Promptly: Tara McDaniel on The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, ed. Tara L. Masih, Rose Metal Press, 2009

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction is the best of its kind. For both beginner and advanced practitioners of this hot and wildly popular genre, the Field Guide offers tons of practical advice, hands-on exercises, and intriguing histories of the form. The back matter is chock full of recommended reading lists and suggested anthologies. It’s no wonder this fabulous book is already in its second printing and has received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.

Tara L. Masih, editor of the Field Guide, presents the first comprehensive essay on flash in the introduction. After first reading Tara’s intro, I was astounded at the rich history of flash. It’s been around since the dawn of myth; and in Shouhua Qi’s essay “Old Wine in New Bottles,” he gives various examples of Chinese flash dating as far back as 350 BC. Masih describes 14th century Italian flash, the burgeoning of flash in America beginning with Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, and even the feminist flash started by Louisa May Alcott and Kate Chopin. We learn the development of flash and its current style and means of consumption via both print and the internet. The final two sections of the book give you an idea of where flash is going in the future and how you can join the party.

The Field Guide is structured as a series of individual essays, each taking a different approach to flash. Such esteemed writers as Stuart Dybek, Jayne Anne Phillips, Robert Olen Butler, and Steve Almond give their two cents on the form along with advice on inspiration, taking risks, beginning and ending successful flash, and finally how to best tackle the editing process. There is truly something in the Field Guide for everyone. Jayne Anne Phillips, in her essay “’Cheers’ (or) How I Taught Myself to Write,” introduces the one-page form and how to play with its density to create the most powerful and moving stories in the shortest space. She suggests working with “instruction booklets, tax forms, newspapers, and cookbooks” to get your writing into a direct mode. As with all the other essays in the Field Guide¸ Phillips’ essay concludes with a prompt and a story example to illustrate how to use the prompt. The writing advice and exercises contained here offer more than just basic advice on flash fiction. In a way, this is a fun manual for writers of both poetry and prose, no matter what the form. Lex Williford’s essay, “Forty Stories in the Desert” gives instructions for how to make your own Rorschach blots and then generate lists of images from them. Williford also gives instructions on how to use the lists to create “15 minute fictions.” Practicing one 15-minute fiction a day for five weeks will “encourage the discovery of images, characters, and storylines,” says Williford, who has used this exercise successfully for years in the classroom. This same essay is also rife with such wonderful advice as how to create surprising reversals in both poetry and prose.

As a poet, I have used many of these exercises to generate new poems and breathe life into drafts that I thought were stuck. One of my favorite entries, “The Myth-ing Link (Or, Linking up to Myth)” by Pamelyn Casto, explores how to write flash using myth as a formative structure. She gives examples of how to re-create or breathe new life into traditional myths, or de-familiarizing myths by giving them a special and unexpected twist. The writing prompts at the end are fantastic with no less than seven ideas for using a particular myth to create new stories and characters. I’ve taken some of these ideas, such as putting Pandora on trial and giving her voice using a Q&A format. Steve Almond’s contribution shows how you can take bad poems and turn them into successful flash. And Kim Chinquee explores the relationship between prose poem and flash in her essay “Flash Fiction, Prose Poetry, and Men Jumping Out of Windows.” The Field Guide is as fine a writing resource as I have yet come across. A highly recommended resource for individual libraries or for use in workshop.

“A Book of Ubiquitous Movement,” DiAnne Malone examines A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness by Amy Clark, Elizabeth Ellen, Kathy Fish, and Claudia Smith

A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness by Amy Clark, Elizabeth Ellen, Kathy Fish, and Claudia Smith, Rose Metal Press


A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness pushes and wrenches its reader through four chapbooks of short short fiction by authors Amy L. Clark, Elizabeth Ellen, Kathy Fish, and Claudia Smith. What remains is a sense of yearning that cannot be satiated by rereading just one story. The collection resurrects the ghosts of the eerie voices and vignettes in Jean Toomer’s Cane, while making new the strangeness found in Joyce Carol Oates’ collection, The Female of the Species.


