I had a very interesting Twitter conversation the other day about flash fiction, and the skills needed to write it. It’s such a great thing, Twitter, not only for connecting people, but also for allowing users to engage in conversations like this one, which turn out to be so useful. I’ve been wondering all week, ever since this Twitter discussion, about the discipline of writing, and whether the skills you gain from one ‘style’ of writing are always easily applicable to other styles.
Words are words, of course, and writing is – basically – writing. But I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.
The Twitter discussion which sparked off this idea came about because both the person to whom I was speaking and myself were, at the time of our Twitter exchange, working on pieces of flash fiction, with the intention of submitting them for publication and/or competition. We were discussing the intricacies of creating a good, workable piece of flash fiction and what the difficulties were in doing so. At one point, my correspondent asked me whether I was going to submit a short story, as well as a piece of flash fiction, to a particular competition; I told her ‘no’, mainly because I hadn’t been able to write a short story which I’d consider good enough for submission. Then, she said something along the lines of how she prefers to write flash fiction anyway, as it takes such a short time and requires such a small amount of editing.
This, I have to say, is the opposite of how I experience flash fiction, normally. I find flash fiction to be an extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming thing; sometimes, I remind myself of a glass-cutter, laboriously etching an intricate pattern out of the delicate and unyielding material he’s chosen to work with. I agonise over every word, I fret about structure, I sweat over characterisation, I pour myself into each image and metaphor, and I always struggle with the ending. My friend, however, has one distinct advantage over me when it comes to writing flash fiction.
She is a poet, as well as a prose writer.
Ever since we had this discussion, the connections between poetry and flash fiction have been on my mind, and I’ve been seeing the distinct links between the two genres. Poetry doesn’t work without delicate and judicious word choice, and the ability to arrange these perfect word-jewels into just the right structure to make a sentence hum with life and meaning; the same, of course, is true of flash fiction. Poetry can often operate within very tight structures; most competitions will limit poems to a particular length, but as well as that a poet, if they choose to, can write within a particular style, which will have its own unbreakable rules. A sonnet which has too many syllables in any one line is no longer a sonnet; a villanelle is not a villanelle if it has twenty lines. Break one rule, and you may as well break them all. Because of this, then, poets are used to working in tight spaces, and they bring extremely good word-skills to the table.
Poetry has also, since its earliest beginnings, exhibited an ability to make words work as hard as they can, and to carry as much symbolic meaning as they’re able to. Poets are able to make the most extraordinarily evocative images out of very little, and they have a way of making the everyday seem new. These skills obviously mean that poets come to flash fiction with a completely different skillset than a person who has only really written prose – and long-form prose at that – will have. All of this adds up to one inescapable fact: my friend is far better equipped than I am to write flash fiction.
However, I wondered further. I’ve had a few months’ experience with flash fiction now. I’ve written many pieces, some of which have been successful for me. I enjoy the form, and the challenges it poses, and the opportunities it offers. The burning question now is: Does being able to write reasonably successful flash fiction make you a better poet?
If the skills are transferable in one direction, do they transfer in the other direction too?
I’m not too sure about that. I don’t think my newfound flash fictioneering skills have any bearing on my ability to write poetry – I’ve never been a poet (or, at least, I’ve never been a good poet), and while I can appreciate the skills required, and even talk about them in an abstract, academic sense, I find them impossible to apply. It seems strange that I can be in possession of the skills needed (or at least be working toward them through my flash fiction), and be aware of how to write a poem in a ‘paint-by-numbers’ sense, and still have no ability to put a piece of poetry together. There’s more to it than just having the ‘mechanics’, clearly. Poetry takes something else, something besides an ability to use words – I hesitate to call it ‘sensitivity’ or ‘an aspect of the soul’, or anything arty-farty like that, but perhaps those words are as close as language can bring us to the secret of writing a good poem. You need the word-skills, you need the sensitivity to language, you need the ability to thrive within limits, and you also need something extra, something special, which only a poet can truly describe.
What do you think? If you can ‘write’, does it make you equally able to write a screenplay, a piece of drama, an epic poem, a novel, a short story, a piece of flash fiction? Or are there so many differences between the genres that each one is its own separate discipline with its own rules? Do you think its possible to be an ‘expert’ in more than one field of writing? I’d be interested to know what your take on these issues is.
Oh, and happy Friday, by the way.
