Flash Fiction: An Interview with Nicholas Ozment

The short story was once famously defined as fiction that could be read in a single sitting. When we look back today at the stories that definition was meant to describe — the “short story” of a century or two ago — we notice at once that the world has changed since then. Many a supernatural tale by Hawthorne, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Edith Wharton, Lovecraft — even Poe, the “Father of the Short Story” — seems anything but short by current standards.

I wonder what the readers and writers of those classic stories would have made of the shortest stories on the market today. Would they have been shocked, perhaps even a little offended, like many in the crowd hearing the Gettysburg Address? President Lincoln’s speech — arguably the most powerful and enduring in our country’s history — seemed on the day of its delivery to be hardly a speech at all. “He can’t be finished speaking already!” some thought.

So we might wonder about these short, short stories that have become such a large part of the literary landscape in the 21st century. Microfiction . . . flash fiction. Do such a few words really constitute a story? Not that we should carry the Gettysburg analogy too far; but the writing principle exemplified in Mr. Lincoln’s words is the same ideal that flash fictionists strive for. They seek to arrange a very few purposeful words to get a job done . . . a “job” that will continue to resonate with readers for a long time after the story is told.

Since this type of writing is most definitely not my area of expertise, I thought this would be an excellent time to let you hear a voice other than mine. For this posting, we have a guest author!

Nicholas Ozment is a long-time friend. I met him indirectly through Dragonfly. A particular reviewer, though overall quite positive, had taken my book to task for its Christian elements. In the letters section of the well-known genre magazine in which the review had appeared, I noticed a response defending Dragonfly on this issue by the co-editors of a magazine called Mooreeffoc — one Nicholas Ozment and one G. N. Dybing. I quickly tracked down an address for them, wrote to thank them, and checked out their magazine; and we quickly discovered that all three of us were very much on the same wavelength regarding what delighted us in the world of speculative fiction. We were friends for several years before we met face-to-face. (I collected every issue of Mooreeffoc [and yes, even read it, not just collected!], which was the sort of magazine I’d always wished had existed — and which, incidentally, received an official mention in Writer’s Digest as one of the most promising new small-press magazines. I commend to you Ozment’s House of Twilight, the current successor of Mooreeffoc, which picked up where the former magazine left off.)

Anyway, Nick is our featured guest this week, and he has a lot of insights to offer, whether microfiction is your thing or not. I’ll start by giving you a partial list of his qualifications and literary accomplishments — a list that is anything but “micro” — and then the interview follows. I’m very grateful to Nick for agreeing to do this interview, and for his well-considered responses.

First, here’s his weblog: Ozmentality, at http://ozment.livejournal.com. (It includes his complete bibliography, links to on-line publications, and regular updates.)

 Nick recently debuted as a featured cover author in the May issue (#3) of Arkham Tales (www.arkhamtales.com) with his chilling story “The House on Waterloo Lane.”

 He is the co-editor of Every Day Poets (www.everydaypoets.com), which provides readers with a new poem every single day.

 And he is a regular contributor of flash fiction to Every Day Fiction (www.everydayfiction.com). (Like its companion site, this one will fix you up with a new story every day, short enough to read on your lunch break, or over your morning coffee, or while you’re supposed to be stirring the soup, or whenever.)

 Nick’s humorous fantasy novel, Knight Terrors: The (Mis)Adventures of Smoke the Dragon, is even now being serialized on-line at http://knighterrors.blogspot.com. This nifty tome is slated to be published as a book, with illustrations — probably early in 2010 — by Cyberwizard Productions. (I suggested the title! MY idea! — but Nick claims he’d already come up with the “Knight Terrors” part himself.)

 In February 2009, one story from that book, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” finished in the top ten in the 2008 Preditors and Editors Readers Poll for the category fantasy short story.

 Nick’s story “Cat Got Your Tongue, Evil Got Your Eye” placed third in the 2008 SFReader Fiction contest (www.sfreader.com).

 His story “The Wrong Blue” placed second in the 2005 Dylan Days Creative Writing Contest, fiction—general division. (This is one of my favorites of his stories.)

