Saturday, September 22, 2018
Books

Review: John Dufresne gives an entertaining short course in ‘Flash! Writing the Very Short Story’

Donít tell John Dufresne you donít have time to read.

In fact, donít tell him you donít have time to write.

Instead, spend a little time with his new book, Flash! Writing the Very Short Story. Youíll find a treasure trove of stories you can read in the time it would take to fetch a drink during a TV commercial break ó and, thanks to his expert and imaginative tips, you might get an itch to write some yourself.

Dufresne is the author of six novels (the most recent is I Donít Like Where This Is Going), several collections of short stories and a couple of previous books of writing advice. Heís a longtime faculty member of the MFA creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami, and Flash! clearly grew from his teaching ó and makes me wish I had taken his class.

Flash fiction is also known as short-short fiction, microfiction, hyperfiction, fast fiction and a host of other names, including one for the digital 140-character version: Twiction.

As Dufresne explains, very short fiction has a very long history; many myths, fables, fairy tales and biblical parables qualify. He starts his first chapter by citing perhaps the most famous short-short story, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," noting that itís "widely and erroneously attributed to Ernest Hemingway" and probably originated with a 1901 newspaper article.

But in the last decade or so the form has gained cachet. In 2013, American writer Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize for her short-short stories, some of which are only a sentence or two long.

Thereís no definitive definition of flash fiction, but Dufresne opts for one that includes any story under 1,500 words, no more than a couple of printed pages and often less.

He writes in his introduction that flash fiction might be "the ideal form of fiction for the twenty-first century, an age of shrinking attention spans and busy and distracted lives, in which our mobile devices connect us to the world as they simultaneously divert us from it. And on the screens of our smartphones and our iPads and our laptops, we can fit an entire work of flash fiction."

But thatís far from the only reason to read and write it. Successful flash fiction requires enormous skill; it distills all the elements of the craft of writing down to their essence. Dufresne quotes the great short story writer William Trevor as saying that writing a short story is "infinitely harder than writing a novel"; that recalls the old journalism joke about the reporter who tells his editor he wrote the story long because he didnít have time to write it short.

On the other hand, Dufresne writes, even for a novice writer the prospect of producing a two-page story is a lot less daunting than turning out a 300-page novel. The form generally doesnít allow space for more than a single setting, a couple of characters, a pared-down plot. (And, of course, if you do move on to writing a novel, your flash fiction can provide material for it as well as honing your skills.)

Focus first, Dufresne advises flash fiction writers, on "trouble." Stories, even the shortest, require conflict. It drives plot, creates suspense, changes characters ó even in a few hundred words. He offers a clear, engaging review of elements like point of view and imagery.

Dufresne is a wryly funny cheerleader for his readers, employing two essential teaching methods: analyzing successful flash fictions and providing readers prompts for writing their own. He chooses terrific examples; even if youíre not an aspiring writer, you can enjoy this book for the several dozen excellent stories it includes. Some made me laugh out loud (Steve Almondís Announcement), others gave me chills (Ruthann Wardís Well Cut), a few did both.

If you do write flash fiction, or want to, Dufresne provides a rich array of prompts, like writing a modern version of an ancient myth, or a second act to one of the example stories. Buy an object that strikes you in a flea market or thrift store, he suggests, take it home and look at it for a while, then write a story about who it belonged to and why it was lost or abandoned. Write a story inspired by a photograph or a painting, make up a dream, write first from one characterís point of view and then the otherís, choose an occupation or a historical moment, rip a story from the headlines.

Among his most irresistible suggestions is using everyday, usually nonfictional forms for short fiction, such as mathematical word problems, obituaries or recipes, like Mary Slebodnikís mordantly funny Hometown Marketís Delicious Fried Chicken.

Dufresne confesses that he likes to pick up strangersí discarded shopping lists in the Publix parking lot and imagine stories based on them: "?ĎAm. cheeseí and Ďwonder breadí make me a little sad, maybe because they take me back to my own childhood. I hope, at least, theyíre going to make a grilled cheese sandwich."

