Three Things I Realized When Talking To Julie Summerell

The other day Julie Summerell said, “Hey, dicknose, help me with this flash fiction I’m writing.”

And I said, “Who the hell are you?”

“Shrivel Tits,” she answered. I thought, hey, okay, I remember her. Sure, sure. She was the one who unwittingly loosed that evil scarecrow into the world a couple years back.

So I said to her, “Flash fiction? Is that the fiction where you take your clothes off for money? And you tell a story as you shed those articles of clothing?”

“No,” she said, and I think she called me “dumbass,” too. Or maybe “dicknose” again. I dunno. I was drunk on vodka and rhino gall. (Again.) “It’s that really short fiction thing. Like, a short story. But shorter.”

“Like a castrated bull.”

She looked at me.

I made little snip-snip motions with my fingers. To demonstrate.

She continued to stare.

Fine,” I said, and got on with it. “Yes, I’ll help you. Whatever it takes. I’m good like that.”

And just as she was about to hand me the pages, we were attacked by a murder of leprechauns who consumed us for our bone marrow.

Leprechauns, it turns out, don’t give two slippery monkey fucks about gold. They just like bone marrow. You follow a rainbow to its end, you’ll find a leprechaun lording over an iron cauldron filled with pale, quivering marrow. Sweet meat jelly. And the leprechaun laughs, holding his marrow fork.

The end.

So, that sort of happened. Julie really did come over and say, “Hey, please look at this flash fiction,” and I said, “Sure.”

And I looked at it, and it was really good, and I had a few comments, and in the back-and-forth, I came to realize a few things. I wouldn’t say I learned them, as that means I never knew them in the first place. But I realized them. Or I re-realized them. Re-re? Shut up.

Here’s those three things.

Number One: You Can Only Suck Your Own Dick If You Remove A Rib First

It’s true, you can only get your mouth on your own manly-pop if you first extricate —

Uhhh. Wait.

*checks notes*

No, no, that wasn’t the lesson at all. Let’s try this again.

Number One: Flash Fiction Is Some Tricky Shit

Flash fiction, when done right, is like a syringe of awesome stuck into your eye. It’s a little tiny story with all the fat shorn free. It’s an amuse-bouche, a single-bite meal with a world of flavors encompassed in your mouth.

Flash fiction is hard, though, because you have ~1000 words to tell a story. And a story is a complete thing. It’s got that rise and fall, it’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end. Incident. Tension. Climax.

You don’t have those things, you don’t have a story. You have a vignette.

Most flash fiction pretends to be the real deal. Most flash fiction are just vignettes.

That’s not a bad thing. But it’s a thing. And some of you might disagree with me. And to those who disagree, I show you my nipples. And from my nipples spray hot acid, because contained within the dark twists of my genetic tangle you will find a few chromosomes from the dreaded bombardier beetle.

Julie was close to having that complete story — the rise, the fall, the conflict. Didn’t take much to extract that flavor. But it shows how brevity is tricky. With a novel, you get to kill a man with a machine gun. With flash fiction, you have to kill him with a sewing needle.

Number Two: Writers Need People

Writers believe themselves solitary creatures. And in believing it so stridently, we tend to make it so. We’re like cave trolls. Lonely and angry and hunkered down in our nest of bones.

It’s not true.

We need to expose ourselves to other people.

*checks notes*

Uhhh.

*pulls up pants*

I guess I meant something different? I guess I mean, you need to interact with other people. Not just to, y’know, be human, but also to not let your fiction exist in a vacuum. You need people to feed back on it, and they need you, too. I actually got just as much out of the Julie conversations as she did, I think. Because these conversations make me think about the Thing That We Do. Makes me think about craft. Which is pretty cool. Because for as long as I’ve been doing this, I still have things to learn and still have to be reminded of things I’ve known for years.

Number Three: You Need Time Between Drafts Or Your Brain Will Melt, Then Explode, Then Turn Into Bees, And Those Bees Will Sting Your Eyes

I gave Julie some notes.

Julie then went right back to the draft. The draft she’d just finished.

I do this, too. I get notes, I dive right in. And I usually encounter the same thing she did: Oh my God I don’t know what’s happening I don’t know where to stop nothing makes sense anymore the universe is an uncaring place and my skin feels like it’s hot and covered in bugs and I think I need a meth habit to calm down a little bit.

Take a day.

Take one day. At least.

Walk it off.

Do not attempt to create a second draft only hours after finishing the first.

