Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Fine Art of Killing Your Darlings


“All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”

– Martin Amis, “The War Against Cliché”

Some things take a few minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master. Games like chess, for instance, or knocking off a bank and getting away with it. Flash fiction also falls into this category: sure, a lot of people can type out 500-700 words, but stitching (and cutting) that mass of verbiage into an effective story takes a lot of skill and practice.

The great thing about a Website like Shotgun Honey is how it gives the crime-fiction writers of the world a no-bullshit platform for their best short work. Just a handful of venues these days seem to offer that kind of opportunity: Out of the Gutter is also going strong, along with The Molotov Cocktail and a handful of others. Every week, these sites offer a collection of short hits, quick enough to get you through your next bus-ride or waiting room sojourn. I always like a bit of literary murder and mayhem right before the dentist drills my teeth; it really puts my minor pain in proper perspective.

And every week, the editors behind those sites need to weed through a ton of stories in order to find the roses. What differentiates the stories that make it? They tend to push back hard against the clichés of the genre, offering a new and startling take on old, dusty tropes.

Fortunately, a crime cliché is easy to pick out of the lineup. Italian mobsters who speak in exaggerated New Jersey dialect? It was old long before Francis Ford Coppola shot the first frame of the Godfather trilogy. Serial killers with cute nicknames who work as cops by day? Snore. Femme fatales who plug their loving men in the back and walk away with the cash? You’ve seen it too many times to count.

A twist on a tired trope, on the other hand, is pure gold, especially if it comes with an unexpected ending. For example, take a look at “Getting the Word Back,” a story by fellow Shotgun Honey editor Angel Luis Colón. What starts as a standard-issue liquor-store robbery quickly evolves into something far weirder—and, in the end, about twice as vicious as you were expecting.

With my own flash fiction, I’ve tried to subvert clichés whenever possible. Take my story “Special Delivery”: while a lot of hardboiled tales focus on people trying to bust out of prison, I wanted to write something in which an anti-hero had to break in. I took a fair bit of inspiration from last summer’s infamous breakout at Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York, in which a pair of prisoners figured out a way past the prison walls via underground tunnels,Shawshank Redemption-style.

When it came time to collect the stories for my new noir-fiction collection, Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me, I realized that, in many ways, the flash fiction had been harder to write than some of the longer pieces. With a “full sized” short story or novella, you have the space to build an entire world; with flash fiction, you must telegraph a lot of information in as few words as possible. (The best flash is also self-contained: contrary to what some writers think, snipping a fragment from a longer narrative and presenting it unedited as a short-short story is often an ineffective technique if you want to be published.)

In the end, I alternated the collection’s longer pieces with flash fiction, creating a “long-short-long” rhythm that hopefully keeps readers engaged all the way through. Check out Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and let me know if you think it works.

And in the meantime, if you’re writing flash fiction, remember to kill your darlings as ruthlessly as possible. Your red editing pen (literal or metaphoric) makes for a fine murder tool.