PEGGY: You write flash fiction. What attracted you to this genre and when did you start writing it?
MIKE: I like the idea that a well-written flash tale can be read in just a few minutes. I started writing flash about six years ago when I joined a Yahoo writing group, FlashXer, which was dedicated to flash. In the beginning, I was a total failure. Couldn’t write flash to save my life. Then I had a breakthrough, and before I knew it my flash tales were getting published very regularly and winning contests. By the way, I’m now the moderator of FlashXer. I’m also moderator of the Muse Speculative Fiction Flash Group. Both are listed under Yahoo Writing Groups.
PEGGY: You used to be a tech writer. How did/did not the skills you developed there carry over into your fiction writing?
MIKE: None of my writing skills as a tech writer were worth a cent when I began writing fiction. Tech writing is a separate arena. Never the twain shall meet. For me, tech writing was far easier than fiction-writing.
PEGGY: Do you write anything except flash?
MIKE: Yes. I write some short stories up to 13,000 words, but lots of micro-fiction. Micro consists of complete stories from 55 to 200 words. This includes 100-word drabbles, which are in high demand by magazines. Some may scoff when they hear that we can tell complete stories in as few as 55 words. I did the same until I tried it. It’s a highly disciplined way of writing. Had to learn how to edit my work ruthlessly. I’ve had dozens published. I’ve also had dozens of drabbles published, and won four drabble-writing contests. In fact the first contest ever sponsored by the Muse It Up Club was to write a drabble. I won that one.
If you can tell a complete story in 55 words, it’s almost a luxury to write a 100-word drabble, because you have 45 more words to use. I also wrote 150-word micro-fiction tales specifically for Alien Skin Magazine, and they published every one I submitted. In fact, one is available right now, online, in the final issue of that magazine.
As to 200-word micro, I’ve written a few dozen. All have been published.
PEGGY: Have you had any formal training as a writer?
MIKE: Not for my nonfiction works. By the way, 39 of my nonfiction books have been published since 1980. Most were self-study textbooks for the IBM Corporation and SRA, the folks who publish textbooks and tests for K through university level. One of them brought in 3-million to the corporate coffers. Unfortunately, I wrote that one as a salaried employee. By the way, one of them was leased by SRA for $1,100 per year. That was the first time I ever heard of a leased book.
While I’m talking about nonfiction, I wrote books for slot machine technicians on how to install, test, and maintain bill acceptors, the devices in which you insert money into slot machines to obtain game credits. Every casino around the world has multiple copies of these books. I wrote these for a company that has 96% of the global market for slot machine bill acceptors. So the next time you put a twenty into a slot machine, chances are it’s one discussed in my books.
When I turned to fiction just nine years ago, I attended five creative writing and fiction-writing courses at universities and community colleges in California, Arizona, and Nevada. None prepared me to write flash fiction. The worst flash fiction I’ve read–and I critique dozens every week on several sites–are from folks who write as they were taught in creative writing courses. I’ve seen tons of poorly written flash while critiquing over 6,000 flash and micro fiction tales over the past 6 years.
Here’s what I’ve observed: most authors come to flash with preconceived notions. They tend to approach flash as if it were nothing more than a mini-novel that should be crammed with trivial, nonessential details. They write lots of fancy, artsy stuff, which has little or zero plot. The worst offenders are those who feel compelled to include action tags with every line of dialog. I think if I see another character sigh, roll his eyes, or shift in her seat before or after a line of dialog, I’ll tear out what’s left of my hair. Which means, I’ll be bald by the end of today.
The only thing worse are the inane similes they include. I have a collection that’d have you laughing for an hour, if I ever published them. I also have a collection of reports of characters turning. Every time I critique a flash tale in which characters don’t turn, I feel like sending a $10 check to the author with a thank you card.
Authors are always startled when I tell them that as much as 60% of their submissions are nothing more than fluff and filler typically found in short stories and novels. They were never told in any formal classes that flash fiction is a separate literary form from all others. That which works so well in novels and shorts doesn’t work at all in flash fiction.
PEGGY: What do you find are the key qualities for an effective flash fiction piece?
MIKE: Here’s my list of what I think comprises the ideal flash fiction tale. I suspect it will surprise everyone who reads this. However, I fashioned my opinions after transforming a few dozen short story authors and novelists into flash fiction authors, from critiquing 6,000+ tales, and from what I learned when I was a flash fiction wanabe on the FlasXer writing site:
– It should tell a complete story that can be read in 5 minutes or less.
– It should have an opener that pulls readers into the story.
– It should be plot-driven.
– It should emphasize telling over showing.
– It should be a fast read.
– It should always move forward at a brisk pace.
– It should be free of inflated prose.
– It should be free of trivial details.
– It should be free of distractions that can throw readers out of the story.
– It should contain dialog.
– It should contain a maximum of 4 characters
– It should contain a maximum of 4 scenes
– It should end in a way that makes it complete.
PEGGY: What do you want readers to take away from your work?
