"Flash Fiction" with S. Joan Popek

Thursday, February 21, 2002

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books and over 150 articles. Kristi also taught writing for fifteen years.

Jo is S. Joan Popek, author of over 250 short stories, articles and poems since 1993. Her book, The Administrator, won the EPPIE 2000 Award. Jump Start Your Writing Career with Electronic Publishers is an EPPIE 2002 finalist.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who asked questions.

Interviews take place on Thursday nights: 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator, and tonight we're exploring an intriguing genre of adult writing, "Flash Fiction," with Joan Popek. Jo calls herself an age-challenged Grandma with a passion for short fiction. Jo has published over 250 short stories, articles and poems since 1993. Welcome, Jo!

Jo: Hello, Kristi, and thank you for having me. Hi, all of you. I'm so glad you could make it to our chat. You know, I was just thinking how fantastic our world is today. Here I am sitting in my own home in my sweats, drinking coffee, and I get to meet all of you through the amazing technology we have today. Ain't life grand?

Moderator: How true! Jo, how did you get started writing?

Jo: Actually, I've tried to write all of my life. I learned to read early in life and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to create stories that would fill people with the awe and wonder that I felt when I read. I didn't start writing for publication until 1993. After all of those years of "wanna" I finally took the plunge and submitted some of my work to a few small press magazines. To my surprise, some of them were accepted. I was in shock! But when I saw my name in print for the first time, I was hooked. I had to have more! I kept writing and learning about writing--I am still learning and am amazed at how little I knew back then.

Moderator: I read that you had co-published and edited Millennium Science Fiction Magazine, edited a prose and poetry column, had books, stories, articles and poems published, built WEB pages, and did public speaking at conventions and workshops for writers. What is a typical writing day like for you (schedule, etc.)?

Jo: I need a 36-hour day to write the way I'd like. Actually, I write in chunks! I use a chunk of time here and a chunk there. I usually write on my lunch hour with a sandwich in one hand and a keyboard in the other. Sometimes, I write in the evening after work with a grandchild on each knee.

Moderator: I'd really like to see that! For tonight's purposes, what is a working definition of flash fiction?

Jo: It's a literary power punch to the gut. Slam! Contact! Get out! It's a flash of a story like a flash bulb that illuminates one moment in time vividly. Editors' opinions vary about the length of flash fiction. Usually from a few words up to about 1,000, but it is generally identified as a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end, using all of the elements of a short story. Often flash fiction has a twist ending. For our discussion tonight, I'm going to concentrate on writing a flash fiction story using 100 words or less.

Moderator: One hundred words? How can you encompass the elements of fiction in only 100 words?

Jo: It's not easy, but it is fun. Basically, flash fiction captures the essence of a story. Use strong active verbs and keep your adjectives and other descriptive words to a minimum. Let's do a little exercise, okay? Picture a child catching a bright, red ball. What do you see? What's the background? Your own experiences detailed the sentence for you. Perhaps you saw the child outside since that's where balls are usually thrown. Maybe you saw a young child because the ball is red. Older children play with basketballs, footballs or baseballs. Did you see sunshine? Was that why the ball was bright? Did you see grass and trees? Or did you see city streets and buildings? That would depend on your perception of outside and ball playing, wouldn't it? In flash fiction, we trust our reader to bring his or her own perceptions to our work to fill in the scenes, and it works! A well written flash will conjure up images for our readers so they see the setting and action in their own mind.

JaciRae: Is flash fiction something brand new on the market? I had never heard this term before.

Jo: Not really. It's been around for a long time, but it's becoming very popular right now, probably because people have less time to read, and we are a society that's used to instant gratification.

Moderator: Should you always ask for a specific word count or guidelines for a particular magazine, since some call l000 words flash fiction, others as low as 50-60 words?

Jo: Yes, check the guidelines always. In fact, never send in a piece of any length without checking for the length and type of story the publication uses. Otherwise, you waste both their time and yours if you send them something they can't use.

Moderator: If I'm a novelist, why would I want to write flash fiction?

Jo: Writing flash fiction is an excellent exercise to tighten your writing--to pack as much action in as few words as possible. You can use flash fiction as the core idea to develop longer pieces--even novels. It helps us to identify the 4 elements of fiction and use them.

