What is a short-short story?

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness.


Writer’s Craft: What is exactly is a Short-Short Story?

The name short-short story may be relatively new, but its forms are as old as parable, fable, and myth, wrote Robert Shaphard in 1986.

Yes, in 1986! I had no idea. I’ve only really become aware of the form in the last few months, perhaps I read some before but without labelling it as such? I don’t know. However, I’ve been on the search.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories is a collection of work all under 1500 words, published in the mid-eighties, with such notables as Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver. I’ve been reading as much flash fiction and short stories recently because that’s what I’m turning to as I write. I wanted to find out more, find the history, learn the craft, and then probably ignore much of it knowing me. Still, it’s good to know what works, what has lasted. I’d not known the rich history though and this collection also had three short sections at the back where the authors talked about the form, what does it need to hold together, what is the best category to use, the naming of form and the craft as they saw it then.

How do we define and do we need to? Yes, we’re writers, we’re programmed that way, to write it out to make sense of the experience. Hence this short essay.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories has so many stories that are touching, inventive, suggestive. A week’s worth of reading if you’re like me and have to take on short story at a time, read with it, put it down, and let it rest.

At the end of the collection are three sections where the authors were asked to write about the craft, tradition, and yes, how to name this form. The discourse between the writers was just as interesting and their characters came out even in those responses.

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness, a stripping away of anything unnecessary. There’s economy, wit, a turn at the end that is often funny, shocking, touching, or unexpected. Each one gives a sense of place, mood, scene and atmosphere in under three pages. I’d say they’re often less narrative and more evocative. They give us, the readers, a slice or quality of life, a moment of discovery, or a flash of illumination. They are complete and when you finish, the last line stains and lingers. That is the beauty of the form. The compact completeness that lingers.

There’s nothing like reading quality stories that inspire and this collection did. There are over sixty-five pieces, and only thirteen are by women writers. Shame. I’ll say nothing else here on that topic.

When critics and authors explain the interest in short-shorts these days (2018) they often claim it’s a result of the Internet, short attention spans, an influx of information. Exactly the same was said thrity years ago, even longer as some of the pieces in this Sudden Fiction came from the sixties. Perhaps then it’s just that there’s something so satisfying to dive into a world for only a few pages, if that, and be touched and surprised?

Whether I call them vignettes, prose poems, sketches, parables, fables, flash or short-shorts, these condensed concise tales of moment or incident live in a no man’s land that appeals to me. I’m enjoying playing with moments, memories, imagination, words and forms. This then is the start of a new body of work for me. I’m having fun. I’ll let you know how it goes. So far so good, I have over fifty of the buggers. I’m on a roll.

Here then is one my latest shorts:

First Date

She folds up her long legs into the front seat of the old Toyota truck, window rolled down, one silky arm draped out touching the trees as we drive down narrow rocky back roads mid morning and her other hand holds a tall mug of creamy coffee, clasping it carefully with feline fingers that trace the curves, and I drive with eyes averted, focused on the dangers ahead, the rocks unseen, the flash of animals in the woods, and the sun creeps into the valley as we head up and up, deeper and deeper into the unknown New Mexico wilds with only a vague sense of direction, the truck trundles onwards unflinching and reliable with the steady churning of gears slower and slower and the world gets rockier and my hands clench with determination not to wander too far off course and we’re barely moving but covering so much ground as we catch up and laugh out loud and tease and I drive, ignoring the hand on my lap, and squinting in the bright light, and then our mountain track opens up to a meadow of sunflowers as tall as this woman beside me and she turns to me and says, Stop, and I did and I still don’t regret a thing.


Craft: Finding your characters

I’m working on a couple of projects and it’s been hard to stay with each character. I knew that I needed to dive in deeper to each first draft. This questionnaire helped me focus and know each of my friends better. It’s a cheat sheet in a sense. It might help you. If so, use it, change it to suit, pass it along.


  • Date of birth: when and where were they born?
  • Astrology! Why not, eh?
  • What do they like to eat, drink?
  • Favorite clothes
  • Favorite music
  • What do they do on their time off?
  • Where did they grow up?
  • Who was a best friend and why?
  • What mischief did they get upto?
  • How far did they get in school?
  • What are the priorities? The goals?
  • What are they scared of doing?
  • Being?
  • What is the social place (class, access) your character lives in?
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Find a specific gestures, walk, or look for them
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves?
  • To others?
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • A memory from pre-teens
  • A memory from teens
  • From twenties
  • What will they sacrifice for dreams?

Print out copies for each character, and scribble down ideas and play with it. Find them. They’re sticking around until you tell their story so you might as well listen to them. Have a chat, why not?

Writer’s Craft: On writing essays

On Essays – Notes from a class by Alexander Chee

From an afternoon spent talking about writing fiction and essays, these are some of the thoughts that held with me. There are many ways to write essays, many forms, and as such there is no right or wrong way. In my opinion that is. Here then are some questions and suggestions to help you as you write your own.