It’s like this. You ever make brownies? You ever check endlessly upon the brownies, opening and closing and opening and closing the goddamn oven? And suddenly, 25 minutes later, the brownies don’t look done, and instead look like hot diarrhea bubbling in a pan? Yeah. You kept letting the heat out. The brownies need time to bake. Stop checking on them. You can’t force it. You crank the heat, you’re just gonna char the top and leave the middle all goopy. Can’t be rushed. Can’t be overexamined.

Same goes for your fiction.

Don’t rush it. Don’t overthink it. Stop looking at it. Quit picking that hangnail.

11 comments

  • Actually, I *had* misunderstood and was typing while wearing a G-String and pasties.

    I actually haven’t gone back to it yet, because the noodling over its direction needs to reach a point where I believe it before I start typing again. I’m trying to decide if where it’s going is a trite little stunt, or if it actually works.

    Thank you again for your help the other day. As mentioned before, hubby is not a reader, and while I’ve read his comp work from college, and it was very, very good, I’m not sure that I trust him to make suggestions yet.

    So yeah, dicknose, you kick ass.

  • Acid spraying nipples? That’s a genetic trait, buddy, and only handed down through a very specific set of people that… wait… I HAVE A BROTHER???

    Anyway, I am getting into this flashing thing. It’s fun. It’s sexy. It’s sex without all the bullshit romance and paying the hooker afterwards. But I agree with you completely – most of what you read are vignettes. It seems like the first part people skip is the inciting incident, and without that, where is the emotional connection? If you have conflict, great! When you resolve it, I am right there with you… but what made me care about it to begin with? Where was the point of no return?

    In flash, you got to start there. You don’t have enough words to set up what the norm is, so it seems to me that creating successful flash employing stereotypical situations is an amazing tool. It starts off so normal that almost anyone can pick up what it is like then BLAMMO! ex-KGB agents wielding sodden napkins bust in and it’s time for Knight Steele to bare his chest like he means it.

    I’ve said this many times before; stereotypes are only bad when you don’t show the difference. There is a reason stereotypes are… uhm… stereotypical. It’s the norm, it’s how things work. That means they are a tool, a way to expose a scene without a bunch of exposition off that bat. If you only write in stereotypes, chances are your work will be a little boring. If you don’t have an exciting comparison to shadow the status quo or an event that breaks comfort, you don’t really have something most people would care about.

    Thanks for sharing the reflections with shrivel-tits. You both rock, and I can’t wait to see the result.

  • Oh. One more thing. I don’t know what other people go through, but while we were speaking I was actually in a window of parenting where I was ABLE to be working. I was terrified it wouldn’t happen again anytime soon, so I jumped back into the water as quickly as I could.

    Exhibit A- Aside from my last blog post, I’ve not been given the chance to write.

    Hope they calm down again soon.

  • I’m a messy writer.

    No, seriously, I am. I don’t outline. I don’t plan. Not really. I have the ideas in my head, I’m working out opening lines, middle lines, scenes I want to see included. I edit as I go. I write three paragraphs from the end before I go back and write the fifth paragraph in the middle. I leave sentences hanging to write another section. And writing on a computer has only made me worse. If I wrote longhand, there’d be arrows and diagrams and blueprints of the White House all over the page, and I’d be forced into writing a second, more polished draft for sheer presentation alone.

    Now, I think this works for me, but I’m well aware that it’s beneficial for my short pieces only. It’s absolute murder when I’m sitting down to make (no) progress on the novel.

    I don’t ask for help. I probably should, but I don’t. Julie’s probably smarter than me in that respect… it would -never- occur to me to ask someone for help on my drafts like that. Especially you, or other people like you. Even though I like to think we’re friends, in the part of my head that deals with writing and gaming (and fangirlism), you’re still <3OMGCHUCKWENDIG<3, and you simply don't ask Mick Jagger to listen to your stupid demo tape.

    Seriously though. I'm taking down the shrine next week.

    I don't get feedback that often. On pieces I practically shit out, there are comments from my mother, from friends, and of course the poohead I married. On pieces I really, really want feedback on (*coughCrocusescough*), stuff that’s taken me a bit longer to write, stuff I’ve fretted over, there’s usually nothing except a tweeted or verbal, “I liked it.”

    Shit, I like Laurell K. Hamilton’s porn-without-plot, even though she should have stopped writing that series about eight books ago. “I like it” doesn’t tell me anything useful. I need reassurances, goddammit. I’m a writer, not a motivational speaker. VALIDATE ME. We writers are whiny, selfish, self-absorbed bunch a lot of the times. Forget hunching in our darkened corners of the room. Someone gives us the wrong emoticon online, and we’re crying in our blogs about it.

