Let me do my usual throat-clearing preface here: I’m just a guy who likes writing and talking about writing. There is no one right method for writing. There are only good stories; however you arrived at that good story is your business (as long as you didn’t plagiarize, of course). I’m only sharing what seems to work for me.
Over at Flash! Friday, which hosts the weekly flash fiction contest I participate in, they had a rather interesting post deconstructing flash fiction stories using one of my favorite flash writers, Image Ronin, as a template. Again, if you’re not familiar with the flash fiction contest, the gist is that you’re given a photo, an element to choose from, and a word count of some sort, and you submit a flash fiction story. But of course, flash fiction is done all over the web beyond the contest for a variety of literary magazines, and the like, including even shorter versions like the other one I participate in on Twitter, #vss365.
Rebekah Postupak (at least, I think it’s her who authored the post, sorry if I’m wrong on that!) made an interesting point about how to approach the prompt:
“When approaching a writing prompt, rejecting that first idea that pops into your head can be a helpful way to make sure your story will stand out from the others. Look beyond the obvious, the superficial, and dare to take a story in a totally different direction.”
Some, however, like Image Ronin, go in the way that the majority of flash fiction writers may go in terms of conceptualizing the prompt, but the difference-maker, as Rebekah pointed out, in his piece was that his execution stood out. In other words, either do something you think will be completely different than everyone else or do something everyone else is likely to do but better.
To her point about whether to go somewhere completely different with the prompt or go to what the majority may do (but hopefully execute it better, as Image Ronin did), my strategy has always been the former. I try not to interpret the prompt too literally, particularly the photo prompt. If anything, I’m trying to think what’s just outside the frame of the photo. That’s what inspired my latest piece in the most recent FF.
Also, in terms of constructing a piece, I’m not someone who writes 1,000 words, and then and sweats out how to whittle that down to 200 words, or whatever the parameter is. For one, that’s not efficient to me. I know it’s a small space to work with, and I’m not going to envision a story in my head that will be too expansive beyond it. If anything, I would rather under-write and continue strategically building rather than having a lot of darlings to kill.
I feel like whether I’m writing for my journalism job or for flash fiction (or something even smaller like #vss365), I’ve always had an intuitive sense of how many words a story is in the course of writing it. For example, when I’m submitting to The Molotov Cocktail, since the sweet spot for that journal is 750 words, I have an intuitive sense as I’m writing what 750 words looks like. So I write to that, generally speaking. I may end up going 100 words higher or lower, as the story demands, but I know about where that threshold is. The same is true of Flash! Friday and a 200-word limit or #vss365 and a 273 character limit.
On the blog, as you can tell, I don’t particularly care how long I write for most of the time. Hence, I can be rather … verbose.
As for how I actually construct my pieces, I start with the idea, of course. Again, with the idea (pun intended) of trying to think outside-the-box, sometimes literally, of the prompt.
Then I’m quirky about character names. Even if I have a searing idea in my idea for a story, I can’t start writing it until the character name fits. Searing makes me think of steak. So, if the story is the steak, then for me, a good character name is the butter on the steak. It adds a little something extra to the meat. Maybe some readers don’t pay attention much to it, but for my tastes (stretching the metaphor thin here), I need that name to plug in the correct way, aesthetically. Also, there’s something to be said for preferring readers not noticing something versus them noticing it in a bad way. I’ve read stories that take me out of it because the character name is off.
The next part seems obvious enough: I start with an opening sentence. For most of my writing, once I have that opening sentence, the rest flows from there within that intuitive sense of how long it needs to be.
I still struggle with endings, no matter how long a piece of fiction or nonfiction is. Endings are hard! So in the end (no pun intended this time), I don’t have to do as much chopping, mostly tinkering with some of those superfluous words. After all, even a 75-word story, as last Friday’s story was, still needs to be revised and tinkered with. Within that story, I still had words that needed to be murdered.
Flash fiction is all about tightness, as Rebekah said, and my predilection is that tightness plus a punch to the gut. All writing needs to make you feel something, but flash fiction seems to have a heavier ask because it’s asking you to feel something in a shorter amount of time. So, best to come out swinging and not stop until the word limit commands it.