In the Breath of a Moment: Tiny Tales for Short Attention Spans

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Concision is the quiet stepchild of the writing family. But what is hinted at or even left out can be as key in making a story work as any promulgation of words. Tiny toy dishes, tiny dolls. She even wants her dad to be tiny.


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Like the Incredible Shrinking Man she saw on the Telly. He could live in her Lincoln Log Cabin. Ella has a tiny pet. Blowing the bead across the floor, she takes it for a walk. Till it falls in a canyon between floorboards. He smokes, stares, strokes, rolls her around. She goes tiny and red to disappear in cracks.

Hard Time by Courtney Watson Joe ordered his first kit from a hobby magazine sent to his cell mate. Break out the Beethoven; classical music helps you pay attention. A study done at Stanford University School of Medicine found that listening to short symphonies engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions, and updating the event in memory. Coffee might make you alert, but tea can help you pay attention. Black tea contains an amino acid called L-theanine, which has been shown to directly affect areas of the brain that control attention.

In a study done in the Netherlands, tea drinkers were able to pay attention and perform tasks better than those who were given a placebo to drink. Researchers at Princeton and UCLA found that when students took notes by hand, they listened more actively and were able to identify important concepts. Laptops also provide an easy distraction, such as checking email or logging on to social media. Taking notes on a laptop also leads to mindless transcription.

While you want to skip bubble gum and go for something minty, a study done at Cardiff University in the U. Chewing itself is arousing because it tells the body that nutrients are on their way to the brain, and gum can reduce hunger pangs. Writing flash has influenced my longer writing. What do you think about working with limits, like words? French Oulipo writers felt constraints could be freeing, that overtly imposing them is a way to acknowledge the constraints on writing everywhere.

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Do you find limits freeing? I love working with word count limits because it is more of a challenge. Not only do you have to be concise, you have to find ways to tell your story in an even smaller box. Interesting things bulge against a boundary: Beethoven wrote his most important symphony when he was deaf. But flash fiction is influenced by other artistic movements, too—the Impressionists suggested entire scenes with just dots and splashes, for instance. Remember that the novel was once considered a vulgar, lesser art form mostly written by yikes! We must unlearn what we have learned.

I learned this when I started writing word stories after years of writing novels. A novel is like a Southwestern city. You have so much land to build on that you can just keep building further outwards. Writing a story in exactly words is more like building a tiny town hemmed in by mountains and the sea. You have to be very careful with each element you add.

You have to eliminate excess. The condensation of a word story can open up the irreducible mystery of a single intense moment. That style of flash certainly exists and delivers in lots of beautiful ways. But flash fiction can also achieve solid narratives, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When you read flash fiction, what do you like best? I like the best of every form. I love its mix of prose and haibun, another challenge. The same for any short story. People who think flash fiction is like prose poetry have not read enough flash fiction.

For me the difference is a sense of urgency: A woman at a cafe watching the way the fall leaves shimmer in the sun could be a prose poem or a vignette or even a character study. But the answer lies in the driving force of a piece: It has characters and moves through time, but this very short flash is told through this one really gorgeous image carried throughout. Although a good short short has a beginning, a middle, and an end, flash stories are built through gaps as much as the connective tissue of words.

They end, as Jayne Anne Phillips said, in a breath that takes the reader in and beyond the story.

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Every word, every detail matters, but it moves through caesuras and crevices, and like poetry, tone, diction, and timbre can guide a story as much as a rising narrative trajectory of actions. When people talk about flash, they often mention the modern short attention span. What do you think about the attention-span angle? Can you make more demands on the reader in flash, compared to longer forms? Can flash fiction be too dense? Especially since many readers still prefer reading novels. But I do think it lends itself well to online journals and social media, which has helped spread it around the world.

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I believe just the opposite: The writer throws clues, the reader lines them up. What the author omits, the reader intuits. And anyone who has tried writing flash thinking it will be easy has usually had a very shocking revelation. Like painting the Mona Lisa on a grain of rice. We have so much thrown at us these days, from work emails that grind through the evening and weekends to a news cycle that brings tragedy right to us even as it is unfolding. That has to impact our ability to focus on the present and to commit to things that take longer to do.

But I am overjoyed to report that I still see people reading and even writing during my weekday train commute, and my youngest son, who is 15, read War and Peace over the summer, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Flash is another form to read, not a replacement for people who are distracted. That said, I suppose flash is very well-suited for social media, since you can read a flash on your phone from the many, many online literary journals out there, or even tweet the shortest flashes.