    From my experience, that whole interaction thing takes the shape of a two-way street warped into a vicious cycle, paying it forward in the worst possible way. A doesn’t get any comments on his blog, so when he reads B’s and C’s blogs, he doesn’t feel like he should offer criticism or discussion. Because -they’re- not getting any discussion either, B and C don’t comment frequently either. Eventually, one or more of these three people might stop posting, discouraged by the lack of attention and feedback.

    At the same time, none of them realize that, in order to attract traffic, they have to be attracted by other people’s traffic and leave links that track back to their sites. Their works. Their ideas. I’m trying to be better about that myself these days.

    On a more personal level, I disdain your acid-producing nipples. And your bombadier beetles. But not your beard. I could never disdain your beard.

    • (About to walk out the door, but right quick — )

      @Maggie — you posted your story, and I do like it, but if you’re looking for constructive criticism rather than just a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, I can do that. I just don’t want to overstep my bounds; sometimes people say they want feedback, but they maybe don’t mean it in the way some people take it. Plus, feedback in public feels more harsh, somehow, even when it isn’t. I can provide feedback over email or in comments when I have time.

      — c.

  • @Maggie-

    I’m a shy person who has forced herself to be a pushy bitch. Mom used to make me call stores and such to get directions and hours as a kid, and every time my face would flame, and I wanted to die. I thank her for making me do that. On the one hand, the other day I thought, “Chuck is busy. Chuck has no time for this shit.” On the other hand I thought, “Chuck wants me to buy his work and pimp me to everyone I know, so if he knows what’s good for him he’ll help me here.”

    Ok, kidding. But the worst he could have said was, “I’ll get to it if I can.” or even, “Not now, sorry.”

    As a kid that would have killed me.

    Thanks, Mom.

  • @Maggie — I got a lot of help out of an online workshop called Critters, run by Andrew Burt. It’s fantasy/sci-fi/horror, so your stuff should fit in fine. They make you give other people critiques in order for your work to be eligible. I thought at first that it was a tradeoff, but that turned out to be more valuable to me than getting my own pieces looked at. Shorter pieces especially get a lot of love: I’ve seen some <2,000 word stories get over thirty critiques, whereas my monstrously-long murder mysteries tended to get more like ten or twelve (but those dozen were invariably useful!) I really recommend it.

    (Speaking of bravery, can you believe I'm showing my face here after shaving off the beard?)

  • @John I’ve been a part of Critters off and on throughout the years (mostly off of late), and you’re right, it’s a great program. I especially like their non-disclosure policy – it really shows they care about the writers’ creative rights to their property. Critiquing other pieces really helped me hone my natural talent for editing and sharpen up my writing ability. Jesus, before I joined Critters, I went off for ten pages on description, passive voice, adverbs everywhere… literally everything you could do wrong with a manuscript and still have it readable, I did. I’ll renew my activity with Critters when “Vigil” or “Eurydice” (the two 3k+ stories I’ve more-or-less completed first draft of) have had a second draft completed. I really don’t see myself ever submitting flash pieces or shorts under 2k (though I know they accept them) to Critters.

    When I start critiquing again, I’ll look you up. Maybe I can score some quick credits offa ya if you have a RFDR going. 😛

    @Chuck – A wise man once blogged to me (and other people, I guess) that there is no bad pimping, which is why I coughed the link in my response. Yes, I’d love some feedback, but I’m honestly not trying to guilt anyone into it. When I went off on the “validate me!” diatribe, it was more or less a tongue-in-cheek view that many web writers take. Including myself from time to time.

  • @Maggie — Ah hah! See, I give such good advice, people take it retroactively! 😉 I’ve also had to take a bit of a hiatus, though mostly because the day jobs have been kicking my ass. I have been thinking about renewing to have a rewrite of one of my longer pieces critted, but I’m holding off to see if my application to a week-long workshop this fall gets accepted. Besides, this current work really wants to be a novel, and might need some careful attention.

    • @John: You shaved your beard? I knew I sensed a disturbance in the force. THE BEARD FORCE. You are exiled. You may continue to comment, but you must yell your comments from the NBZ (No Beard Zone).

      @Maggie: Diggums. When I have time I’ll bounce over to the Crocuses story and offer my Insightful Comments (read: useless tripe, which is spot on, since I just ate tripe!)

      @Julie: Expect at least one more blog post to come out of our discussion, by the by.

      — c.

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