  • Research your home town, when was it founded? Why? Famous for? Population? Changes in demographic? Architecture?
  • Your life in that town was within the life of that town, they affect each other
  • Context, know the context of each essay, story
  • Place your experiences within the historical context of place and time
  • Treat yourself as a subject, step outside and look from that perspective
  • Forensics of self: dig deep, ask others, interview people from that time or event
  • Memory is shaped by words so look for emails and letters you wrote at the time
  • How much do you want to open up and risk in the essay?
  • What are your obsessions?
  • Are you writing about what you read about? Are passionate about?
  • Examine your verb choices, circle them, make them dynamic, specific, detailed
  • Write in response to what you search online
  • Write in response to your dreams
  • What moves you? Angers you? Delights?
  • You will unconsciously know what form it will take on the page, trust the essay and subject
  • Read things that will explode your sense of possibility
  • Don’t hold back.
  • Dialogue, sit in a café and write down verbatim random conversations to notice the variety of rhythms, cadences, syntax unique to each person
  • Face your inner critic, deal with it, and carry on.
  • Trust yourself. Write.



Writer’s Craft: A Credo for Creativity

A manifesto, a mission statement, a credo, they all help to focus us on why we do what we do as writers and artists.

1. Say it with a Punch and a Tickle.

2. Provocative Pratfalls: Please don’t take anything for granted. Challenge those assumptions and let us see you fall into the puddle. We’ll love you all the more.

3. Time Capsules: When was that? Are you sure? Take us with you. We want to eat from the same plate so feed us the right snacks and pour us a drink of the day.

4. Backdrops No More: Locations claim a place as characters. They affect everything from the weather, speech patterns, coats and hats, and how we walk through the world, so yes, your environments speak to all of it. Make us shiver.

5. Sink Into The Muck: Immerse yourself. Take a breath. Jump in. Hold on tight. Swim with all your might. We’re hanging onto your swim trunks.

6. Mirrorless in the Mainstream: Give those outsiders someone to mimic, to care about, someone like them, a story that resonates with them. The rest of the world can watch Fox News and Friends.

7. Constraints by Underwear: Show the absurdity of gender roles and stereotypes.

8. Passion, Kiss them with Kindness. If you don’t care about what you’re writing and creating, why should we? Exactly. Give us a decent smacker on the lips and make us wet and needy for more. That’s all I ask of anyone.

9. Grab Life. If you want to write, then write, don’t wait. You might be dead when you wake up in the morning.

10. Stay Human. We write to connect, to find meaning, and by telling a good story. It’s that simple.

Why do you write? Create? It was a great challenge to think about the whys and wherefores of doing what I do. Take the idea and run with it. Make it yours. Claim your own process.

And thanks for reading!


Writer’s Craft: On Fiction and Character Development

On Fiction: Knowing your characters is key to a writing an insightful novel or short story. 

It’s true, the more we know the protagonist, the side characters, everyone mentioned, the fuller the sense of story we take the reader into. We’re less like to have pawns, stereotypes, and more likely to have believable people reacting to the world we’ve stuck them into.

Alexander Chee came to VCFA in 2017 and talked to us in the MFA program about developing his own characters and how much research he would invest in each one. He inspired much of this list, some are his ideas and others are mine that came from the inspiration of listening to him talk.

The list is in no specific order. It’s a collection of random questions and suggestions that help me when I’m writing fiction. It helps me in revision too, I can go back to each character once the story is finished in my case, and look more carefully into their backgrounds and make sure it rings true or if more information is needed for the reader to understand their actions and reactions.
It helps me. I hope it helps some of you too.

  • Trust the magic
  • Let the story out
  • Trust the characters
  • Write everyday
  • Get it out, remember?
  • Drop in deep
  • Fall into the spell
  • Trust your intuition
  • What’s the reason for living that lfie?
  • Who’s in control in the story? The protagonist’s life?
  • Ask questions of your characters
  • Follow those questions in each chapter
  • Access the urgency
  • Create a playlist
  • What do you have to say?
  • See the world through their eyes
  • Trust intuitive structure
  • Write what you should write, what you know
  • Don’t worry about externals
  • Don’t be in good taste
  • Let the characters act true to themselves
  • Don’t censor them
  • Or yourself!
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • Poignancy, find it in each character
  • The story is its own editor
  • Do you know enough to tell this story?
  • Commit to writing two hours per day
  • Dive in, swim, float, paddle in that story every day
  • Write out all the sories and later work on how it fits together
  • What are you interested in?
  • Who do you want to hang out? You’ll be spending a lot of time with these characters
  • Research the context, era
  • Find those odd details
  • Clothes, politics, food, houses, music, transport, hairstyles, shoes
  • Don’t control the voice of each character, they are unique
  • What is the social place your character lives in? class, access, education, goals, lifestyles
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Know them so well that you can deeply know the motivations at all times
  • Find the intimacy of character details, the gestures, walk, look specific to that person
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves? To others?

