To Thine Own Self Be True (Flash Fiction)

That’s the advice the Bard bequeathed to us some 400 years ago, but then, he didn’t have $50K in school debts and nothing but a Theater Arts diploma to draw on.

After graduation, I lived on a shoestring, getting money from community-theater gigs and a part-time job subbing for a middle-school theater arts teacher. If I wanted more of the “root of all evil,” I’d need to find people even more desperate than myself.

I placed an ad on Craigslist: “Professional ‘yes-man.’ Seasoned actor will act as your double-date to the bar, vouch for your far-fetched excuses to your boss, etc.”

Jobs poured in. I was a wing-man, school principal, doctor; you name it. I side-stepped jobs that could cause bodily harm or willful destruction of property. I tried, for the most part, to steer clear of unethical gigs, but let’s face it— I was paid to be a liar.

One night, I sat opposite to Cheryl and Wade Bledsoe at their dining-room table. A routine gig. Cheryl had backed a company vehicle into a parked car while inebriated. She needed a cover story.

“Pretty easy,” I told Cheryl. “I’ll swing by your office and talk to your boss. I’ll say I watched a guy rear-end you, then take off. You were so nervous, you forgot to file a police report. Thankfully, I gave you my number, in case you needed a witness. Got it?”

“Perfect.” Cheryl breathed a sigh of relief. “How much do we owe you?”

There was something peculiar about the way Wade had been eyeing me. He had that faint look of recognition for the last half-hour.

Just as Cheryl was finishing her question, I placed him. He was a previous client of mine, looking to hook-up with a barkeep on the South side. I played his wing-man, and he got the date.

My eyes shot to Wade’s in recognition. The look of trepidation on his face confirmed he remembered who I was, as well.

I decided to capitalize on the opportunity. Chancing it, I charged him double:

“For a job of this magnitude, the going-rate is $1000. Certain factors bring that number down…if you’ve been referred by a client or you’re a recurring customer. But those wouldn’t apply to you guys, would they, Wade?”

“No,” His voice cracked. “They wouldn’t. Who should I make the check out to?”

Talking Shop: Tone and Voice

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

I’ve talked a little about David Shields’ seminal book Reality Hunger in a past post. Today I want to respond to another quotation from that same book. Here’s a statement quoted in his chapter about flash fiction:

“Even as they’re exploring extremely serious and complex material, short-short writers frequently use a certain mock modesty to give the work a tossed-off tone and disarm the reader. The reader thinks he’s reading a diary entry, when in fact it’s a lyric essay or prose poem.”

Shields goes on to cite examples, one of which being “Morning News” by Jerome Stern

Although I certainly agree with Shields that this “mock modesty” is common in flash fiction, I’m unsure that it’s fair to say that microfiction utilizes this technique across the board.

This does, however, bring up the topic of tone in flash fiction. As writers, we have to ensure we don’t confuse our tone with our literary voice. One of the best ways to ensure we don’t confuse the two is by having a proper definition of each term.

Tone is the writer’s attitude toward his subject, his audience or himself. One can have a sarcastic tone. One can be flippant or somber or self-reflecting or abrasive. All of these are examples of a writer’s tone in a particular piece.

Literary voice, on the other hand, is the distinctive style a writer has. Hemingway was known for his concise style. It made him have a distinct voice. Douglas Adams is known for his humorous approach to science fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald is known for his flowery prose.

So how can we confuse tone and literary voice? Well, left unchecked, our stories can all share the same tone, and run the risk of becoming formulaic. For example, I love using irony in my microfictions. But If I’m not careful, I will use it in all my stories, and pretty soon they’ll all read in a very predictable manner.

Have you ever enjoyed the first track of an album, only to find that each subsequent song sounded exactly the same? As writers, we have to ensure we vary our tone from piece to piece while maintaining our distinct voice.

How do you find this at play in your writing? Do you gravitate toward a certain tone in your work? If so, how do you avoid falling into a rut? What makes your literary voice distinctly you?

Talking Shop: Minimalism and Flash Fiction

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

Minimalism has turned our society upside down.

Apple products have left consumers spellbound by their simplicity. Room decor has become increasingly elegant. Web designers succeed or fail, depending on how effortless their websites are to navigate.

What might be less obvious, however, are the ways in which minimalism has infiltrated our art.

For instance, sparse instrumentation and simple words created the smash hit “Say Something (I’m Giving Up On You)” by A Great Big World.

I believe that a similar frame of mind dominates some of the best flash fiction.

An old writing maxim is “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, rather than describing a character as “a nervous type,” show these traits by what the character does: give him a nervous tic, make him ring his hands, give his speech a stammer, let him pace the room, etc.

The same applies to flash fiction, but sometimes the most revealing aspects of a character or a plot lie in what isn’t revealed.

Consider, for example, the poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Though it isn’t microfiction, this piece of writing perfectly illustrates how writing can be made more luminous by what is left out. The narrator didn’t give you the gruesome details of the how the ball turret gunner died. Instead he turned your stomach by simply stating: “When I died, they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

In the New York Times article “Hearing the Notes That Aren’t Played,” David Mamet writes,

How much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible? This understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write. Checkhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway. Omission is a form of creation.

This idea that “omission is a form of creation” seems to me at the crux of many great pieces of writing. What are some examples you have found of this principle at work? Do you know any great flash fiction that utilizes this technique? Let’s talk in the comments below!