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.