I like to think that flash is doing a form of guerilla literacy to all of the people glued to their devices! In this world of more—more emails, more social media, etc. People scan and read in nuggets, and online platforms are largely designed for that type of storytelling. When we started Word Story , we thought words was the perfect length of story to read online because words is essentially a Facebook post. Should flash fiction be considered and judged in a category separate from the conventional short story and its traditions?

Readers and writers bring different expectations to short stories than to novels, and its traditions have shaped those expectations. Is it helpful to construct a separate category for flash? Does that fit with the spirit of flash fiction? Or should I quit poking at it? When I dream of the future, I see flash being taught side by side with the longer form.

I know some academics still think of it either as a gimmick or as just a really short story. I do believe that there are differences in practice and execution, and just as there are different forms in poetry, there are different forms in prose. Absolutely, especially when we start looking towards flash books.


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  • And absolutely there are politics involved—for starters who has the power of naming and defining? A word of caution: Flash fiction is still emerging, still soft in the hands, still pliable, still wonderfully gooey and fresh. And while this stage of emergence and convergence is desirable, it also leaves the art form vulnerable to others who will want to define it, start to put rules on it. Flash may be a sister or cousin to short story and to poetry, but it is its own form with its own challenges and expectations, and now standards.

    I tend to read those because it is a sort of curating of the best writers and stories out there, which I might not be able to find on my own. What might be more debatable is what to call flash. Some like to call it short-short stories because that signals that it is not something trendy, which is sort of what flash sort of sounds like, but rather part of the family of storytelling as old as man. I find it interesting that some keep defining the word count of flash upward—from 1, words to 1, words to 2, words. At the same time, the conventional short story seems to be shrinking in length.

    Journals that used to accept stories that were 8, or 10, words long now ask for stories that are less than 5, words. Maybe the forms will meet in the middle, but a novelistic short story by Alice Munro is obviously quite different than a one-sentence story by Lydia Davis , so I think of flash as a distinct aesthetic, one that lives on the border of prose and poetry, one that requires a different sensibility, so I turn to it as a writer and a reader with different expectations and needs.

    Who are your favorite flash fiction writers? Who has been influential for you? There are too many to list. This is a hard question to answer, because what is happening in the flash world right now is a full-on literary movement: I was in Puerto Rico by myself and I read that book and I was like—yeah. This may be the hardest question of all, since there are so many excellent flash writers out there!

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    I am going to skirt around any hard feelings by not naming a friend or Word Story writer. I am a Lydia Davis groupie, and an Etgar Keret admirer. Jon Roemer is a writer and publisher based in San Francisco. He's the founder and senior editor of Outpost19 Books. His debut novel about an editor's hardscrabble life is forthcoming from Dzanc.

    Your email address will not be published. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed. The Millions' future depends on your support. Become a member today. Massey regales readers with essays about these famous women using playful syntax and startling anecdotes to craft a collection both familiar and revelatory. How do you feel about this thing that you have been obsessing over for the past year or so in different ways? I finished it in December I didn't look at it really again until maybe last summer Then I didn't read the book in full until mid-November when I recorded the audio book.

    That was when I sat down and didn't just read it for the first time, but read it for an audience of people in a sound group -- who don't mean to look intimidating [but] they're staring at you talking your own words. Next week it comes out and that's when the bigger kerfuffle around it happens. There are going to be straight reviews that have no emotional connection to it and are going to be completely based on the style and prose and the merits of my authority to tell certain stories this way.

    I understand that's going to come but the stuff that has happened so far has been so affirming. My second book is overdue.

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    I changed the deadline for it. I want so badly to have the full breadth of reactions to the first book [first] to make sure if there are glaring errors in the way I write or approach things, that I can make up for it in the second book. I do believe in feedback. I do believe that writing is a service in certain capacities.

    Some people write because they have a story inside them and they want to be creative people. They do it for their own artistic expression. There should be use in it. It should help people. It should have an action item at the end even if that action item is 'think differently about yourself and others and be kind to women,'" which is a very shortened version of what I hope happens from [this book]. That was sort of my take away with it.

    This book does tell a lot of different stories. Anything that has a personal element can be a little navel gaze-y. I thought the essay on The Virgin Suicides was really helpful; that story resonated with me too -- their obsession with death, the way they were reduced down to plot devices to bring these anonymous men to maturation. I don't know if you had this experience of The Virgin Suicides , but I was obsessed with it as a teenager.

    This shouldn't be written in a dreamy way. This is a tragic, horrible thing these boys are doing -- and not in a cute-horrible way. In a really insidious this-is-boys-in bootcamp-for-being-in-the-patriarchy kind of way. Why do you think we want to find some sort of identity in them? Why do we want to be like that? I think that so many of us feel like we have as much rage inside us as Courtney Love lets manifest in her life.