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  • Claudia Smith (bio)
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide To Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field. Edited by Tara L. Masih. Rose Metal Press. 168 pages; paper, $15.95.

The cover of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction resembles the old field guides from off my grandparents' bookshelves, with Audubon-looking pictures of natural things...covers that in my memory always seemed to be illustrations of birds. This field guide is no exception; the birds are there.

Rose Metal Press, in providing a guide for students and teachers, is filling a void and breaking some new territory. It's an ambitious undertaking. Tara L. Masih's thorough introduction, at twenty-five pages, might at first seem rather long, but it sets the tone for the rest of the guide. There isn't anything, as far as I know, like this book out there yet, and so some sober discussion feels necessary. Masih's introduction traces the history of the short short, all the way to its present form, and provides the backbone of these essays. "What The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction attempts is to take this rather wild-running flash adolescent and settle it down a bit to get a better understanding of its past, present, and future," Masih writes. And that is just what this guide proceeds to do, in twenty-five short, accessible essays from writers in the field. All but the last essay, written by Ron Carlson, are followed by an example of the form and a writing exercise. Like a field guide, this book is browsable and accessible, as well as illuminating to the layman, the novice, the aspiring writer, the old teacher.

Like two solid bookends, Pamela Painter's essay introduces, and Ron Carlson's concludes. Painter makes the case that writing exercises "can be as important to a writer as exercises are to an aspiring musician or singer" and argues that such exercises can be fruitful to novices and masters alike. Painter writes about her own experience with prompts, and [End Page 25] her realization that the only thing artificial about a prompt is the prompt itself. The essay informs the others, providing some insights into what these prompts are for, and how far reaching they can be. When I was a young student, I thought of published, professional writers as existing in some perfect, static place. They had done their exercises and were beyond me. Then I became one and realized just how messy we still get, how we constantly reach for our tools. Painter describes how spilled seltzer becomes the inspiration for a short. Then she presents her own draft—imperfect and in need of revision. This strikes me as a particularly good move on her part, as a teacher. Students reading will be reminded that writers continue to draft, to work, to revise, to evolve, no matter the age or experience. This isn't just a book about flash; it is also a teaching book. And as such, I think it's an effective one.

As I responded to some of the exercises provided, I thought about just how idiosyncratic teaching and the process of writing can be. Some of my favorite essays were followed by prompts that turned into something wildly different for me. Sherrie Flick's call to write outside time's boundaries is followed by the wonderfully quirky exercise "Writing A Warped Encyclopedia Entry." The exercise is followed by her "Oklahoma Men," a short where Oklahoma men seem suspended in a magical, precise world of their own. I tried this exercise, and it rendered a story that veered away from the strange flat world of Oklahoma men to something more character driven. But it worked. As Painter recognizes, what emerges from these exercises becomes "organically your own." I did not attempt Lex Williford's exercise, which seems particularly suited to the classroom. Williford gets his fingertips inky and asks his students to generate their own inkblots. He bases his exercise on the Rorschach test; after searching for images in the blots, writers think about ten images, then...


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