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Review: John Dufresne gives an entertaining short course in ‘Flash! Writing the Very Short Story’

Don’t tell John Dufresne you don’t have time to read.

In fact, don’t tell him you don’t have time to write.

Instead, spend a little time with his new book, Flash! Writing the Very Short Story. You’ll find a treasure trove of stories you can read in the time it would take to fetch a drink during a TV commercial break — and, thanks to his expert and imaginative tips, you might get an itch to write some yourself.

Dufresne is the author of six novels (the most recent is I Don’t Like Where This Is Going), several collections of short stories and a couple of previous books of writing advice. He’s a longtime faculty member of the MFA creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami, and Flash! clearly grew from his teaching — and makes me wish I had taken his class.

Flash fiction is also known as short-short fiction, microfiction, hyperfiction, fast fiction and a host of other names, including one for the digital 140-character version: Twiction.

As Dufresne explains, very short fiction has a very long history; many myths, fables, fairy tales and biblical parables qualify. He starts his first chapter by citing perhaps the most famous short-short story, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," noting that it’s "widely and erroneously attributed to Ernest Hemingway" and probably originated with a 1901 newspaper article.

But in the last decade or so the form has gained cachet. In 2013, American writer Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize for her short-short stories, some of which are only a sentence or two long.

There’s no definitive definition of flash fiction, but Dufresne opts for one that includes any story under 1,500 words, no more than a couple of printed pages and often less.

He writes in his introduction that flash fiction might be "the ideal form of fiction for the twenty-first century, an age of shrinking attention spans and busy and distracted lives, in which our mobile devices connect us to the world as they simultaneously divert us from it. And on the screens of our smartphones and our iPads and our laptops, we can fit an entire work of flash fiction."

But that’s far from the only reason to read and write it. Successful flash fiction requires enormous skill; it distills all the elements of the craft of writing down to their essence. Dufresne quotes the great short story writer William Trevor as saying that writing a short story is "infinitely harder than writing a novel"; that recalls the old journalism joke about the reporter who tells his editor he wrote the story long because he didn’t have time to write it short.

On the other hand, Dufresne writes, even for a novice writer the prospect of producing a two-page story is a lot less daunting than turning out a 300-page novel. The form generally doesn’t allow space for more than a single setting, a couple of characters, a pared-down plot. (And, of course, if you do move on to writing a novel, your flash fiction can provide material for it as well as honing your skills.)

Focus first, Dufresne advises flash fiction writers, on "trouble." Stories, even the shortest, require conflict. It drives plot, creates suspense, changes characters — even in a few hundred words. He offers a clear, engaging review of elements like point of view and imagery.

Dufresne is a wryly funny cheerleader for his readers, employing two essential teaching methods: analyzing successful flash fictions and providing readers prompts for writing their own. He chooses terrific examples; even if you’re not an aspiring writer, you can enjoy this book for the several dozen excellent stories it includes. Some made me laugh out loud (Steve Almond’s Announcement), others gave me chills (Ruthann Ward’s Well Cut), a few did both.

If you do write flash fiction, or want to, Dufresne provides a rich array of prompts, like writing a modern version of an ancient myth, or a second act to one of the example stories. Buy an object that strikes you in a flea market or thrift store, he suggests, take it home and look at it for a while, then write a story about who it belonged to and why it was lost or abandoned. Write a story inspired by a photograph or a painting, make up a dream, write first from one character’s point of view and then the other’s, choose an occupation or a historical moment, rip a story from the headlines.

Among his most irresistible suggestions is using everyday, usually nonfictional forms for short fiction, such as mathematical word problems, obituaries or recipes, like Mary Slebodnik’s mordantly funny Hometown Market’s Delicious Fried Chicken.

Dufresne confesses that he likes to pick up strangers’ discarded shopping lists in the Publix parking lot and imagine stories based on them: "?‘Am. cheese’ and ‘wonder bread’ make me a little sad, maybe because they take me back to my own childhood. I hope, at least, they’re going to make a grilled cheese sandwich."

Whether flash fiction is new to you or you’re already a fan, whether you write it yourself or would like to try, Flash! is a fun read and a great resource. And now, if you’ll excuse me, that prompt about writing a short-short story as a restaurant review has got its hook in me.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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Review: John Dufresne gives an entertaining short course in ‘Flash! Writing the Very Short Story’