MIKE: I hope to always entertain my readers, and give them the quickest read possible in as few words as possible, without sacrificing a smooth read. I hope to draw them into the story instantly with an opener they can’t resist. Let me give you an example: Billy was in Grandma’s kitchen when his thumb fell off. Who can resist such a grabber like that? Of course, once you commit yourself to such a bizarre and strong opening sentence, the rest of the story has to keep the reader’s attention. Which reminds me—I’ve read and critiqued tons of flash tales in which authors gave a good, snappy opener. Then in the very next sentence, they changed the subject. I also saw this in many submissions when I was editor of five online and print magazines, and when I had my own magazine. Drives me crazy. It’s as if they learned one lesson in creative writing: open the story with a sentence that grabs interest. Then it seems they forgot that the
rest of the story had to be just as compelling. It’s quite a trap that many fall into. As an editor, I used to stop reading and reject immediately any story that had such a glaring deficiency.
PEGGY: What’s your writing process like? Do you write every day?
MIKE: I’m not sure what you mean by writing process. But I’ll take a guess by saying that since I’m a very fast typist, I develop all my stories on a computer. I never write an outline, because flash is too short for that. I just sit in front of the computer, have a concept in mind, and take it from there.
Yes, I write every day. Even if it’s only a 200 word vignette. I’ve saved every word I’ve written since I started writing fiction.
PEGGY: Do you use any writing software?
PEGGY: You are extremely prolific. How do you keep track of all your submissions?
MIKE: I keep written records of each submission. As you know, I submit like mad. Some months I’ve submitted more then 50 to magazines and anthologies.
As to my written record, I list the date, title, publication or contest to which the story was submitted, and country. When I get an acceptance, I list the date received, and the anticipated date of publication. When I receive a rejection, I just list the date.
PEGGY: Who is your favorite writer?
MIKE: I have two: W. Somerset Maugham for novels, and Guy de Maupassant for very short fiction. In fact, I think Maupassant was the first flash fiction writer.
PEGGY: Do you have an all time favorite book?
MIKE: Several share the top spot for me. Here are a few:
– Of Human Bondage
– The Manchurian Candidate
– Invasion of the Body Snatchers
PEGGY: Do you ever suffer from writers block or even a disinclination to write, and if so, how do you get yourself out of it?
MIKE: When it comes to writer’s block, I think I hold the world’s record. Here’s why: when I retired from tech writing, I wanted to switch to fiction. Thought it would be a piece of cake. Wrong. I couldn’t get a sentence on paper. Don’t know why. This lasted ten years. It was broken by a superb professor in Las Vegas, Dr. Sherry Rosenthal, PhD in Comparative Literature. She conducted a fiction-writing course. I walked in the classroom on day 1, and said this, and I’m paraphrasing: “I have a terrible fiction writing block. If you think you can break it, I’ll stay. If you can’t, I don’t want to waste my time.” I was 62 years old at that time.
She said she would, and she did. I haven’t had any blocks ever since. She did this just nine years ago. Because of how she instructed me and whipped me into shape, I’ve dedicated two of my flash fiction books to her. I was startled when she told me that I’m one of her favorite writers. What a turn-around from not being able to write a single sentence of fiction.
PEGGY: I earn my living as a software engineer, and it’s made me very wary about data loss. What do you do to protect/back up your data, and what advice , if any, do you have about backup for other writers?
MIKE: I backup my files on two different devices not connected to my computer, just in case. Consequently, I’ve never lost a word of the 500+ flash fiction and micro-fiction tales I’ve written.
PEGGY: What are your current writing projects?
MIKE: I have five:
– I just sent a manuscript of 100 flash fiction tales to my publisher, Books For A Buck. Title: “Martians, Monsters, and Pepperoni Pizza.” This collection of speculative fiction tales will be published in December in both E-book and paperback formats. Many in the collection were previously published by magazines and anthologies in several countries.
– I also sent a manuscript of 35 flash fiction tales to the same publisher. Title: “Revenge Day and 34 More Crime and Espionage Tales.” This collection should be published first quarter 2011. Many in the collection were previously published by magazines and anthologies in several countries.
– Just completed a very unique self-study book that teaches how to write flash fiction. Will put into my publisher’s hands this month.
– Just completed a self-study book that teaches how to write micro fiction. Will put into my publisher’s hands this month.
– I continue to write an average of three new flash or micro-fiction tales per week.
PEGGY: Where can readers find your books?
MIKE: Three places. I’ll give you the online addresses and titles separately.
Ebook versions: http://www.booksforabuck.com or http://www.fictionwise.com
Paperback versions: http://www.amazon.com
“I Never Kissed Judy Garland and Other Tales of Romance”
“The Area 51 Option and 70 More Speculative Fiction Tales”
“A Full Deck of Zombies – 61 Speculative Fiction Tales”
PEGGY: Any last words?
MIKE: If you want to learn how to write flash fiction and micro-fiction of any genre, consider joining FlashXer, where I’m moderator. I issue three prompts per week. If you do join, expect some hard, thorough critiques, which are designed to transform you into a flash fiction author. Check Yahoo Writing Groups for FlashXer.
Also, if you want to learn how to write speculative flash and micro fiction for publication, join my Muse Speculative Fiction Flash Group. By speculative, I mean sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. I issue one prompt per week. Almost every prompt is targeted at a specific magazine, anthology, or contest. Expect to work very hard, if you do. This group is not a mutual admiration society. Objectives: to get you published as quickly as possible and as frequently as possible. It works. Some of my students have already won contests. Currently have a few openings.
Check Yahoo Writing Groups for the Muse Speculative Fiction Flash Group, also known as Muse Spec Fic Flash.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to discuss one of my favorite subjects.