Moderator: What are the elements of flash fiction?

Jo: Okay, this will be a little long, so please bear with me while I sort it all out. The four elements are: Setting, Character, Conflict and Resolution. Setting: Where the action takes place and is usually created in the title and first sentence. The title and the first sentence can be the setting. Make the title a part of the story. Character: Usually, there is not room for more than two characters, three at the most, but those characters don't always have to be human. They don't even have to be animate. For instance, try writing a piece about a pebble and a blade of grass trying to inhabit the same spot. See what you come up with. Conflict: A difference of opinion--tension to keep the reader reading. It can be verbal, physical or mental. It doesn't always have to be villain versus hero. And last, Resolution: The conclusion of the conflict. Don't try a miraculous resolution. (Where the protagonist is saved by some miracle not of her making.) Another part of the resolution of flash is important to remember. Most writers use surprise endings because flash fiction lends itself to such, but they are not necessary. If you use one, don't surprise your readers too much. Make them think, "Ah--of course!" Not, "Boy, am I stupid!"

Moderator: How do I get the point across without using a lot of adjectives (since there can't be room for many)?

Jo: That was one of the hardest things for me. I'm a pretty wordy person, but I learned the hard way--by getting rejected. Use strong, active verbs and few if any linking verbs and adjectives. There is no time in flash fiction for a lot of description, detail or much characterization. The writer depends upon the readers' experiences to fill in the details. Dialogue driven stories work well to develop quick action, character and conflict.

Moderator: Getting an adult story down to that length must take incredible cutting! Can you give any examples of "cuts" you might make (either story elements or tightening or whatever, maybe a "before" and "after" look at tightening)?

Jo: Oh dear, Kristi, you make it tough. Well, let's see. It does take work. I won't tell you it's easy, but it can be done. You do have to be a little ruthless though. Write a story, then go back and ruthlessly erase all phrases, clauses and coordinating conjunctions that are not absolutely vital to the story. Delete any unnecessary adjectives. (Example: "Raging, Joe bulldozed into the room" instead of "Joe was so mad he rushed into the room, pushed things aside and yelled.") Here is an example of trusting your reader. The word "raging" tells us that Joe is very mad and probably yelling. The word "bulldozed" tells us that Joe was probably shoving anything that was in his way out of his path. If something is run over by a bulldozer, it is usually smashed and destroyed. Use this technique and you will be left with tight, active sentences that are in some ways more powerful than the longer sentence.

Lila: May I give an example? The birds were flying in the sky. Birds flew.

Jo: Thanks, Lila. Lila is a flash expert and a good friend of mine.

Moderator: Jo, in your sentences themselves, where every word counts, how can you best make use of verbs?

Jo: Always use strong, active verbs. Use verbs that convey a feeling as well as action like Lila's example of "flew" instead of the more passive, "were flying" or like the verbs, "rage" or "bulldoze."

Moderator: You mentioned characters as one element. Is there a set number--or minimum number--of characters for flash fiction?

Jo: In flash fiction, there is little room for more than two characters. You don't have time to describe them. You can also set the conflict up either in the reader's mind or in the characters themselves. Here is an example: "Get that cigar out of your mouth." "Make me, you big lug!"

JaciRae: I assume, with so few words, that you have just a single viewpoint for the whole story?

Jo: Usually, yes. It's a little hard to "head hop" in only 100 words.

Norca: I was wondering if flash fiction could be used in short stories and novels ?

Jo: Oh yes! Most of my work began as flash. I even put a few examples in my newest book, Jump Start Your Writing Career and in my short story collection.

Moderator: How can you possibly have enough words left to describe a setting? Yet, I know you must, or you'd have the story taking place in a vacuum. Any suggestions on sketching in a setting quickly?

Jo: The first thing you have to do is discard traditional writing techniques. Make the most of one-word sentences. Grab the reader's attention with one word hooks and convey meaning with punctuation. Use caution though; too many can spoil the story. And use your title to convey your setting. For instance H. Stanbrough's 100 word flash, "At Confession" is about a man confessing to his priest. What better title to set the setting than that? Back to one word sentences. The punctuation is very important for this. Here is an example of a three-word story using only one-word sentences. Say the following aloud to yourself, and notice the punctuation.




