What Can We Steal From Jacob Wren’s “The Children’s Book Writer”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “The Children’s Book Writer,” flash fiction
Author: Jacob Wren (on Twitter @EverySongIveEve)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was first published by NANO Fiction, a print and digital journal that has long championed the joys and challenges of flash fiction.  (Founder Kirby Johnson and the rest of the NANO Fiction crew are also very involved in cultivating the genre of flash fiction by “creating opportunities for emerging fiction writers to achieve national recognition” through their “website, print publication, and educational events.”)  The journal was nice enough to post the story online, so you can read it here.

Bonuses: Here are some poems Mr. Wren published in The Rusty ToqueHere is Mr. Wren’s blog.  He enjoys writing about art as well as creative writing.  Here is an interview Mr. Wren did with Pedlar Press publisher Beth Follett for Open Book Toronto.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: The Release of Exposition in Flash Fiction

Discussion:
This 300-word piece of flash features a third person narrator who tells the story of a children’s author who has a drinking problem.  We learn the plot of his current book, Tears, whose summary clearly relates to the author’s state of mind.  The writer’s sadness and loneliness, we discover, leads him into the arms of prostitutes: people who are paid to erase loneliness.  The final turn in the story brings the reader into a scene.  One night, the writer sees a “family with two small children” looking at Tears through a bookshop window.  He tells the family that he wrote the book, receiving their admiration and suspicion.

Writing flash fiction is fun for many reasons:

  • The stories aren’t very long, so you don’t need to juggle dozens of characters
  • Writing a few hundred words doesn’t always take that long.
  • You get to tell smaller stories that don’t warrant 4,000 words of prose.
  • Flash often allows you to borrow from the poet’s toolbox, empowering you to think of beautiful language as much as plot and characterization.

Sounds good, right?  Well…writing flash fiction is maddeningly difficult for many reasons:

  • The writer must fit a beginning, middle and end into the space of a few hundred words.
  • Brevity is a big priority; you must cram a lot of meaning into as few words as possible.
  • Writing a 300-word story can take forever and can require many drafts.

How did Mr. Wren address some of these concerns?  He established the situation and the protagonist with the title and first line.  Who’s the protagonist?  Why, it’s the children’s book writer.  What’s the problem?  He “preferred to write drunk,” indicating that he may not be a very happy man and may not be surrounded by lots of loved ones.  Those crucial first nine words allow the reader to empathize with the protagonist and to wonder what will happen next.

A piece of flash fiction requires a story whose exposition is simple and a narrator who is willing and able to release that exposition quickly.  Compare the title and first line of Mr. Wren’s story to this famous first line:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Is this first sentence beautiful?  Of course.  Do you know any of the characters who populate the story or any concrete details about them or what they will go through?  Nope.  This is a great first sentence for a novel, but a terrible beginning for a piece of flash fiction.  (In case you didn’t catch the reference, that sentence is the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.)

As I pointed out, the last beat of Mr. Wren’s story is the only one really described in scene.  There are, however, a few beautiful and relevant images in the piece.  In a much longer story, you might write a scene between the protagonist and his publisher.  They might have lunch at a restaurant in New York City and the publisher could make a pointed comment about how much of the vino the writer has had before two p.m.  That might be a great scene that builds character, but Mr. Wren knew he didn’t have time for such a scene because he was writing flash.  Instead, Mr. Wren simply has the narrator state what COULD be the point of an extended scene: “His publisher worried about his drinking.”

Sometimes, dear reader, you are forced to fast-forward through your exposition.  Writers must make difficult choices.  When writing flash fiction, you are choosing to focus on your final image and its emotional effect.  Mr. Wren fast-forwarded through the “scenes” with his publisher and with his companions because he was much more concerned with getting to that sad conclusion.

What Should We Steal?

  • Establish the situation and the protagonist before you do anything else.  Writing flash requires you to release exposition without delay.
  • Empower your narrator to fast-forward when necessary. Writers are often told “Show, don’t tell,” but there are many times when you can’t get around just telling the reader what he or she needs to know.

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