Flash Fiction Seminar – Jan 2018

How to Write Good Flash Fiction

We held a group seminar on the QSF FB group on January 12th, 2018 with a bunch of our previous winners for the annual flash fiction contest. Here are the results of that chat. Note: Most winners have participated in the year following their win as judges, so they will also be replying in the “judge” questions below.

ORIGINAL FACEBOOK POST:

FOR WRITERS AND WANNA-BE WRITERS

In about a month and a half, we will launch our fifth QSF flash fiction contest. The theme this year? “Impact.” We thought we’d kick it off with a seminar for folks considering writing a story for this or any other flash fiction contest or collection.

We’ve invited past winners:

  • Jenn Burke
  • Aidee Ladnier
  • Carole Cummings
  • Siri Paulson
  • Jerome Stueart
  • Cari Zee
  • Alicia Nordwell
  • Clare London

And the judges:

  • Angel Martinez
  • Ben Brock
  • J. Scott Coatsworth

We’ll do a roundtable discussion first, and then open the floor for questions.

INTRO

J. Scott Coatsworth Hey all… welcome to our Flash Fiction seminar. We’ll start off by having a bit of a roundtable discussion between the winners and judges from 8-9. After that, we’ll open the floor to questions. If the winners and judges would pipe in with a “here” in the comments while I give a brief intro, that would be great.

So… the contest started in 2014. The QSF site was pretty new, and we wanted to do something to get folks involved in the site, especially our many authors. The theme was “Endings,” and we got all of fifteen entries. Each year, the contest has grown, and we’re now up to 207 as of last year. 🙂

The second year, the theme was “Discovery”, and we made a book out of just about every story we got. Later years (“Flight” and “Renewal” have provided us with enough great stories to be a little picky,

So we thought we’d give you all a boost to help you compete in this year’s theme, “Impact.”

So how this will work. I will post a series of questions, one at a time, over the next hour. Panelists, please post your answers as comments under each question, and then we can have a discussion under each of these topics. Sound good?

QUESTION ONE:

WINNERS, what’s your method for writing a good flash fiction story? Do you have any “secrets” to share? (everyone can post as they are ready).

Cari Zee For me it’s having a twist. Flash fiction is so short and to the point that I don’t have time to draw out conflicts, so I try to put a “Lady and the Tiger”-style twist into it.

J. Scott Coatsworth Cari Zee Yes, while not necessary, a twist can work really well in Flash Fic. Some of my fves have had them.

Jenn Burke I don’t know if I have any “secrets”. Mostly, you need to try to hook the reader instantly (bc limited space!) and then give them a payoff while still telling a complete story. It’s hugely challenging, but when it works, it WORKS.

Jerome Stueart Don’t overlook the power of a First Person POV–a person who is telling a story. They can expand where they want and summarize where they want + you get a lot of personality and voice. I learned a lot from monologues. A person telling you a story is often short and perfect for a flash fiction. And how they tell it is a story in itself.

Aidee Ladnier I generally start with a single image in my head

J. Scott Coatsworth Jenn Burke Yup. I love the stories that have a great opening line. “He stared in horror as the universe disappeared.” Boom.

J. Scott Coatsworth Aidee Ladnier Tell me more?

Clare London I’m all about the twist, and it needs to be a very vivid, exciting flash of inspiration in my mind to start with. That way, I can leap straight into that ONE scene I’m seeing, and pour the feelings out immediately.

Carole Cummings For me, it’s a matter of throwing a mess onto the page then stripping it, and stripping it, and stripping it, until it’s honed to exactly the right words and the right number of words to tell the story. But it needs to be a story capable of being told in few words in the first place.

Siri Paulson A short story usually has conflict, plot, setting (which includes worldbuilding and description), character development, and a theme. In a flash piece you don’t have room for all of those at once — one or more may have to go, or at most be conveyed in one line. That’s my real point — the story has to be dense with information. And yes, what Carole said.

Aidee Ladnier More on the single image – I usually see the character, the setting and the conflict in the image. You know what they want right away and what obstacle is in their path.

