My Best Writing Advice: Part 1 of 3

“If you can’t condense your novel’s essence down into a single poem or flash fiction, you don’t know it well enough. Go back. Edit and rewrite. Find the core and work it. Then? Keep your head. Keep it high. If you’re apologetic about your work, I will search for reasons why you should be.”

The advice came from a professor with tenure, who had no issue reminding us she required neither our approval nor our thanks. A battle axe of the literary world with red lips and perfect posture, she was by a vast margin, the most important instructor I’ve had. Subversive in her way (lipstick was not something the ultra-religious community she was raised around allowed), dedicated to heteroglossic interpretations and condensing prose, I see a lot of my idealized habits as homage.

Yet, if psychology classes taught me anything (aside from the one exam I was so exhausted to take I wrote backward, right to left, and had my psych prof gleefully reaching for a mirror asking to study my brain), it’s the idea of her, not the woman herself, which I attempt to emulate. It’s as if the world is an overlapping area of fiction wrapped in bows and coil. Realism is only one form of our writing lives. Can we know absolute fact outside a clinician’s camera lens? Even then, the images recorded require interpretation, and interpretation itself is a form analogous to fiction.

Daunting as it seems to condense an entire 100,000+ word document into a poem or short story on a single page, I understand what my professor meant. Or, I think I do, in my interpretive lens. The core of our fiction, the essence and concept of it can be condensed down, dulce de leche from cool milk.

What is it about?

If the question “oh, what’s your story about?” makes us shrink, or the answer appears to those potentially interested compatriots as a host of ‘“Well, glad you asked, so there’s this… wait, I should… so my character. My Main, they’re a superhero, but not a superhero like Marvel or DC, they’re more like… remember Image? If you combined Witchblade with… oh, you don’t know… so, it starts out as a romance, but then… well there’s not much I can say without spoiling the plot. You’ll have to read it.”, what do they, or we for that matter, actually know to guide them toward the material? In order for us to write the work we intend, we have to know it, the way a poet knows a rose, or Monet his garden. We must travel down the warren of white rabbits until we’ve discovered the entire deck of cards. Then, with a firm kick, we must topple them over to discover if there was something underneath. There usually is, and like a therapist getting through years of stories until they see the core of a patient’s trauma, we can pull the truth of our stories up no matter where on the comfort or discomfort scale we find ourselves.

For me to know Neon Lieben, I must be able to dissect her, Aderastos, even lively Max until I reach the core.

Who your character is, what they go through is one small part of the inner meaning of a manuscript. They’re defining features, but do not donate meaning. If you want to do this exercise, grab a piece of paper and a pen. Yes, paper and pen. Unless your tablet has a stylus and app you can draw with, analogue is best, trust me. We process things differently in our minds when we type, as opposed to scrawl old school.

What are the first words, which come to mind?

Write them down. Do they connect? Circle and connect with lines those things, which do connect. Write what comes to you. What is this manuscript about?

What do you want readers to come away with, when it’s over? Dig deeper.

Write words down.

Cross out only things which repulse you. Wait for a visceral reaction, highlight that which inspires.

Are there connections? Why or why not? Do not ask another to define it, this exercise is for you alone. If you’re finding nothing but superficialities, go back. Dig deeper, what do the characters want? What do they fear? Are they people on paper, or shadows against Plato’s Cave?

Those connective words left are the core with which you’ll write your poem, or flash fiction.

With flash fiction, we concentrate on one single moment of time, having no luxury for any moment than the direct one we write. When we have less than a thousand words, every single one has to punch above their weight. Which moment do you choose? Is it your main character’s moment? A moment which happens off-narration? A moment which happens in the past, the future, the inciting incident? The climax none get to see?

With poetry, we get to expand our gaze. Poetry can be about a single moment (or a red wheelbarrow beside some chickens), or it could tell the entire history of a generation and its’ albatross. While every word holds weight, we can play with imagery in a way which would make flash fiction non-sequitur.
Which one do you connect to?

Write it down, then set it aside. Forget about it for a week, maybe two. Come back to it and the paperwork from before. See if you want to do the exercise again, and come to a different conclusion.

It’s something I do at the start of a project, but also after a complete draft. An essential part of my process, to ‘check in’ with the work as a whole, and with my subconscious.

Once they’re done, what are your poems about your work? Or flash fiction pieces? I’d love to see them.




A cyberpunk author, poet and editor, Sapha bathes in hard sci-fi, ancient female creators and coffee. Futurism: Only ethical androids need apply.

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Sapha Burnell

Sapha Burnell

A cyberpunk author, poet and editor, Sapha bathes in hard sci-fi, ancient female creators and coffee. Futurism: Only ethical androids need apply.

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