Writing workouts (with a reading list)

It’s no secret that flash fiction is my first love. I stumbled on crafting short stories as a child and then later in college in two separate short story seminars, but it was always just a flirtation. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s and living alone in Boston (working two jobs and perpetually broke) that I took a class in flash fiction at a local night school. The instructor once had her flash pieces framed and shown in a local tea shop in Harvard Square (still one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen as a writer) and challenged us to crate a new story each week which we would then workshop. After that course, life got in the way of writing. I started a new job. I moved to a new apartment. My boyfriend became my fiancé and then my husband. I moved cross country. I started writing novels.

But short stories continued to haunt me. Collections of short stories are my (reading) drug of choice. Elizabeth Crane, Lorie Moore, Simon Rich, and Aimee Bender all inspired me to find my voice and to take risks and try writing my own.

Since I completed NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2009, I’ve completed eight novels (most of them trash) and published one. I’ve also written close to 30 short stories in that time frame. Recently, I’ve invested more time and energy to flash fiction, creating a new story  each month. It’s paid off (literally) as I’ve had four pieces published since last summer.

If writing a novel is my marathon (and finishing it is completing 26.2 miles), I look at writing flash fiction as my speed-training workouts before the big race. Some of these short pieces will never see the light of day, but each time I write one, my writing improves.

You’re probably thinking, but you just said some will never see the light of day. Writing flash fiction makes you a concise storyteller. You can’t afford to waste words. The more you write within a limited scope, the more is caries on in your other work (or at least it does in mine).

Writing short stories is hard. It’s just as hard as writing a novel, only your murky middle only lasts a few pages or a few hundred words. You still have to come up with an idea and follow it through. Personally, I love writing prompts. Give me three random suggestions (shampoo, a seminary, and historical fiction) and I’ll create a story about a female pastor in the 70’s looking to find a husband before she is ordained. I love writing contests that challenge me to write within certain parameters. For example, last year Seattle Public Library held a short fiction contest and challenged writers to craft a sci-fi story in the style of Octavia Butler. Sci-fi isn’t really in my wheelhouse, but I gave it a shot. My end result was the opposite of what they were looking for, but I walked away from that contest with a genderqueer sci-fi rom-com that was snatched up by The Dime Show Review. I’d never have tried my hand at sci-fi (or realize that it could be in my wheelhouse) had I not entered the contest. Writing outside of my comfort zone was the workout I needed.

There’s no shortage of contests or places to find prompts. These days I rarely throw my money at paid contests. That said, I do love the two different contests that New York City Midnight offers each year. The flash fiction contest I entered last year gave me three marketable stories, and I’m currently in the second round of the short story contest.

A simple Google search could yield you lists of contests and prompts, but I like the list updated at Aerogramme Writers’ Studio. Curious to try out a contest for free? Paperdarts has a 200-word micro-fiction contest on cleanliness with an April 17th deadline that’s worth a shot.

And if you’re looking to start reading short stories and flash fiction, I recommend:

Self-Help by Loorie Moore

When the Messenger is Hot by Elizabeth Crane

Monica Never Shuts Up by A.S. King

Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak

American Housewife by Helen Ellis

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