If you have more ideas, then add to the comments below and we can share the info. Thanks again. Be well. Be creative.


Writer’s Craft: Revision

A few suggestions for revision. It’s the biggest challenge to me, or rather it has been. This last year though, I’ve found the process less overwhelming. Breaking it down into parts, into giving myself a different focus each run-through takes the pressure off and makes it more enjoyable. What do I mean? I’ll pick one of these points in the list below, and look for that idea alone. Read the essay looking at verbs specifically, what did I overuse? Which verbs could be more dynamic?

Or for settings, I’ll read the novel chapter by chapter focusing solely on the settings, the physical descriptions of rooms, landscapes, homes, streets or towns. I’ll look for ways to capture the sense of the place, the sight, sound, textures and influences on that space.
I’m working one aspect at a time, there’s less pressure and it’s easier for me to find the details lacking or needed. This list is my way of approaching revision. I hope it helps you too.

  • First line: what does it do? Cut it, try again
  • Physical descriptions of people, the narrator, everyone, give the visuals as soon as possible even if indirectly to let the reader imagine what you see.
  • Context and physical settings: let the reader know where the story is set.
  • When, where, why, who: give information so the reader trusts you and then they’ll go with you anywhere.
  • Risks: raise the stakes constantly
  • Choices: give the characters choices and unpredictable responses
  • Find the magical moments of change, shifts, ideas, memories, actions
  • Go with your instincts
  • Generate new ideas when in a good mood
  • Edit when cranky
  • Verbs: highlight your verbs for a page or two and you’ll see which ones could be made more active, interesting, unusual – within reason though. Said/ thought etc are needed, a simple identifying verb also has its own place.
  • What is the story within the story? (the situation and the plot with the plot being the process or goals or development of the protagonist)
  • What secrets are lingering underneath the spoken?
  • What will she sacrifice to reach her own goals?
  • Will she give up her own dreams for another?
  • What’s the fear?
  • Active choices: stay engaged and less at the mercy of life, let her take action
  • Stay physical, keep the characters doing, acting on their worlds, moving, changing, shifting on the physical realm
  • Senses: address them all
  • Backstory: understand each character’s back story whether it’s mentioned or not
  • Motivations, drive, goals, intentions: ask what each one wants and why
  • Trust the story to tell itself, especially on the first draft, write it out, let it out
  • Contrast the mundane with the mad
  • Remember your stuff: when she mentioned a favourite shirt, or a mug, or a person, come back to those details, use them later on.
  • Go deeper into the psyche of each character
  • Rhythms and musicality, repetitions, refrains, use the language to set up a movement with your words and not only the storyline
  • Surface tension: what’s going on behind the main conversation?
  • Uneasy pairings: actions and unexpected emotions eg a nice swim and screaming fit at the public pool.
  • Chronic and acute situations: Chronic is the ongoing longer lasting situation and the acute is what drives the action in that very specific moment
  • Specificity: if you refer to a bus, call it by number or route name
  • Expectations: set up point of view, characters, setting etc quickly
  • Scene: mess with the predictable and those expectations
  • Stain: what then lingers from that scene or interaction?
  • Escalation: character driven, keep building the tension or drama with how your characters work or avoid their own stories
  • Dialogue: each voice has its own syntax, words, rhythms
  • Names: full names give authority and weight
  • Movement: find the grand movement forward as well as the little whirls and loops within
  • Set designer: write as if you are directing the playhouse, the stage, and moves of each one who steps on your stage. Claim it and enjoy the details.
  • Tenses: check consistency
  • Is the reader in the story or being told a story?
  • Use music to influence your rhythms when writing, create a musical playlist for the era or culture you’re writing about. Immerse yourself in those sounds
  • Research the slang, politics, news, weather, culture of the time period
  • Tension: drives the story without it, oh well, who cares, right?
  • Storyboards: write up what happens and when, see what can be moved, or to check the flow of actions, steps, tension, what’s missing?
  • Breathe in, hold it, hold it, hold it, release = Act One, Two, and Three
  • Sentances: vary length, tone, rhythms, paragraphs, white space.
  • Physicality of characters: who do they move in their own bodies? In their clothes?
  • Faces, bodies: be specific, really see each character, the shine of skin, greasy hair, frizzy or dried with split ends? Get into those details
  • Backstory: be juicy and play with their backgrounds
  • What if: add absurd ideas, fabulist, magiacl, trippy. Play with it
  • Threads and throughlines: feel them, create them, follow them
  • Wordplay: it’s your language so mix and match your images to suit your sense of play
  • Bird’s eye view: what’s going on around the main characters?
  • Add more weirdness.