Smith’s collection, The Sky is a Well, is the original winner of Rose Metal Press’ first annual short short fiction chapbook contest. The collection escorts the reader through the rooms of characters attempting to plow through their unique strains of loneliness. Each piece in Smith’s collection represents a steady and succinct movement that bobs about in a sea of woman-ness. The opening piece, Cherry, gives a snapshot of the relationship between two teenage girls:  Theresa “who wants boyfriends” and Delia who gently protests, “this is the last time,” as she yields to Theresa’s sexual advances. In Galveston we meet Marnie, the wise daughter of an abusive father. “’She’s going to call him,’ Marnie whispers” as she watches her mother step onto the balcony after fleeing to the beaches of Galveston away from his physical abuse. In each piece, there is the omnipresence of loss. In a few lovely words, Smith manages to express the craving loss leaves behind.


Likewise, Kathy Fish’s Laughter, Applause. Laughter, Music, Applause expresses loss coupled with loneliness. The rhythm of these stories, which comprise the first chapbook in the collection, zips as each vignette jerks through the awkwardness of circumstance. The reader can almost see the jerky movements of the inexperienced videographer in the opening piece, The Next Stanley Kubrick, where a young girl tapes her older brother’s high school career only to realize in a “classic awkward moment” that no one was interested in taping her. Bread, an odd portrait of a family’s loss, begins with the uncle of a dead nephew making a fisherman’s omelet. Waterfall is the story of a daughter who has lost her father to Alzheimer’s disease. Interestingly enough, the daughter’s catering business is called The Good Egg.  The strange energy of Fish’s collection moves into the surreal as in How Elm Trees Die, which explores a young girl’s problem of not being able to keep her feet on the ground and the following story, In School in Sioux Falls, SD, introduces the reader to a girl “known as the fidgeter” who eats glue. Without feeling forced or contrived, each story is neatly connected to the one preceding it. Fish’s juxtaposition of the ordinary with the strange is what gives the collection such beautiful bouts of rhythm. But, even so, the reader may find that some of the pieces may end a few words too soon.


Clark’s collection Wanting inspires a yearning that makes the reader want for the characters the very same things the characters want for themselves. Several of the pieces like Options for Women or: what you can do other than going back to your asshole husband are laugh out loud funny as the last option suggests, “Go back to your asshole husband because he’s probably going to be shipped out to Iraq soon anyway and comeback dead.” Though Story for Mark, Who Probably Needs Clarification is quite clever, it may take a few reads to understand that the character meant that she was falling uncontrollably in love when she said, “What I meant was:  there have been many recent developments in my life of which you are only one. Which is to say that I am still not sure if I am like this.” The story What We Would Find Out haunts the reader as it explores the making of a date-rapist…or not.  Clark’s stories may provide the most closure. There are times, however, when the reader may experience the discomfort of visiting friends and overstaying the welcome.


Rounding out (or perhaps cornering out ) the collection is Elizabeth Ellen’s chapbook Sixteen Miles Out of Phoenix. Ground Rules, the first piece, expresses the feelings of those who are intimate with writers: “Rule number one, he says:  You can’t write about this.”  It is from this chapbook and the last line of Eastern Standard that the title of the collection is culled. Each piece in Ellen’s collection explores the beautiful and violent pushing and pulling of humans (and sometimes beasts) toward and away from one another. In this way, The Big Gulp tugs at the reader’s senses as it ends in flux with “my right thigh was in your hand. I hovered waiting for your release.” Likewise, the mini-horror, Blood, gives the reader a glimpse at the beauty and tragedy of discovering both the differences and similarities between people: a somnambulist meets a funambulist, two formerly conjoined twins long to be conjoined again, and a woman dumps the truth for a love affair with deception. Most poignant in Sixteen Miles Out of Phoenix is the story of a mother who plays pretend with her daughter where they become “not princesses—but explorers,” when a storm makes all the lights go out.


It is no wonder that Rose Metal Press insisted on flinging these four chapbooks together as one for the theme of yearning resonates even as one reads the last page. The reader yearns for more of the energy of words that encompass all of the elements. It seems almost a miracle that these pieces could compliment each other so well. Each chapbook is both ethereal and visceral, earthly and otherwordly. And, although not horror by any means, one may not want to read A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness in a dark and quiet room, save one light, for each story leaves with the reader a strange sense of uneasiness.



Often to her own demise, DiAnne Malone, a teaching fellow at the University of Memphis, is obsessed with metaphor. When not obsessed she doggedly pursues the MFA in Creative Nonfiction. DiAnne has served as Sr. Creative Nonfiction Editor for the University of Memphis’ nationally acclaimed literary journal, The Pinch. Her first publication, “Fits,” (culled from her ever-evolving memoir collection, Digging for the Devil) is forthcoming in the Fall 2008 issue of So to Speak.