flash fiction

Stripped

I’m slightly biased with respect to this collection of flash fiction for two reasons: it includes a short piece that I wrote and I designed the cover (using art by one of my favorite artists, Anne Buckwalter). So rather than give a review, I’ll share the copy from the back cover:

Stripped is a collection with a twist. Yes, the fiction contained herein includes works from some of the best-known names in flash fiction as well as the work of emerging writers, but the bylines have been removed so you can’t tell who wrote what. What’s more, the stories hinge largely on gender roles — but with the authors’ identites stripped from their stories, editor Nicole Monaghan has created a bit of a guessing game. Did a woman, for example, write that piece about ambivalence toward motherhood? Or was it a man? More to the point, does it really matter? Or is there something bigger going on when men and women stretch their minds and imagine what it might be like to be the other? Authors include Meg Tuite, Michelle Reale, Myfanwy Collins, Tara L. Masih, Michael Martone, Nathan Alling Long, Curtis Smith, and Randall Brown.

– Posted by Marc Schuster

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey distills in its purest form author Steve Almond’s literary aesthetic by collecting a series of micro-essays on the ins and outs of writing and then exemplifying those ins and out with a brief selection of flash fiction. The result is what may be the most concise and helpful book on how to write fiction ever published — a pocket-sized catechism for writers at every stage of the game.

Early on, Almond offers a definition of writing that calls to mind the advice Grady Tripp offers his students in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. According to Almond, “Writing is decision making. Nothing more and nothing less. Where to place the comma? How to shape the paragraph? Which characters to undress and in what manner? It’s relentless.” From here he goes on to discuss the various decisions that writers need to make with respect to plot, style, point of view and a host of other issues.

In the shortest of his “essays,” Almond offers a one-sentence definition of plot: “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” In the event that this definition needs further elucidation, he goes on to offer a supplemental essay on the subject titled “A Quick Survey of Where Your Plot Went Wrong.” (Hint: it probably has something to do with your characters and how you treat them.)

Elsewhere, Almond proffers such invaluable pieces of advice as “Metaphors Almost Always Suck,” “Excessive Emotional Involvement Is the Whole Point,” and “Slow Down Where It Hurts.” He also asks a pointed question: “Who Wants to Play with a Headless Doll?” As these titles suggest, the author pulls no punches when describing the difference between good writing and bad, yet he’s also quick to admit in a piece titled “This Is Just My Bullshit” that the dicta he has on offer are purely subjective.

As with all books on writing, the best the author can do is provide guidelines for writing the kind of fiction he likes to read. Fortunately, Almond’s tastes run a fairly wide gamut, and his talent as a fiction writer — as evidenced not only by the flash fiction included in this brief volume but also by his excellent short story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil BB Chow — renders his an opinion worth considering.

If you’re a writer, buy this book. If you’re a reader, buy this book. If you have either writers or readers in your life, buy all of them this book.

– Review by Marc Schuster

Dogzplot 2011

My intention was merely to peek at one or two pieces of flash in the latest Dogzplot anthology, but a half-hour later, I’d devoured the entire thing. Per usual, the themes in this edition run the gamut: sex, drugs, life, death, love, hate, pineapples, people who appear to be homeless but actually have homes in tiny rooms in the backs of their daughter’s girlfriend’s houses, finding one’s daughter at a strip club, going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. As for style, it’s as varied as the themes. Indeed, if Dogzplot excels at anything (and it does!), it’s bending and warping and re-shuffling the English language in order to reinvent the art of storytelling one page at a time.

You Can Finish This Later

Let’s start with the dimensions: seven inches tall by four-and-a-quarter inches wide by about an eighth of an inch thick. In other words, You Can Finish This Later is, at least in physical terms, a small book — or perhaps “portable” is a better word. You can keep a copy in the breast pocket of a dress shirt, if you’re so inclined, or in the back pocket of your blue jeans, or in the front pocket of an overcoat. I mention this because I think everyone should, in fact, keep a copy of this tiny gem on hand, at least for a little while, and page through it from time to time the way others might page through a pocket copy of the New Testament or the US Constitution. It will make you feel better about yourself. It will make you feel less alone in the world. It will give you hope.

Though this particular chapbook is actually a collection of very short fiction, I was convinced from page one that I was reading the confessions of an actual human being. Thoughts on abandoned dogs. Ruminations on how to meet women. Lamentations on the lack of decent chairs in the universe. What begins to emerge from the blurry edges of Mike Parish’s micronarratives is not just a portrait of a lonely artist as a young man, but a portrait of humanity’s shared loneliness — an image of the thoughts we all have, or variations thereof, that we hesitate to share for fear of further alienation. Parish strips away the self-consciousness of his narrators and allows them to share their deepest secrets, their most uncertain moments. That these moments and secrets are, more often than not, of the most mundane variety underscores the humanity of this collection.

And, now, back to the dimensions. What if each of us carried a tiny chapbook around at all times? Thirty pages or so of tiny vignettes? Slices of our lives? The sad moments, the lonely moments, but also the happy moments, the moments of quotidian transcendence? And what if these vignettes weren’t fictional but true? What if we gathered the most telling moments of our lives and shared them with each other in trim, elegant volumes like this one?

When we met new people in such a world, we could exchange our tiny books, sit down for about a half-hour or so, and peruse each other’s souls. It would be like handing over  passports as we cross the infinite country that spans the borders between us: I’ve been here and here and here and here, and I see you’ve been there and there and there and there, and — look at that! — we’ve both been here and there, and we both came back alive! Isn’t that something?

Imagine the implications… The dating scene (one focus of You Can Finish This Later) would become infinitely less complicated as the unattached passed tiny books back and forth in an effort to get to know each other and search for like-minded mates. And car accidents! Imagine swapping a collection of tiny narratives along with your insurance information at the site of your next fender-bender: suddenly the asshole who rear-ended you isn’t so bad. I mean, sure, he’s still the asshole who rear-ended you, but he’s a human asshole, just like you. And as each of you takes some time to read the other’s book, your passions cool, your heart rates return to normal, and you can discuss the situation like rational adults.

What I’m saying is that it would be a truly wonderful world if everyone wrote a little book like You Can Finish This Later, but the next-best thing would be a world in which everyone were to read a book like this one. Illustrated by Dan Tarnowski with a series of child-like drawings that call to mind the art of John Lennon’s early fiction collections In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, You Can Finish This Later offers a glimpse of the exquisite loneliness of the human animal in a way that never gives into despair but, on the contrary, offers hope for us all. We can connect, Parish insists on every page. We only have to try.