J. Scott Coatsworth Clare London Yes, I loved yours. 🙂

J. Scott Coatsworth Siri Paulson Yes. One thing you have to remember. EVERY. WORD. COUNTS.

J. Scott Coatsworth Aidee Ladnier Oooh, wish I had your vision. LOL

Clare London Ignore back story / intro / written characterisation!! Go straight for the Reason For The Story :). Then tailor your words so that they convey all the stuff you don’t have word count for. Use emotive words and tags – make each word do the work of 10 😉

Cari Zee J. Scott Coatsworth Me too *fangirls at Clare*

Clare London Cari Zee *waves* !!! <3

J. Scott Coatsworth Clare London Nice. Good advice.

Alicia Nordwell I write more than one story with different takes on the theme but I usually try to pick one ’emotional goal’ for each and put all the action around that. You don’t have long to hook readers, so you want to make sure it’s a very relatable scene. I find emotions are the best way to connect with readers.

QUESTION TWO:

JUDGES, what do you look for in a good flash fiction story? What is disqualifying? What are some common mistakes?

Cari Zee I find I care less about character description and more about action. Unless it’s really important that I know the length of their hair or the style of their clothes, I’d prefer to know what they’re doing and why.

Jenn Burke The biggest thing I look for is the completeness of the story. It shouldn’t be a snippet of a larger tale — or, at least, not a snippet that has not conclusion. Also, make sure that the LGBTQ+ aspect is clear and on the page.

J. Scott Coatsworth One of the biggest mistakes I see is not reading the prompt carefully enough. I have seen several fantastic stories that had no queer element at all, and that we had to let go.

J. Scott Coatsworth Jenn Burke Yes! We get so many “scenes” that feel ripped out of a larger tale. It has to be a “complete” story.

Angel Martinez That’s gonna be a lot of things… Let me start with disqualifications. I can’t tell you how many times each year we’ve cried over fantastic stories that we’ve had to disqualify for one reason or another. When you write your story, please (PLEASE) make sure you’re adhering to all of the qualifications:
*the story must be 300 words or less, that for a start
*the story must clearly have queer content of some kind – if we have to guess, it’s not clear
*the story must address the theme – we’re exceptionally broad about this, but you still need to address the theme
*the story must have spec fic content of some kind – please don’t send a contemporary story with no SFF, paranormal, horror content.

J. Scott Coatsworth Angel Martinez Yes. The 300 word thing has rarely been violated, but the others… all the time. :/

Cari Zee J. Scott Coatsworth I’ve done this! And I felt so dumb later.

J. Scott Coatsworth Cari Zee LOL me too.

J. Scott Coatsworth One thing I’d recommend – figure out what the most common interpretation of the theme is, and write NOT THAT. For flight, it was angels and phoenixes. For renewal, probably human rejuvenation? Whatever it is, we will get bunches of it, and it will be harder for your story to stand out.

Jerome Stueart Angel Martinez I wish we could show them the rubric. Each of those elements Angel is mentioning from the prompt/call have assigned value. There are five of them?—queer, spec fic, theme, full story, well-written– I think. So you have to incorporate each of those or it hurts you. Doing all five at least gets you qualified for the upper crust.

J. Scott Coatsworth Jerome Stueart Yes, Freddy and Angel invented that last year.

Jerome Stueart J. Scott Coatsworth Yeah, this. Go for secondary meanings or ways to incorporate even two or three meanings of the word Impact. Cover your bases.

Clare London Emotion. Action. Need. Make me care :). Language that’s sharp and witty and fascinating. Unique Selling Point. Can you tell I was trained in Sales at one point?! LOL

Jerome Stueart Clare London I’m with Clare. If you can make me care in 300 words, you’ve done a world of heavy lifting in a small space. That’s what I need, often, is to care about a character. You do this, often, by making the character want something at the very beginning. When they want, I want for them. When it matters to them, it matters to me.

J. Scott Coatsworth Clare London LOL yes. Sell me!

Clare London That said, you don’t want to try too hard and pen something utterly weird, just to be different. It can be due to unique style as well as plot. Again, not something too esoteric that will bemuse the readers or sound too contrived. But something that comes from the heart and shows it’s been carefully penned to make the very most of those 300 words.

Siri Paulson Jerome Stueart When I set out to write mine last year, I started with the dictionary definition and brainstormed a bunch of related ideas, then discarded the first several as too obvious and went with one further down.

J. Scott Coatsworth Another point to remember. MM rules the queer world, at least the queer romance world. These stories run the gamut to super romancey to not at all, but we see a preponderance of MM. We also get tons of sci fi. We love both of these things. But again, if you want to stand out, try your hand at a trans fantasy. An intersex paranormal. Maybe a bi or ace horror tale. The more you differentiate yourself fromthe pack, the better your odds of getting noticed.

