Lessons from Midwest Writers Workshop: The Art of Compression

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For those of you who couldn’t attend the 40th Midwest Writer’s Workshop at Ball State, I thought I would write a series of posts sharing just some of the wisdom I acquired in my three jam-packed days in Muncie. If you want the full wisdom, be sure to sign up for next year.

Audience Development for Writers

You can watch this great talk by Jane Friedman in its entirety, here. This was one of the best talks of the conference because it was incredibly useful and also–cats! I’m not going to spend time summarizing the talk, because you can see it for yourself.

I will say that what I loved about Jane’s approach is the nice, Midwestern, down-to-earth-ness of it. Sometimes I’ve felt that in order to build a platform, I would have to become someone I’m not. Someone extroverted and outgoing and aggressive. This talk reassured me that this is not the case. Do what feels comfortable for you. Becoming someone different in order to build a platform is not sustainable.

So you should go watch now. Did I mention the cats?

The Art of Compression

Just before heading off to MWW, I began playing with flash fiction. The one short story I’ve had accepted for publication was, well, short. 1,880 words, to be precise. The shortest story I’ve ever written is the first one ever published. Writing shorter fiction seemed like something worth pursuing. So I was very excited about Roxane Gay’s workshop on the Art of Compression.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This six-word novel might be the grand-daddy of all flash fiction. It’s attributed to Hemingway, but no one’s really sure if he wrote it or not.

There are lots of different names for flash fiction. The six-word novel is hint fiction, stories that are 25 words or fewer. These two-sentence horror stories are another great example of hint fiction. Flash fiction might also be called micro fiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction and short, short stories. The upper limit on most of the writing labeled flash fiction is 1,000 words. You can go down from there to 750, 500, 250, 100, 50, 25, or 6 words.

dThe word count does not include the title, and this is important. You can get a lot of mileage out of your title. Titles shape how readers enter your story. There’s a nice piece at Boston Literary Magazine called “The End,” by Lisa M. Palin, and the title makes all the difference. I talked about how titles matter for novels in last week’s post. They might matter even more in flash fiction, where you want to wring all the meaning you can possibly get out of every single word.

Roxane Gay likes to think of flash fiction as an exploded diagram. Think of the complex schematics for a machine. There’s a big picture and then there’s a small diagram for each individual bit. Flash fiction is that small diagram–a drawing of just one bolt or junction.

You might also imagine the traditional story arc, an inverted checkmark with conflict, complications, crisis, falling action, and resolution. Flash fiction zooms in on just one segment of that arc and makes a story there.

In the workshop, we started by trying to write a story with just six words (“High heels. Dirt under manicured fingernails.”). Then 25 words. This was, needless to say, difficult.

The beautiful thing about flash fiction is that you’re leaving a lot of blank space on the canvas. Your readers will have to fill in the gaps. This is both wonderful and terrifying. Last week I tried my first 250 word piece, and I can tell the ending is murky. With so few words, you have to be extra careful about picking the right one to carry the meaning well.

Compression is a useful exercise regardless of what you’re writing. Flash fiction makes you very aware of the importance of each word. Imagine applying such care to a novel. Roxane Gay told us she once tried writing a story entirely out of one-syllable words.

Writing flash fiction is also an end in and of itself. The flash fiction piece we read in the workshop–“We Didn’t,” by Rachel Yoder–was simply gorgeous. Reading flash fiction is like popping one delicious chocolate in your mouth, as opposed to sitting down to the five-course meal of a novel. The stories are sweet, short bursts of flavor and wonder; you can consume them one after another.

If you want to know more about writing flash fiction, you might check out The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. There’s also a Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Non-Fiction. You might also check out this link.

Some markets for flash fiction include:
Wig Leaf (less than 1,000)
Smoke Long Quarterly
Nanofiction (less than 600)
Vestal Review
Everyday Fiction
Brevity (nonfiction)

Next week, Barbara Shoup’s workshop on writing historical fiction. Here’s a quote to get you thinking–“Historical fiction is history bent by imagination.”

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