Did you hear the implications?

Quiet. (A noun implying silence. This is Setting.)

Quiet? (Why do you want me to be quiet? This is Conflict and a hint of character.)

Quiet! (An order to shut up. This is Resolution.)

Here is an example of a six-word story using only one-word sentences.

"Night Wind's Concert"







The elements here are conflict and resolution, with characterization being only in that one person is more dominant than the other. Setting is hinted at with the title.

Moderator: How do you develop and resolve a conflict with a beginning, middle and ending in such a short space?

Jo: Remember that the conflict can be in the person's mind. For instance, maybe they start out thinking one thing and changing their mind because of the story. One example of this kind of conflict is in this next example. A change in the reader's mind is illustrated in this 97-word tale:

DRAGON TALES by S. Joan Popek

"Why're you here?" the dragon bellowed. "Where's my virgin?"

"No virgins."

"No virgins?"

"Not one. None to be had. They've all been had." She winked seductively.

"Not funny! Every six months, I get a virgin. That's the deal. I never really liked virgin. Too bland. Humans decided that dragons eat virgins." He patted his stomach. "I've a sensitive stomach, so I agreed."

"I brought pigs."


"No pigs?"


She paled.

He gobbled her up, then burped smoke. "I do like a spicy wench, but they sure don't like me. Now where did I put that antacid?"


Jo: Thanks, Kristi. The story works because it depends upon the reader's acquaintance with fairy tales to fill in what is implied. The setting is near a cave because that's where dragons live in fairy tales. It assumes that the reader expects dragons to eat virgins, but perhaps has never questioned why. Some of the conflict is in the dragon's decision to eat a non-virgin even knowing it will give him heartburn. Resolution? The girl that was foolish enough to approach the dragon in the first place gets eaten. The ending is unexpected because usually, the heroine outwits the dragon. The change occurs in the reader's mind as his or her perception of fairy tales changes. It relies upon the reader's experience with fairy tales to carry off the twist. This is also an example of making stereotype plots work for you. The plot is basic right to the end, then deviates.

BingoCliff: What is the standard word count for a TITLE of flash fiction story?

Jo: That's the beauty of it. The title is not counted in the word count. You can have a little longer title to help with the setting. Of course, you don't want the title to be longer than the story, so you have to be careful with that.

james55clinton: Since publishers pay per word, is it worth the marketing effort for a hundred-word flash fiction story?

Jo: Sure. Some don't pay for flash per word. Many have set rates for stories under a certain length. There are some publishers (and forgive me, but I don't have my list with me) that pay $50.00 and up for good flash fiction. I plan to post some flash fiction markets on my website after tonight, so drop by sometime next week and take a look at

lulubelt5: Do you think there's a good future for flash fiction? Or might editors get so much that it goes out of favor again (as in the past)? Where are the markets for it now?

Jo: I think there is always a market for good fiction, and magazines always use flash for filler. I just thought of one good market--PIF magazine uses a lot. And WRITER ON LINE is always looking for flash fiction. There are a few good newsletters about flash fiction out there. Flash Fiction Flash: The Newsletter for Flash Literature Writers is a free monthly newsletter distributed via email. It includes flash fiction markets, contests, publishing news, workshop news, and more. To subscribe send a blank subject header message to About good way to find flash markets is to do a search for "Flash Fiction" in a search engine. Another is to look at the magazines you subscribe to or read. If they use it, they will welcome submissions. Another is the same way you find markets for other stories. Look in the genre markets for the type of flash you write.

Lila: Here's the scoop for Jackie Pelham who publishes the SUDDENLY series of flash fiction: 2003 Corral Drive, Houston, TX 77090. I think you have to have a Texas connection, though.

Moderator: Thanks, Lila!

Patricia: You spoke of H. Stanbough earlier and I know he's a poet. Do you think being a poet would be of help in writing flash?

Jo: LOL, Pat, being a poet helps in any kind of writing. Stanbrough taught me about writing flash, so yep, I guess that being a poet does help.

Moderator: How do I avoid spending more time counting words than writing?