Whether flash fiction is new to you or youíre already a fan, whether you write it yourself or would like to try, Flash! is a fun read and a great resource. And now, if youíll excuse me, that prompt about writing a short-short story as a restaurant review has got its hook in me.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected]abay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Comments
Review: Robert Olen Butlerís Paris in the Dark packed with action

Review: Robert Olen Butlerís Paris in the Dark packed with action

On a fall night in 1915, an American reporter sips Chartreuse at a sidewalk table as German Zeppelins patrol the perimeter of Paris. As he plans how to finagle his way to the front lines of World War I, a bomb explodes at another cafe nearby, and he ...
Published: 09/21/18
Novelist, USF professor Karen Brown drawn by the voices of stories of loss

Novelist, USF professor Karen Brown drawn by the voices of stories of loss

Karen BrownBrown teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida and is the author of several books, including The Longing of Wayward Girls and the short story collection Pins and Needles. On Nov. 17, Brown will be a featured author at th...
Published: 09/21/18
Joyce Maynard looks back at life with Salinger at the #MeToo moment

Joyce Maynard looks back at life with Salinger at the #MeToo moment

In 1972, Joyce Maynard wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine called "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back at Life." It won her instant fame ó and a letter from J.D. Salinger, renowned author of Catcher in the Rye and other fiction, who was then 53 year...
Published: 09/14/18
Review: Ben Montgomeryís ĎMan Who Walked Backwardí lets readers step into history

Review: Ben Montgomeryís ĎMan Who Walked Backwardí lets readers step into history

Did Plennie Wingo make any progress going backward?Thatís the question at the heart of The Man Who Walked Backward: An American Dreamerís Search for Meaning in the Great Depression, an engaging new book by former Tampa Bay Times staff writer Ben Mont...
Published: 09/13/18
Updated: 09/14/18
Itís no mystery why fans, authors gathered for Bouchercon in St. Petersburg

Itís no mystery why fans, authors gathered for Bouchercon in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURGLast Wednesday through Sunday, the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel teemed with people who write and read about bloody murder. It was a remarkably friendly and cheerful crowd. Detroit novelist Stephen Mack Jones had an explanation: "Writing abou...
Published: 09/11/18
Times Festival of Reading 2018: Get the full lineup of authors here

Times Festival of Reading 2018: Get the full lineup of authors here

A novelist whose book won raves from Oprah and Obama, the scholar who brought Zora Neale Hurstonís long-lost interview with a former slave to print, two Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writers, a bestselling satirical novelist, a beloved memoirist ...
Updated one month ago
Welcome to Florida, a land of mysteries Ė including why mullet jump

Welcome to Florida, a land of mysteries Ė including why mullet jump

Florida is a land full of mysteries. Why do we call it "the Sunshine State" when every major city gets more rain than Seattle? Why, after a hurricane destroys our homes with flooding and storm surge, do we rebuild in exactly the same spot? Perhaps th...
Updated one month ago
Review: Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Lake Success’ a comic tale of a 1-percenter

Review: Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Lake Success’ a comic tale of a 1-percenter

One night young lawyer Seema Cohen went to a Vogue party hosted by billionaire Michael Bloomberg and there met the man who would become her husband. At first, she wasn’t sure she liked the glad-handing middle-aged hedge fund guy who was clearly...
Updated one month ago
Retired journalist David Lawrence Jr.ís reading still centers on news

Retired journalist David Lawrence Jr.ís reading still centers on news

David Lawrence Jr.In 1999, at the age of 56, Lawrence decided to retire from his post as publisher of the Miami Herald after decades in journalism. Since then, he has focused on a lifeís passion, advocating for children by leading the Childrenís Move...
Updated one month ago
ĎMasterpieceí author Fiona Davis revels in historical fiction by women

ĎMasterpieceí author Fiona Davis revels in historical fiction by women

Fiona DavisThe impetus for The Masterpiece, Davisí new book, evolved from a behind-the-scenes tour she took through Grand Central Terminal in New York and information she garnered on John Singer Sargent, who helped create an art school on the top flo...
Updated one month ago