 He received an Honorable Mention in the eighteenth annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, for “The Prairie Whales Are All Extinct,” published in Mythic Delirium #11.

This one particularly relates to our interview: his flash piece “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” was published on Every Day Fiction, July 21, 2008. To date, it has been the most-read EDF story. It was anthologized in Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 (November 2008). As of July 30, 2009 it had 51,516 hits on EDF.

 Nick’s stories have been widely published on-line, anthologized, and recorded for podcasts. He’s had work in Weird Tales. He has published academic essays on Tolkien, Shakespeare, and Frank Belknap Long, he’s a reviewer of books and movies — and somehow in all that, he finds time to teach a full load of university courses — and to be a family man (most recently a proud father).

So — are we all agreed he knows some things about writing in today’s world? Without further adieu, here’s the ‘view — I’m FSD and he’s OZ.

FSD: One genre in which you’ve had great success is flash fiction. Would you briefly define flash fiction for our readers?

 OZ: I really couldn’t define it better than Camille Gooderham Campbell does in her introduction to The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 anthology, so if you don’t mind my quoting from her:

“Despite its appeal as a quick read, flash fiction is not simplistic. Quite the opposite; it can and should be one of the most demanding literary forms, with a need for perfectly crafted prose, a complete story arc in a tight space, and an immediately engaging hook. [. . .] The defining characteristic of flash, beyond the number of words, is that it has a plot structure, with an introductory situation, rising action or tension, a climax, and a resolution. Because of the word-count restraint, some parts of the structure are often implied, hinted at, or sketched in, but the reader should be able to make a guess at the whole story arc.”

FSD: Do you regard a flash story to be a conventional short story condensed to a microcosm, or is flash an entirely different form?

OZ: Following Campbell’s definition, I’d lean toward the former: a conventional short story condensed to a microcosm. If it does not contain (or at least imply) each element of the traditional narrative arc—beginning, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution—then it becomes something else: a vignette or a prose poem or a character sketch.

FSD: Can you describe the process you go through from conception to the finished flash piece?

OZ: When I’m hit with an idea that turns into a flash, I usually think right away “This could probably be expressed in a very short form.” So I’m aware that what I’m writing is potentially a flash piece; however, I still write the story out as I see it unfolding—all the details, all the dialogue. That first draft almost always comes in over the 1,000-word maximum. And sometimes I discover that to tell the story right, it really needs more space, in which case I expand on it and it just becomes a short story.

But if I’m only off the mark  by 200 words or so, then I go through and start paring. Just as with poetry, I look for extraneous words—descriptions or bits of dialogue that don’t really add much to the essential story—and I take the scalpel to them. What can be left unsaid? What can the reader infer? Most adverbs and adjectives die at this stage, too. Then, when I’m down to, say, 1,002 words and I really don’t see how the piece could sacrifice another word, I get really nitpicky: Is there an article or a conjunction that won’t really be missed? Slice out a “the” here and an “and” there, and it’s there. That’s why some of my flash fiction comes in at 1,000 words exactly.

There are times, though, when I set out to trim 200 words and, in the trimming, find that more can go—here is a whole paragraph that isn’t really necessary—and then the piece (about which I was originally thinking “How could I possibly cut 1/6 of this and still retain its impact?”) ends up being 970 words. I like getting that wiggle room at the end—because then I can go back in and restore an adjective or two that it really pained me to lose.

FSD: What makes an outstanding flash story? When you’ve really gotten a piece right, what is it that you notice or recognize about the story?

OZ: It packs an emotional punch without recourse to the build-up one has in a longer story. That is why it is essential that your reader identify with the character(s) immediately: you don’t have time to draw the reader in gradually, filling in back-story. You’re throwing them into the action with strangers and asking them to empathize with these people. It’s a tough challenge: like convincing them to get married on a first date.

FSD: Do you know anything about the origins of flash fiction? Is it primarily a product of the Internet, which typically requires everything to be bite-sized and easy to take in at a glance . . . or does it have more of a relationship to, say, Asian poetic forms such as the haiku . . . or does it come from somewhere else?