Jo: 1. If you're aiming for a particular word length, say 55 words, it sometimes helps to write on a pad on which the lines are numbered. Write down the page, one word per line, then begin at the top again. This is a good way both to monitor your word count and replace individual words with others. 2. Another is to write as fast as you can. Don't worry about grammar yet. Fill about half a page, count the words, fix the grammar, then read it aloud to yourself. Does it have setting, implied or otherwise? Conflict? Resolution? Does it affect a change? 3. Write an all dialogue story using as few tags as possible. Let the dialogue describe the characters and create conflict, like the fellow with the cigar we talked about before.

Moderator: What should I avoid when writing flash fiction? Anything?

Jo: About the only themes/genres to avoid are the clichéd writing about a writer writing, characters' revenge, and it was just a dream. These are overused and abused in many types of fiction, especially in flash fiction.

Moderator: If I wanted to write flash fiction, what exercises can I use to get started?

Jo: Ahh, this is the fun part. Here are a few that I love. 1. Write a 55-100 word story about the child with the ball. 2. Try writing a 5 or 6 word story using one word sentences, then enlarge on them. 3. Write about a conflict between a mother/father and a teenaged daughter/son. 4. Write about a conflict between two business men/business women. 5. Write about an ant who wants to rule the world. 6. Write about a grumpy robot and a playful kitten. And my personal favorite: 7. Write about a graveyard at midnight, then at high noon, then at dawn, and see what you get. I bet you'll be surprised. Be sure to write these as fast as you can. Don't worry about grammar or word count till later.

Moderator: Where do your own ideas come from?

Jo: Mostly from my husband. He never reads what I write, but he comes up with the best ideas. One of my most popular stories, "The Alien Feeder" and which is now included in my collection of short stories, The Administrator, began as a joke my husband, Joe, made a few years ago. He is a handyman, and I am his part time helper. We were working on a customer's patio, and they had an unusual bird feeder hanging in the corner. It was a cylindrical shaped glass and brass contraption with numerous orifices and feeder trays. My husband said, "Look, Honey. An Alien Feeder." This was about the time the Annual UFO Festival was gearing up here in Roswell, New Mexico and we both laughed. Then the synapses started snapping in my brain and I couldn't get the phrase, Alien Feeder, out of my head. It plagued me until I finally wrote it down and the story was born. But strangely, it has nothing to do with little green men. LOL

Moderator: Do you ever use outlines? (My outlines are longer than your stories!)

Jo: I don't. My mind doesn't work that way. It's too logical. LOL I have tried it but can't get past the first Roman Numeral. My stories usually begin with the first line and the characters tell me where to go from there. I think that's why I don't do too many book length works.

GjolboeCreations: What percentage of your work is flash fiction?

Jo: Probably about 50 percent. I used to write long rambling stories until I found flash, now I can hardly write a story over 1000-2000 words, even when I'm trying to.

lulubelt5: Lately, I can hardly read a story over 2000 words. I used to read awfully lengthy tomes, but since I've discovered flash fiction (especially the writings of such writers as Borges) I'm hooked.

Jo: Flash does hook you. Once the bug bites you, you can't get loose!

GjolboeCreations: Would you consider the writing of flash fiction to be good exercise for the verbose writer?

Jo: Oh yes, flash is one of the best exercises for learning to write tight. Verbose or not. That's how I got started. My prose was too purple.

Moderator: I'm sorry to interrupt, but we're out of time. What a fascinating subject tonight! Jo, thank you so much for coming and sharing your expertise with us. Now I know what to tell writers to try when they say they only have small amounts of time to write: flash fiction!

Jo: Thank you, Kristi, and thank all of you for coming. I've had a great time!

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on March 7 when we'll have Dolph LeMoult to discuss the writing and marketing of police and crime stories. He's written such police novels as STREET DANCE, DREAM STREET, THE KILLING MOON, and BLOOD TIDE. He also wrote ROCK SOLID, the compelling true account of two hero policemen who single-handedly rescued a New York City block from the clutches of a homicidal drug lord. If you enjoy reading--and would like try writing--police and crime stories, you won't want to miss this interview in two weeks! And now, good night, everyone!

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