footnotes:

*“practice-led research”: As always, we should thank educators and social scientists for sharing their jargon with us literary types. But, to be official, this concept needs an acronym, PLR, and a peer-reviewed journal known by those initials.

**“the reader … their”: OK, I’m old-fashioned, but this still grates on my ears. A pronoun ought to agree with her antecedent. I’ll pass over the loose use of “where” in a context where there’s no clear where there.

Flash! It’s Fiction

May 5, 2011

Recently I finished Randall Brown’s Mad to Live, a collection of flash fiction—a total of 22 stories in a well-spaced 69 pages. The book has been described as “edgy” and “postmodern,” and both of those terms are understatements. The book opens, for instance, with a pregnant woman eating ants, a craving that doesn’t faze her husband, who runs to the pet store to buy her a bag of crickets:

At home, in the garage, I hold up the bag. A cricket stares back; all eyes, bugs are. Crunchy. Gooey in the middle. Like pretzel snacks with cheese in the center.

Late in the book, a man gets the sudden feeling that people are pointing at him, accusing him of something. Searching the Internet, he finds no clues but determines to fight back:

I get the sense it’s more ridiculous than horrible, what I’ve done, the bad kind of fame, but the kind that goes away, like colds. I’ll wait it out.… When I find it, I’ll post a picture on lampposts and store windows and telephone poles and I’ll write in black permanent strokes “I’m not him,” and then they’ll know. Everyone will know.

This is highly skilled writing, but for my tastes too surreal, so I can’t pretend to review the stories as such. It’s an occasion, though, to think about the nature of the very short story that we now call flash fiction or microfiction. The editor of the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and FlashFiction.net, Brown has pondered the essence of the form, blogged about it extensively, and predicted its “imminent rise to power.”

Though definitions of the form differ, all the ones I’ve seen are based on length. Perhaps 50 words is the typical limit for “micro,” a few hundred words for “flash.” In Mad to Live, the shortest story falls just short of 200 words. The genre perfectly suits our short-attention-span, click-through, multitasking world, though it’s ironic that the Web, where this kind of fiction thrives, is also suited for long work that might be too expensive to print.

Many readers may assume, as I’ve always done, that a story so minimal in length must be more like a still shot than a video: zeroing in on one scene, one moment, with little scope for development or change. My own recent, semi-accidental foray into the short-short form falls roughly into that category:

TWO DEPARTURES

Each weekday morning when Dermot’s father left for work, he’d reach down to where the boy’s head drooped over a cereal bowl, ruffle his hair and mumble a slang farewell: “Later, kiddo,” or “Seeya, champ.” One day it was different. The boy finished breakfast and wandered into the living room to watch his mother and father loosely hugging at the front door. Setting out on a business trip, the man hefted his suitcase and called across the room, “Goodbye, Dermot.” The phrase, uttered through a tight grin, had such an oddly formal ring that Dermot cocked his head in surprise. When his father failed to return, joining instead a new family on the opposite coast, the words hardened in his memory like a thin layer of cement.

Skip ahead 27 years to a morning when Dermot’s live-in girlfriend Celeste stands at their apartment door with a carry-on slung over her shoulder. She is interviewing for a prestigious residency in a hospital 853 miles away (exact distance courtesy of Internet maps), and they have quarreled not about this subject, but around this subject, for the past two weeks, with the dispute so entangled in other matters that for much of the time he has lost track of the issues. As her glance angles up at him from under finely tilted brows—an expression that suggests a bemused take on her own irony—he briefly sees what she does: an unshaven, unshowered, slightly overweight academic holding a lukewarm mug of coffee that has slopped onto the sleeve of his tartan pajamas. An impulse moves him to beat her to the punch: “Goodbye, Celeste,” he says, with what he supposes is polite, forgiving affection. She nods, loses the ironic tilt, starts to speak and checks herself, and slips out the door.

Dermot returns to the kitchen. Above the sink a small window overlooks a courtyard where forsythia branches curl under a thin layer of ice. He has a sudden image, or fantasy, of his mother looking out a window like this. A flick of movement catches his eye, but when he tries to make out the bird or squirrel, nothing appears. With a jerk of the wrist Dermot pitches his coffee down the drain. “So long, kiddo,” he mutters, and heads to the bathroom.

[published in the July 2009 issue of decomP]

If we count generously, that story has three scenes, one in each paragraph, and the reader understands (I hope) that the first scene governed the last two, but there’s no character development except what is implied in the child’s progression to the man, nor is there significant plot.

Some practitioners of flash fiction don’t seem to accept such restrictions. They claim to be creating a story with conventional elements, just extremely compressed. Detailing how he critiques a flash story, Richard Grohowski writes: “Have the events in the story changed anyone? Is there a logical, or at least reasonable, progression from beginning to end?” (For more such theorizing about the way flash works, see the Flash Craft section of FlashFiction.net.)

Taking Brown’s stories as an example, some plot, or concentrated action at least—progression from beginning to end—does seem achievable. His story “Early Man” starts with a boy and his father finding a big wad of cash on the ground, and then proceeds to detail what they do with it, ending on the fourth page when the money is gone. Another story, “Good Kid,” is all action, its four pages describing an attempted robbery at a store and the fight that ensues as a boy and his grandfather resist the bad guys.

As for character change, there can be hints of that. “Good Kid” ends with a projection into the kid’s future, telling us that when bad dreams come, the boy will fight them off with memories of the moment of triumph with his grandfather.

Still, I don’t believe that real character development—important changes in essential traits or understandings—can be achieved in a couple of hundred words. Nor do I think that ultra-compressed plots can have the same kind of arc as a longer story or novel in which the characters’ motivation is integral to the buildup, the complications, the climax, and the dénouement.

If anyone can find a strong example contradicting these views, please share.