OZ: The “microfiction” movement predates the Internet. I’ve seen collections from the 80s, but I’m not terribly knowledgeable about its roots before that. Hemingway is often credited with having written the shortest story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) and one could point to works before that which would meet the criteria of flash. The Internet has certainly taken what was really a novelty subgenre and put it on the map, though. There are now dozens of web-magazines dedicated solely to flash fiction, and they are some of the more popular fiction sites on the Net. Probably for the reasons you articulated: a person on Digg or Stumble can click on the link to “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” and read it in a couple minutes. Immediate gratification.

FSD: What mistakes are commonly made by beginning writers of flash? Are there gimmicks or story patterns that flash editors are seeing way too much of?

OZ: The first, which has been alluded to before, is not really telling a story: what you’ve written does not have a narrative arc. It’s an amusing character sketch, or an interesting vignette, but it’s a snapshot, without the complicating action or change that a true story requires. Then it’s not flash.

The second is overreliance on the Twilight Zone-type twist ending. There is  a lot of that in flash, including some of the very best, but if the readers have not come on board with the characters, the most clever twist will lack impact. If the twist is amusing but there is no investment in the characters, then what you’ve written is really just a dressed-up joke. If the twist is frightening or tragic but the reader has no involvement with the characters, then the reader’s response to their fate is “Who cares?”

FSD: In many ways you are the present-day counterpart of, say, Ray Bradbury or Harlan Ellison — the writers who turned out story after story and made their living at it during the pulp era. To what degree is the business different now? How is the life of a short-fiction writer different than it was even a generation ago?

OZ: Well, the biggest difference now is that a Bradbury or Ellison could not make a living doing what they did. No one—not even a Stephen King—can pay the bills on short fiction. That’s why they’ve all gone to writing novels. I think the present-day counterparts to the pulp writers may be freelance television scriptwriters. If one can break in, then one can just squeeze out a living at it (twenty or thirty grand a year, I’ve heard). I’ve never tried. I’ve gone the other time-honored and respectable route of writers whose avocation is not profitable enough to be their vocation: I teach. (And I love teaching. Even if I could make a living writing full-time, I’d probably still teach.)

FSD: Your on-line story “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” had 52,000 hits at the latest count. That’s an amazing number by anyone’s estimation. How do you account for the story’s runaway success? What is it that resonates with so many readers?

OZ: From what I understand, Star Wars and action-figure-collectibles communities embraced the story. A few people “Stumbled” or “Digged” it, gave it a thumbs up on the social network sites; it rose in the rankings on those sites so more people saw it and passed the link around. Eventually it “went viral,” to use the Net slang for something taking off and being seen by tens of thousands of people. Usually this happens with video clips from sites like Youtube, but here’s proof it can happen with fiction.

As to what resonates with those readers, I think it’s just nostalgia, pure and simple. Nostalgia for our childhood, forgetting about cares-of-life for a while and just playing. That’s something that really resonates in our overworked, overstressed, profit-driven society.

FSD: Is there anything you’d like to say about EDF, EDP, or anything else?

OZ: Welcome to the wave of the future. To quote Dylan, “The times they are a-changin’.”

FSD: Nick, thank you very much!

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16 Responses to “Flash Fiction: An Interview with Nicholas Ozment”

  1. Chris Says:

    I just read “The only Difference…” What a great story!

    What resonated with me was an experience I had a few years back when I started to do “nostalgia lunches” by cruising through eBay during lunch break trying to find pictures of old toys I used to have as kid. Things I hadn’t seen in decades.

    I was never a “collector” of anything that I kept out of “use”. If I loved something enough to want more versions of it I wanted to use it.

    But eBay showed me exactly how valuable things were that I had loved but lost, and how valueless those things I had held onto. The red giant plastic T. rex model I long ago dispersed to the four winds was fetching hundreds of dollars while the various knick knacks I’d held onto were scuttering down worth virtually nothing.

    Only thing that is a standout is my HP-11C calculator. One of the old 1980’s era scientific calcs (back when they were really good). Those things are fetching hundreds of dollars, even used.

    I wouldn’t give mine up even if I needed the “$300” as Han’s owner did.

