Sunday, December 20, 2009

Today's Guest: Randall Brown

In "Notes on Novel Structure" from Words Overflown By Stars:
Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from the Vermont College of Fine
Arts MFA Program
, Douglas Glover refers to the novel as "a machine
of desire," one in which "the writer generally tries to announce the desire,
goal, or need of the primary character as quickly as possible." The key,
Glover believes, "is to make this desire concrete and simple."

First off, I love the idea of fiction as a machine. The novel's
machinery--Glover "breaks down the novel into six major structures: point of
view, plot, novel thought, subplot, theme, and image patterning"--exists to
produce what one would expect it to produce--a novel. I often hear writers
say, "I am writing a novel," but rarely do I hear them say, "I am producing
a novel." Produce is chock-full of interesting meanings: manufacturing,
birthing, exhibiting, and even farming (as in the produce market).

Flash fiction, rather than the novel, has captured my time and interest, and
I wonder what it might mean to switch from "writing flash" to "producing
flash." Out of what materials does one construct such a thing? How might
these same materials be used differently by the writer producing the short
story, the novella, the novel, and so on? For example, I believe flash
arises more out of its title and first line than say the novel. While a
novel arises out of a character's desire, I think flash arises less out of
character's desire and more out of a writer's desire. Maybe that desire is
to bend words to one's will, to fill that tiny container with something too
large for its confines, to develop a story out of white space, to see how
much can be implied, and so on.

Of course, there exists that flash driven into existence by a character's
yearning, and the machinery then finds a way to turn that abstract desire
into something concrete and active. It occurred to me recently, though, that
a few hundred words isn't much time to become attached to a character, to
that moment when the character goes all in for his/her heart's desire. If I
had to fill in the blank for flash--flash is a machine of [blank]--I'd say
that it's a machine of compression. What exactly does that mean, then, for
the flash writer?

I'm not exactly sure. For me, it means manufacturing titles that work to
create an entire history, the backstory, the subtext/subplot, the first and
last line, and so on; producing words that hint at all the words I've
omitted; creating an essential action, rather than a series of ones;
fabricating characters readers can attach to in the space of a few words
(mother, father, son, lover, boss); inventing the encounter that is both
strange and archetypal; and so on.

Imagine a flash fiction piece that begins with "He entered his parents'
bedroom and discovered...." I discard the expected things: his parents'
having sex, Christmas presents, a dead body, and so on." I discard the
history of that character, the backstory. There is a title that might imply
these things. This action, his entering this bedroom on this day, must be
the essential action of his life. There is no series of thwarted actions.
There is only this.

He entered his parents' bedroom and found the contract, signed in red ink,
an Open Marriage.
He entered his parents' bedroom and found boxes of Scope, stuffed in the
space behind his mother's dresses.
He entered his parents' bedroom and found the silver dollar, the one
his grandfather sent through the air.

And so on. Hundreds of things, aren't there?, to be found. It isn't about
trying and failing, trying and failing, about the machine producing an
entire novel's worth of iterations of the same conflict, over and over,
until finally the desire is satisfied, with a yes!, no!, maybe so!

It's about this one time, this one thing. It's about the weight of things,
with so much of that flash depending upon the singularity you discover to
fill in that blank. He entered his parents' bedroom and found [?]. Imagine
if the title were "Before He Found the Contract." What would he discover
then? How might compression work to produce that flash fiction, to recreate
that moment we all had as children, that fall from innocence into
experience, the realization that the world doesn't know what to do with our
innocence except to find ways to destroy it. Unlike the novel that is read
over a period of days or weeks or months, the flash isn't a thing readers
live with for awhile; it is like a passing stranger, one of those ephemeral
encounters that make up so much of our lives. Imagine if whenever I think of
the fall from childhood, I'm drawn back to your flash, those five minutes we
had together. Imagine that flash is a machine of compression, not just of
words and action and characterization but also of emotion, not the kind that
takes forever to be realized, but a different kind, the one borne of tight
packaging, like the force put upon atoms and their desire to matter.

Randall Brown teaches at and directs Rosemont College's MFA in Creative Writing and Graduate English programs.
He is the author of the award-winning (very) short fiction collection Mad To Live
and his essay appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction.
He blogs at FlashFiction.Net.


  1. Nice, I liked this. Big digging the new look over here, too. It's like visiting a friend and they've rearranged all the furniture, repainted the walls. I think I need to get out more...

  2. Congratulations on this excellent essay, Randall. I'm honored you graced this blog.

    You include many great points on the craft of writing flash here, and I found the last paragraph particularly informative, moving and inspiring. I too like the idea of Flash as a machine, but don't think I'll talk about my "producing" Flash any time soon :-)

    This is interesting: "While a
    novel arises out of a character's desire, I think flash arises less out of character's desire and more out of a writer's desire."

    And: "Of course, there exists that flash driven into existence by a character's yearning ...."

    Because my work is almost always character-driven, I without doubt write flash "driven into existence by a character's yearning ..." Although, I do recognize that all fiction, to varying degrees, is driven into existence by the writer's desires/yearning (however subliminal).

    For the most part, Flash is still a form that eludes and mystifies me, and I'm more comfortable categorizing the body of my work as more traditional, short-shorts. However, I continue to read and study essays such as this, and your great site, and of course Flash fiction itself, determined to hone my skills.

    Thanks again, Randall.

  3. You're quite welcome, Ethel. I really like that about flash, the way it "eludes and mystifies" long after one discovers it.