In answer to you last question – I have no idea. In answer to the questions before it – I have no idea. I find writing really hard, flash fiction, novels, whatever. Except poems. My writing *began* with poetry. I can’t say they’re good, but I do think the skills are ‘different’. Or at least, how you ‘think’ about them *is* different. Really interesting post, thank you. x
Thank you for your lovely comment! 🙂
Writing *is* hard, definitely. But there’s such a pull towards it, isn’t there? I’d love to be a good poet – I enjoy writing poetry – but I know it’s doggerel. I guess it’s good to keep it in my ‘armoury’, though, because it’s good to exercise different parts of the writing brain.
Maybe I’ll give my poetic side another go…
I don’t know what flash fiction is, but I do write both poetry and fiction, and I think that the skill sets are similar, but not identical. I tend to write both poetry and fiction the same way–I do most of the composing and editing in my head, and then type it out, and do very little revision after the words are written down.
That’s my own style, and I don’t think of it as being a particularly “poetic” style–I know poets who do multiple drafts and revisions of a piece and edit on paper.
I do like the structure of formal poetry and I think that working formally gives a writer a good feel for the rhythm and pacing of language. I would advise any writer to make a habit of writing sonnets, I think it builds our instinct for the deep structure of sentences and paragraphs.
I have also written screenplays, and wrote one that was a top finalist on Project Greenlight a few years back, and screenplays have a style all their own. I believe it was Raymond Chandler who said that writing a novel is like writing a letter to a friend, and a screenplay is more like writing a telegram.
Excellent comment – thank you! I’m delighted to get feedback from a person who has written a screenplay. I think screenplays, and plays in general, are a totally different discipline than other forms of writing. I think you’re right, too, that writing poetry is a very helpful tool for any writer to possess, and it’s important to keep it sharp.
Flash fiction, by the way, is a word for extremely short short stories – so, a complete story told in 300 words, 200 words, 100 words, whatever. There’s no consensus on how short, exactly, a piece of flash should be. Some competitions/publishers allow up to 1000 words; others allow far less. It’s an incredibly useful writing exercise, too. I hope you try it sometime.
Your description of creating flash fiction being like glass cutting was spot on for me. I agonize over every word and its placement. Before I know it hours have gone by. I wonder how on earth I’ll ever finish writing a novel at this pace.
As for creating poetry, I’ve never been good at it but I imagine it’s even harder to do than flash fiction. You say creating flash fiction has helped improved your creation of poetry, maybe I could do the same, even if the poetry is just for me. You’ve given me something to think about. Enjoy your Friday! 🙂
Thanks! I hope you’re enjoying your Friday, too.
I think the thing with creating a novel is that you don’t necessarily have to agonise over every word the same way you would with a poem or a piece of flash. Of course, choosing the correct words is vitally important, but you have that bit of extra space (both literal and mental) to work with.
I think it’s important not to limit yourself to one or two genres of writing, and it’s vital to push yourself to write in a style or format you don’t normally use every once in a while. Whether or not your poetry is any ‘good’ (who’s to say what’s ‘good’, anyway?) it’s useful for your development as a writer.
Yay for writing! 😀
I never thought about the connection between poetry and flash fiction, but you’re absolutely right. The skills are very complementary; flash fiction is definitely a sort of prose poem. I’ve never been able to harness the skills for poetry, though — I’ve always preferred prose. Thanks for the insightful post!
You’re welcome! Thank you for your kind comment. I hope the insight will help you with your poetry and your flash fiction writing. 🙂
I say – if you can write, you can write pretty much anything, only with some things you are better, and with others you are worse. It’s just like with drawing. If you are skilled enough to lift a pen and sign your name, it means you can learn to draw as well. You may need some time but it’s all there inside you. However, there will always be a difference between someone who has a natural talent (like my mum) and someone who has to toil away for a long, long time to achieve acceptable results (like me). I believe it’s the same with writing. If you talent is poetry, you can probably work on a screenplay too but you need more time and you need some practice. And maybe your screenplays will never be as brilliant as your poetry. But on the other hand? Most of the people are “workers”, not “naturally born geniuses”. So I wouldn’t let the notion of “it’s too hard and I’m not good at it” get in your way of doing ANYTHING you want 😉
I do agree – but I think there are different rules and conventions that go with different types of writing, and a person may work well within those confines, or not. I’m *definitely* with you when you say it’s silly to give up on trying something because you think it’s too hard – challenging yourself is what life is all about!
Also, you raise a very good point about ‘workers’ and ‘geniuses’. I was always a ‘worker’, too!
Thanks, as always, for your insightful comment and your thoughtful reading. 🙂