    I didn’t pay my rent or electricity bill the month I bought it back in 1988. Later that year I wound up almost evicted and without electricity for a week or two in November so I can “tough it out” over my HP-11C!

    [I did sell my prized telephoto lens at the time, though. 😦 ]

  2. mileposter Says:

    Flash fiction: “The times they are a-changin’.” So is the genre just a symptom, or a cure, or something else? Is the answer “blowing in the wind”?

    In any case, writing flash fiction takes extreme skill. Since I take a lot of pictures, I think of it in comparison to a single photograph. The ones that are famous are those that condense the whole story into one frame. Flash fiction condenses the story into 1,000 words. Poetry often follows suit–I remember, Fred, our discussion as to whether a poem was the shortest distance between two words, or the shortest distance between two hearts. It can be both, of course. And then there’s the C. S. Lewis quote on my front page on the AllPoetry.com site:
    “Every poem can be considered in two ways–as what the poet has to say, and as a thing which he makes.”

    We are all looking for the writer, whether it’s flash fiction, poem, or novel, who is saying what we want to hear. To that end, I am now commencing to reread The Chronicles of Narnia–how many times, I’ve lost count.

    If anyone is interested, my poems (with links to some of my stories) are on the AP site under the username ‘Jornada.’

  3. Nicholas Says:

    Mileposter: First of all, kudos on answering the Dylan quote with another Dylan quote!

    To answer the question you raise, I think one could argue for both symptom AND cure (incidentally, I would have put that AND in italics, but I don’t know how to do that on here–though apparently you do! Does it require knowledge of html code?).

    SYMPTOM: Everything is shorter, smaller, faster. The Millennials (the kids after Gen X) grew up texting, Facebooking, tweeting in 120 characters or less, and multi-tasking like mad. (One can point out here, though, that they did slow down to read thick tomes by J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyers.)

    CURE: The popularity of flash reminds us that people will always love to hear–and tell–stories, and that there will always be a role for the Storyteller.

    • mileposter Says:

      Nick (and anyone else who cares):

      Yes, italics here does require a knowledge of HTML code, but it’s very simple. I’ll have to describe it verbally, since if I enter the characters, it will simply disappear and make items following show up in italics!

      Immediately before the letters you want italicized, put left pointed bracket, lowercase “i,” right pointed bracket. Immediately after the letters you want italicized (to return to normal characters), put left pointed bracket, front slash (leaning to the right), lowercase “i,” right pointed bracket. Be sure to insert the normal number of spaces in your text. These commands do not take up any spaces on the line.

      FWIW, since I don’t get a chance to change a posting like this after I make it (and don’t want to bother Fred to change it), I tested it out using my browser before I let it go! (And apologies in advance if something still goes wrong!) 🙂

      • Nicholas Says:

        Thanks Mileposter! And thanks to Fred, who also took the time to explain it to me in an email. I’ve already had a chance to use it a couple times today!

  4. Gay Degani Says:

    What a great interview. Nick has recently been so busy–new progeny–I almost forgot what a terrific writer–and advocate of writing–he is. The Difference between Men and Boys. Yup! Pretty stellar.

  5. Jedibabe Says:

    I too was compelled to go read “The Only Difference…”. It was exciting to be able to read something entertaining and have it only take up a couple of minutes. I’d never even heard of flash fiction, (hey, I’m a grad student- like I have time to read!) that it was a Star Wars story was too fun for words! I could totally relate. I lost my collection of beloved SW junk I had stored in my grandparents shed when it was discovered by my two cousins who lived next door. At the time I wanted to send them to the Emperor himself, but now that a couple decades have passed, I can appreciate that those two little boys couldn’t pass up a box full of SW toys and trading cards– at least someone had fun with them!

    It is inspiring to me, as I face the beginning of my thesis, to consider that it just might be possible to say what needs to be said in less than 150 pages. As a landscape architect, I also get to use pictures, but even there I have learned that what you leave out is sometimes more important than what you put in! This was a great interview, thanks Fred and Nick for an educational, inspirational and entertaining experience that could be squeezed into just a few minutes!

