When Less is More:
Writing Short Stories, Essays, and Flash Fiction
By Writers’ League Intern, Max Friedman
As the clock struck 7:00, the attendees of February’s Third Thursday panel settled down into their seats. The panelists took small sips from their water bottles, preparing to tackle tonight’s theme: writing short stories, essays, and flash fiction. To begin, each panelist talked about their writing roots. Steve Adams, an accomplished short story and memoir writer and writing coach, started out in the acting program at UT. He claimed, however, that “The best thing that ever happened to me was getting kicked out.” From there, he found himself gravitating towards writing. Meg Pokrass, the widely-published short/flash fiction writer and author of Bird Envy, had similar beginnings. She was working in New York as an actor, but found herself moving towards writing and away from the stage. When speaking of the two fields, she said, “The two have a very similar skill set in terms of paying attention to sensation.” Steve agreed with this sentiment, going on to say that actors need to have a good narrative sense to keep a scene going. Kelly Luce, author of the short story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail (a 2013/2014 Writers’ League Book Awards finalist in fiction), did not come from an acting background, but was a science major in school. She found herself moving to writing gradually, doing it as a hobby until she finally realized it could be something more. Our last panelist, Robert Shapard, editor of the anthology Flash Fiction International, came into writing and editing after doing various odd jobs. He was always attracted to reading and writing, recalling that in his spare time “I would sneak into the back of college classes and listen to the lectures.”
The panelists then moved on to discuss their writing processes, and the advantages of writing short work. A common theme was the necessity of a coffee shop-like atmosphere, with a good amount of white noise. Robert added: “The worst place is a deadly silence.” Though, Kelly had a different opinion and feels that sometimes it’s better to separate yourself from others, “It can be better having an isolated space where nobody can bother you.” For each of the writers, their process of getting ideas proved fascinating. Meg usually gets a prompt from a newspaper, while Steve needs to distract himself until ideas come to him. Kelly likes to listen to people’s stories and take bits from strange news events, while Robert usually relies on images and things that come to him in dreams. In terms of the proposed advantages of writing short work, the panel shared similar sentiments. Steve believes, “It’s good to put the long form stuff down, and get some short work done. You get some confidence with short work.” Kelly echoed this idea, warning people against forcing themselves to sit in a room by themselves for months to write a long piece. In terms of technology, Meg believes that the mobile device revolution has made short form a lot more popular, as people can read it on the go.
At this point in the night, the focus shifted more towards the publishing side of the process. Steve and Meg had different helpful tricks of the trade to share. Steve recommended a site called Duotrope, which offers information on a plethora of literary journals. He added: “if you go down to the bottom, and this is my big trick, it’ll say people who submitted to this journal also submitted to these other journals. So that’ll give you other options.” Meg offered her personal trick: “Go to the list of award-winning Flash Fictions, and see where they were published. There’s a list every year of the best 50.” As an important caveat, the panelists all stressed the need for a writer to be persistent in their submissions. Kelly shared the submission record of one of her stories, which in the end took 53 attempts to get published. Steve added: “This is what you have to do, it’s just the system.”
An aspect of writing that can be troublesome for many, is the necessity for critique and revision by others. Kelly stated that if you don’t have the time to come back to the piece, you should have your friends look at it. Steve agreed, saying you must show it to someone else, because they might be able to find a hole in the story that you can’t see. In the digital age, there are many online options for this process as well. Meg offered: “Zoetrope Virtual Studio is a great resource. It’s a free online writing community that you can get feedback from.” Another site mentioned was Fictionaut, which offers a similar service to Zoetrope Virtual Studio.
As it came time to wrap up, each of the writers offered up pieces of advice for the crowd. Steve said: “Realize that everyone makes it up on their own. Just begin with one step.” Meg urged the listeners to lower their standards and just write, stating that eventually they would get to something good. Kelly stressed the importance of staying excited about your work, “However you can trick yourself into doing that, as long as your way doesn’t involve smoking crack.” Lastly, Robert offered up the notion that a writer need not take classes. He added, “You just need to read, and read closely. It’s all there, you need to take it in.”
If you enjoyed this discussion, come to our next Third Thursday panel at BookPeople on March 19 at 7:00 pm. Our topic will be “”Capturing Texas: Writing About the Greatest State in the Union.”
See you there!
Max Friedman is a sophomore at UT studying English and Spanish. He enjoys exploring Austin’s culinary and live music opportunities in his free time, and writing for Texas Travesty, UT’s satirical newspaper. He edits poetry for UT’s AnalectaLiterary & Arts Journal, and his own work has been published in UT’s Hothouse Literary Journal.