J. Scott Coatsworth Siri Paulson Oooh, I love that. What ideas did you come up with and discard for Renewal?

Angel Martinez We have evolved from “Hey, everyone rate these!” to an actual rubric, as Jerome says. So the judges are scoring four things:
*Queer content/ representation – is it clear, representative of queer issues, free of stereotypes, diverse rep.
*Speculative fiction content – again, is it clear, are we presented with a world that feels whole, is it original enough to escape the most obvious cliches
*Story craft – is there a complete story (beginning, middle, end) clear plot/idea presented, well-written and evokes emotion
*Use/ Ingenuity of theme – how well was the theme represented and how original was that interpretation of theme?

Jerome Stueart J. Scott Coatsworth True this. We looked for balance. And a trans story normally stood out, or an ace/aro, yeah, or even a combo of LGBT folks.

Clare London I really love the freedom the contest offers – to new and established authors equally, and also the chance to write in a very different genre. Darn it, now I’ve gone and got myself 2 ideas already…. 😉

J. Scott Coatsworth Clare London LOL

J. Scott Coatsworth Angel Martinez This was a big help, even if it made it more work to rate each story.

Siri Paulson J. Scott Coatsworth I don’t have them handy, but I discarded anything relating to libraries, springtime, rejuvenation (of course, someone else may have picked up one of those and made it work brilliantly!).

Angel Martinez We did have several library ones – but not as many as I’d thought we would

J. Scott Coatsworth Angel Martinez Yes. One of my faves in terms of concept was urban renewal.

Carole Cummings My biggest thing when I judged was… disappointment, I guess. Like I’d read something that was written well, but didn’t SAY anything. If I get to the end and think “yes, it’s pretty, but why did you tell me that?” it’s a no for me.

J. Scott Coatsworth Carole Cummings Yes. Sometimes you’re like… damn, this is good. Wait. That’s it???

Angel Martinez Or that was a good idea, but oh, geeze, that ending….

Ben Brock As a judge, I first read a piece without a major agenda, mainly looking for a feeling. What have I learned about the world or characters or myself by reading it?

Then I check to make sure it met all the criteria to be considered in the anthology. This is super important, because even if I love something to death, the other judges will disqualify it–rightly so–if it doesn’t meet the qualifications.

Then I pick through it.

I am heavily influenced by character-driven stories, and stories that don’t waste words. How many times did the author use weak verbs such as went, looked, walked, was, and sat, when a more powerful verb could have been used? You have 300 words–make them count.

I’ve found that even though my selections can be outliers (I can feel passionately about a piece the other judges didn’t care for as much), when the judges and I agree on something, it usually means the piece evoked emotion and was careful about word choice.

In summary:

1) Follow the theme. Make it LGBTQ. Make it clearly Spec Fic. Represent the LGBTQ+ community with integrity.

2) Don’t waste words. Every word should be doing work for your piece in some way.

3) Evaluate your emotional premise, and your premise in general. What am I supposed to feel? What am I supposed to learn about life? It doesn’t have to be happy–I’m not saying that–but I need to come away from your piece with insight.

Jerome Stueart Your main character isn’t just a profession + love interest. They have to have a goal/desire. It CAN be to win over the love interest, but I would want to see something more (though I am NOT a judge in the next contest). Queer characters in the past have often been defined by our love interest and not other goals–I’d love to see more queer warriors, queer power struggles for the good of a community, queer scientists, queers constructing a city, where the love was secondary (or already there) and some other goal was on their mind.

Jeff Baker J. Scott Coatsworth Reminds me of a story where a legendary Mystery writer had a story called “Murder For Christmas,” where there was no murer in it!

Jeff Baker Cari Zee Me too!

QUESTION THREE:

WINNERS: What do you think it was about your story that got you a top three spot?

Jerome Stueart That’s a question with lots of embarrassing potential!

Cari Zee The fact that I won in the first year when there wasn’t a lot of competition certainly helped? LOL Actually, I really loved my story that year. At the end of it, you knew things were about to change forever for my guy, you just didn’t know quite how. I like giving readers the space to imagine their own outcome if I can.

Aidee Ladnier I love stories that wait until the last moment to reveal something about the situation that the reader either hasn’t realized or couldn’t know until that moment. The first part of the story either mislead or didn’t explain fully what could happen.

