I’ve just spent a fair amount of time reading (and, alas, rejecting) submissions, and a few of them brought to mind things we’ve never published. Or, if we have, I can’t recall them. I’m not saying we’d never publish flashes with these things in them, but it’s probably pretty telling that we haven’t before now. Maybe seeing these things in a list will be of benefit to submitting writers. Maybe not. But here are a few:
1) Guns. Chekhov talked about the fact that if a gun was seen onstage in Act I, it would have to be used in Act III (or something to that effect). Flash almost never has three acts. To set up the use of a gun in less than a thousand words isn’t impossible (Pearl Jam does it very well in the song “Jeremy”), but it ain’t easy. The writer has to overcome a lot to make a gun’s presence work in a flash.
2) Dead babies. I’m cheating on this, because I know we’ve published at least one dead baby story. But most dead baby stories rely too much on the sympathy/empathy of the reader. Most dead baby stories, I’d argue, aren’t all that honest, either. They sit heavy on the grief, without ever touching other emotions, more negative emotions that we may honestly feel, but are too ashamed to acknowledge. It’s the stuff we don’t want to acknowledge that’s interesting. Grief happens, yes, of course, but… can we see something else? (And for anyone who reads the next issue of Per Contra, I know I’ll probably get called out for this item. The story of mine they’ll be publishing was written specifically in response to one of my favorite writer/editors challenging me to write one, since she knows how I feel about them.)
3) Dead grandmothers. See #2. Actually, take a look at all dead relatives. Interestingly, dead fathers occupy a different place. These tend to be the stories where the anger spills out, and the fathers are reduced to archetypes. Yawn.
4) Abuse. See the bit about fathers in #3. I keep a general rule in my head when reading abuse stories: can the genders of the characters be reversed without it becoming offensive? Very, very few stories pass this test.
5) Full names. Really, does knowing a character’s last name in a flash do anything other than waste a word? In a lot of cases, when we see full names, they’re used as an attempt to paint the class/race/social station of a character. It’s cheap. Often, the full name appears as the first two words of the story. When I see this, my eyes roll out of the back of my head.
6) Digital clocks at night. Seriously, can the writer think of no other way to set the time? Think of this: have you lived in more than one place? Did 3:00 am feel different in those two places? I know the regular sounds of the El passing by my apartment in Evanston were entirely different from the sounds of the alley below my studio on Capitol Hill. And if I woke up in the middle of the night, it wasn’t the clock that awoke me, and it wasn’t the clock that wedged me back into reality from dreams. Get rid of the clocks, okay?
7) Anthropomorphic animals. Really, do I need to say more than that?
And, to give representation to the other side very briefly, one item that seems to appear in more stories we’ve published than one would expect:
1) Fish. I’m not sure I could say why, but we do seem to have been predisposed to liking stories with fish in them. All kinds of different fish, too. For whatever reason, several writers have used an array of fish to help set stories in ways that really resonated with us. Go figure. Maybe it’s because we love Kath so much?