  6. Shieldmaiden Says:

    I have had a busy summer! I have been reading and following along on the blog but have not had time to leave a comment in forever.

    Thanks Nick and Fred for the great interview. This was a wonderful thought provoking post. Brevity has never been a strength of mine, as all of you who have had to read my comments on here know. In my life I find that I over explain whatever point I am trying to make because I constantly fear that I am not making sense and I am sure no one understands what I am talking about. As a result, I make my case and then proceed to pound away at it with a hammer. I try to use a nice tactful hammer but what I need to do is stop talking. When I am really happy with something I have written it was always done in a hurry. I didn’t have time to worry or explain or get it right. I just said it. I love the idea here about paring down, getting rid of unnecessary words. Wonderful. I am going to work on that.

    I absolutely loved “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” it was fantastic. I know those guys! I will be checking out some of the other things that are listed here as well. And I certainly love Knight Terrors: The (Mis)Adventures of Smoke the Dragon. I read the first three or four parts before the fishing misadventure (I hope you are OK), and then just recently caught back up with the rest. I am one of those people who never reads a serial or books that are part of a series because I can’t take it! I wait until it is finished so I can read it all together at once and not wait in between. Once in a while however, I do find something worth the torture and I get hooked. “The Star Shard” was one of those times, and I have to say this Dragon is surely causing me to tune back in to see what happens.

    And congratulations to you Nick on becoming a dad! If this is your first you are in for the adventure of your life.

  7. Nicholas Says:

    Thank you Chris, Mileposter, Gay, Jedibabe and Shieldmaiden! I was pleasantly surprised that the interview brought more appreciative readers to “The Only Difference…”

    Shieldmaiden, thanks for the “virtual ribbon” as I set out on the adventure of daddyhood (that was likely a way-too-obscure allusion to a medieval jousting tradition). I am thrilled that you are enjoying Knight Terrors! Since you are following it, you are invited to become a “Follower” (which you can do if you are signed up with Google or one of the blog services like WordPress–you just click on the “Follow” button on the right-hand column of the page ). For those who don’t know what that is, it simply means you are notified of new posts when they go up (you can likewise become a Follower of Durbin’s weblog here). There are only six followers at the moment, so I’d love to bring more on board!

    • Shieldmaiden Says:

      I am now an official follower of Smoke the dragon. Thanks for explaining that, I have wondered how to get notified when there is a new post. Is there a way to do it here too? On WordPress? I don’t see it on the right margin anywhere. If anyone out there knows, please clue me in.

      • Nicholas Says:

        Thank you Shieldmaiden–nice to have you on board!

        Has Fred gotten back to you about following his blog? He may not have activated that feature, but I’m sure that WordPress offers it.

      • Shieldmaiden Says:

        Fred has gotten back to me but I still don’t know what I am looking for. I spent a while looking around on here and have had no trouble “following” on your blog and one other. Down at the bottom of this page I found an “Entries” and “Comments” (RSS) and after a lot of trying I made little tabs at the top of my computer and can now click right to this site, but still I am not notified of anything. I gave up on it actually. Thanks for trying, if you or Fred ever do figure out how to explain it to me that would be great. Otherwise I will just keep checking when I get that “Is there a new post today” feeling.

  8. mileposter Says:

    Probably not intentionally ‘flash fiction,’ since it was written about 1963, but still a superb example–a story (which is supposed to be true), which I have been sharing with people for a long time, written by Sheldon T. Hall, titled Mailbox Baseball.

    http://www.tealdragon.net/humor/true/mailbxbb.htm

  9. mileposter Says:

    I did note after my last reply that Sheldon Hall copyrighted his story much later than the date mentioned in the text itself.

    Anyway, here’s another favorite of mine, about the same length:

    http://www.humoretc.com/ccontent/catbath.php

  10. Daylily Says:

    Thanks, Mileposter! Both were good reads.

  11. Daylily Says:

    Shieldmaiden: When I add a comment to one of Fred’s blog entries, I have the option of checking a box. The box appears below the space in which one types the comment. Following the box is this sentence: “Notify me of follow-up comment via email.” This, at least, works to let me know if a comment has been added to _that_ particular blog entry.

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