J. Scott Coatsworth Cari Zee Yes, yours was awesome. I think you would have been a contender any other year too.

Jenn Burke I think my story (“Self-Actuating”, which was the winner for the 2015 contest, Discovery) had a huge emotional impact for something that was only 300 words long. I think that’s key–you need to connect with the reader in a way that encourages some sort of reaction, whether it’s surprise, or heartache, or laughter. Something.

J. Scott Coatsworth Jerome Stueart LOL go for it. Yours was sweet, wistful, beautiful.

Clare London A shocking twist at the end 😉

Clare London and a sexy, amoral, rather skeevy narrator 🙂

Aidee Ladnier And a last line that sings

J. Scott Coatsworth Clare London Yes. She is that. 😉

J. Scott Coatsworth Aidee Ladnier I’d agree. First and last lines are critical in flash fic.

Siri Paulson Mine took a topical idea (urban renewal) and gave it an SFnal twist that captured why the idea is controversial, then filtered it through a mini emotional arc with a gut punch at the end. *evil grin*

J. Scott Coatsworth Siri Paulson LOL you are so good at that. Imposter my ass. 😉

Jerome Stueart Okay! Okay! Mine was the winner from 2016, Flight (“Your Weird Aunt PollyMorph Says Hello”) I used a monologue from a 1st person POV and they could tell us a story that might cover a lot of territory and time, but that it would always be centered on the relationship they had with that one person. Along the way, I had a cast of multiple LGBT folks and themes of self-identity. I pared it away to just the voice of this caring narrator. I used multiple definitions of “flight”. And then for a closer I emphasized the surprise effect on this genderqueer polymorphic narrator. So it was a discovery monologue where the person speaking didn’t know what they would know until they finished speaking. But ultimately, I have no idea why they selected my story. Just thrilled they did!

Angel Martinez Jerome – because it was awesome. And truly different from other entries. The care in how it was crafted and presented really stood out.

J. Scott Coatsworth Jerome Stueart It was different. It was wistful and longing and beautiful.

Alicia Nordwell Cari Zee That was going to be my response too! Expectations were low. Now you have to really create a tiny gem of epic proportions to stand out, lol.

QUESTION FOUR:

JUDGES: What makes a winning story for you? What makes a story stick in your head and keep tapping your shoulder until you give it the accolades it deserves?

J. Scott Coatsworth For me, it’s the stories that stick with me. When I am thinking about a story the next day or a week later, that’s the one I want to win.

Jenn Burke Emotional impact. That’s key.

Clare London Oh yes, definitely emotional impact, whether happy or sad

Aidee Ladnier Beauty of the language used

Clare London One that leaves regret when you’ve finished – the desire for more. Lyrical and unusual word choices.

J. Scott Coatsworth Yes. Sorrow is big for me.

Cari Zee I want the emotional impact, but I also want to be surprised. Beautiful language is great, but I like that “oomph” of shock.

Angel Martinez I need some emotion to attach to it and I prefer things that are unusual, inventive. Sorrow is great. Wistful wanting. Shock. Horror. Or make me laugh. I like the funny ones. 🙂

J. Scott Coatsworth Angel Martinez Yes. Coffee cat! I still chuckle over that one!

Jerome Stueart Characters I haven’t seen before in situations I haven’t imagined…. that creativity stuck with me.

J. Scott Coatsworth Jerome Stueart Yes, I love this contest because you get so much variety. 🙂

Clare London J. Scott Coatsworth Ta 😀

Carole Cummings Something unique, something clever, but most important, tell me an actual story about real people, and make me care.

J. Scott Coatsworth Carole Cummings Yes. One story was about the brother of a boy who had died, and OMG it stuck with me for weeks and weeks.

J. Scott Coatsworth Clare London Ta!

Ben Brock I want the characters to stand out, I want to feel something, and I want to learn something about life.

Jeff Baker J. Scott Coatsworth Yes! The variety “makes” the anthology!

QUESTION FIVE:

BOTH: If you had to give just one short, succinct bit of advice to the 2018 entrants, what would it be? Limited to 10 words. *evil grin*

Jenn Burke Make sure queerness is on the page! Don’t assume.

Cari Zee Twist it! Bend your reader’s mind and they’ll remember you.

