Thursday, January 21, 2010

Six Questions for Tara L. Masih, author, instructor, and editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction

Tara L. Masih earned an MA in writing and publishing from Emerson College. She has worked as a production editor and freelance book packager, and currently works as a copy editor and proofreader for a number of publishers. Learn more about Tara (and her forthcoming story collection) on her website —

SQF: Congratulations on the success of The Field Guide to Flash Fiction. It's a great resource. How did you come up with the idea?

TM: I’m so glad you liked it and use it. It was the outcome of some serendipitous events. I had just been reading A. B. Guthrie Jr.’s A Field Guide to Writing Fiction for the second time, when a poet wrote to me something about how reading my flash had inspired him to try his own. It hit me at that point that while there were many wonderful anthology collections and a few story collections out there for writers interested in flash to read and emulate and get some gleanings on what flash is (I’m using flash here to cover all short short writings), there was no one complete text that a writer could turn to that explained what the process was for these masters of flash, what was behind their drive to experiment with it, and what a successful flash should accomplish. And no one had really delved into its rich history.

Because I specialize in textbooks and have teaching experience, I knew I could come up with something that was useful both in and out of the classroom. And having been taught to write in flashes, I felt close to the topic. Guthrie’s book is structured in very short chapters, like nonfiction flash, so it gave me the idea to use a similar structure, keeping essays short but full of insight, to reflect the genre it was discussing. Rose Metal Press helped fine-tune the format.

SQF: I notice in your bio you list book packager as a job you’ve done. I have to ask. What does a book packager do?

TM: Basically, a company hires you to do the production work out-of-house. You’re responsible for ferrying the manuscript through design, editing, permissions, art research, typesetting, and printing. I no longer do this, but it gave me invaluable exposure to most facets of book publishing.

SQF: You've worked as a book and magazine editor, a manuscript evaluator, and a judge. What do you look for in a story?

TM: You hear this over and over, but the best stories really do capture attention from the first line or paragraph or page. How they capture my attention is different. Sometimes it’s the voice, sometimes the subject matter, sometimes the language, sometimes the structure. When I served as a story screener for literary magazines, I tried to put my own personal tastes aside (hard to do) and recognize a good story or writer regardless of whether or not I liked any of the aforementioned. I think screeners have a duty to recognize and pass along a story that is a success in one or more of these areas, and try to remain objective, and let the editors make the final decisions. The same thing goes as a manuscript evaluator for novels. Now, as a judge, I will be more subjective and lean toward writing I like. If an entry is accomplished but I can’t connect with it in any way at all, I’ll put it aside for the story that resonates with me. It’s a rather instinctive reaction that is hard to put into words sometimes.

In both cases, I look for strong details, original insights and use of vocabulary or sentence structure, and writing that pays attention to all the senses. When I’m being subjective, it’s the writers who are very visual that I tend to gravitate to, ones who can basically paint with words, and who are attuned to the natural world. I also look for a story that captures truth in some way. Whether it’s individual or societal. The writing can be rough around the edges, but if the writer has that ability to hone in on something special, some element of being human that we can all relate to, the mechanical aspects can always be smoothed over.

Finally, a knock-out ending never hurts. Start well, end well, and keep your reader interested in between.

SQF: You edit and proofread manuscripts for a number of publishers. What are the most common mistakes you encounter?

TM: Writers should be careful about spelling, punctuation, and such (your editors will really appreciate it and it will save time and money), but realize that either your agency or publisher will be hiring people to clean this all up. The writer should mainly focus on other things, depending on the genre.

When I’m reviewing trade novels, especially mystery/suspense, the plot and the clues have to be 100% accurate. Part of my job is to ferret out the glitches in the plot. There are often clues planted that go unresolved, conflicting information, inconsistencies—sometimes in a person’s height or hair color. One of my favorite examples was found in a young adult novel—in one chapter the narrator kills someone, and in another chapter the narrator says he never killed anyone before. When an author spends a lot of time on a lengthy manuscript that changes in every draft, it’s hard to see the trees for the forest. However, if you don’t have a good editor or proofer, these mistakes can show up in printed books. I’ve proofed paperback editions of books that first appeared in hardcover in which I found these problems, and the errors went by many folks. So keep a list of your characters and their physical attributes, and if your plots hinge on clues and details such as time and weather and the calendar, make sure you keep track of them all.

But I think the number one problem I see in most manuscripts of all genres is a weak chapter opener. This is often where I have to do the heaviest edits. It seems it’s hard to get into a chapter for most writers, but once they get going, the writing flows better. So I would counsel writers, especially those who are unpublished, to go back and rework their chapter openers to make them as strong as the rest of the chapters. And if you are taking workshops to hone that first chapter or two for submission to agencies, be sure to follow up with workshops to hone the rest of the chapters. Too many first novels have great beginnings that have been workshopped to death, and weaker chapters that follow because they only got a cursory glance.

SQF: In April you moderated a panel discussion on "The Rise of Flash." The other participants were Dinty W. Moore, Steve Almond, Pamela Painter, and Stace Budzko. That's quite a cast. I'm curious. What did you learn from this experience?

TM: That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, to be moderating such amazing personalities as well as writers. Not all writers have as much personality and charm and wit as these four have! What did I learn? That the best writers to listen to are the ones who are the most passionate about what they do. If they have this passion for life and writing—and, in particular, their genre of writing—it can’t help but spill over onto their audience. All these panelists are successful in writing and editing and teaching, but all are huge fans of flash and really inspired the audience. So go out and support writers at their readings, even if you can’t afford to buy their books. Ask questions. (Writers hate empty seats and silence.) If they love what they do, you’ll come away with a lot more than just hearing a passage or two. The inspiration they can offer can be more valuable than any writing tip.

And if you can afford to buy a book, buy two, to cover the person who can’t and to keep readings going. I’d hate to see everyone only on YouTube someday.

SQF: What one question do you wish I'd asked that I didn't, and how would you answer it?

TM: You’ve covered a lot. My one final thought would be to say to any readers who are wondering why they may not be getting published in journals or online: it’s hard even for published writers. There are so many writers competing out there for a small space in every issue. It’s really about not giving up, continuing to hone your craft (don’t be stubborn and think your writing doesn’t need improvement), and finding an editor who appreciates what you do. And read, read, read.

Thank you, Tara. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

No, Jim, thank you! I think this is a wonderful idea, and I hope I helped someone out there with my ramblings on this industry I love.

NEXT POST: 1/25—Six Questions for Brad Nelson, Editor, Eclectic Flash

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful interview! I experienced the "Rise of Flash Fiction" panel firsthand. In fact, it inspired myself and my writing group to begin (and complete) a collaborative flash fiction chapbook. Tara is so right. When we hear such a stellar panel talking so passionately about a form we love it can spark all kinds of creative beginnings!

    Thanks so much for the Field Guide, Tara. It's a wonderful, rich resource.