Aidee Ladnier Things to Edit Out:
Extraneous description
Subplots
Extra characters
Backstory

Angel Martinez Make me believe and care. In 300 words or less.

J. Scott Coatsworth Go beyond MM scifi and the usual interpretations of the theme.

Siri Paulson Make sure it’s queer and spec fic, wrapped in emotion.

Carole Cummings Clear idea. Careful execution. Ruthless editing.

Jerome Stueart Make ’em fall in love with your characters because you love them.

J. Scott Coatsworth Carole Cummings Yes. No ruth must be had.

Clare London Reduce every three words to one special one.

Jerome Stueart Make your verbs do the work.

Jerome Stueart You can always cut a “be verb”–“she was singing” into “she sings” or “she sang.”

Angel Martinez I may have the Verb song from Schoolhouse Rock stuck in my head now.

J. Scott Coatsworth Clare London Yes. I would say the hardest part of flash fic is not writing the story, but rewriting it.

J. Scott Coatsworth Angel Martinez LOL

Clare London Give it a proper ending! Balance is all 😀

Ben Brock You have only 300 words. Don’t waste them.

Alicia Nordwell No beginning or end, just give ’em the good stuff.

THE WRAP UP

J. Scott Coatsworth Ok, time for the next phase. Any of the folks who are lurking here, feel free to add new comments below with your thoughts or questions, and we’ll respond to them. Panelists, if you can hang out a bit? Or pop back in during the day and reply to any questions that come up? We’ll keep this thread open all day. Thanks so much for taking the time to help out the newbies. 🙂

Siri Paulson Thanks for hosting, Scott! It was great to hear everyone’s take on how to create a powerful story in such a tiny package. I hope we’re all going off to write some flash fiction now…

Jerome Stueart Hopefully this will have a profound Impact on the entries. 😉

Ben Brock I’m here. (Stayed up too late reading a very disappointing book for a book club.)

Ben Brock I thought I’d re-link one of my Judge’s Choices from the 2016 “Flight” Flash Fiction Contest. “Weren’t Fantasy” by Missy Welsh.

The voice of the piece struck me. The simple language. Without it being too heavy-handed with dialect, each word added to characterization. The characters sprung from the page. I could see it all so clearly. I could hear it. Smell it. Feel it.

And it made me feel–hope and pity and humility.

Enjoy.

Queer Sci Fi Flash Fiction Contest “Flight” – Judge’s Choice – B.A. Brock
https://queerscifi.com/queer-sci-fi-flash-fiction-contest-flight-judges-choice-b-a-brock/

Missy Welsh Thank you, Ben 😍 Appreciate this all over again.

Angel Martinez Spare and dreamlike, this young author caught my attention with a vivid scene, both physical and metaphorical:

Queer Sci Fi Flash Fiction Contest “Flight” – Judge’s Choice – Angel Martinez
https://queerscifi.com/queer-sci-fi-flash-fiction-contest-flight-judges-choice-angel-martinez/

Carole Cummings An example of flash fiction that does everything–sets a scene, punches the reader in the gut, evokes an entire story without setting it down in extraneous words, makes the reader feel for characters that aren’t even developed–

“For Sale: An example of flash fiction that does everything–sets a scene, punches the reader in the gut, evokes an entire story without setting it down in extraneous words, makes the reader feel for characters that aren’t even developed–

“For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

It’s been attributed to Hemingway (though probably wrongly), but it doesn’t really matter. The point is that it tells an entire story in six well-chosen words. We don’t need a lot of exposition on the characters, because we each know them in some way. We don’t need a history, because we can all imagine the one that affects us the most.

The key to the perfection of this story is that it tells a complete tale but one that requires the reader to participate by extrapolating whatever depth of meaning will mean the most to them as an individual.

THAT’S what you’re after.

J. Scott Coatsworth Yes, I love that one.

Angel Martinez And we give you a whole 300 words! 😀

J. Scott Coatsworth Yes. We’re nice like that.

Alicia Nordwell Just got here, sorry! I’ve been super sick and slept till noon. Obviously, you don’t win flash fiction contests that way… but sometimes I get great plot nuggets from dreams, lol.

Jeff Baker I’ll say here that practice does make perfect (or close to it!) having written a lot of flash fiction (I’m nowhere near perfect! 🙂 ) writing a lot of it, working at it will improve your craft and discipline.

J. Scott Coatsworth It’s really its own art form with its own rules.

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