Small Miracles: Sweet-Talking Short Pieces from Your Full-Length Manuscript

April 20, 2021 § 22 Comments

By Alle C. Hall

It is a marvel, to create an entire world and a complete life in 500-5000 words—especially if you hope to do so by pulling a few paragraphs or pages from a full-length manuscript. Be warned, however: creating short, standalone pieces is just as consuming—if not more so—than starting from the God-space of The Blank Page.

There is dejection is leaving out the 70-or-so thousand words that took years to write. We ask ourselves, Is my work is superfluous, the time wasted? That fear makes us want to cling to each syllable, to stuff the entire story into the excerpt.

Forcing too much was the mistake I saw most often, as Associate Editor for Vestal Review (flash fiction under 500 words) and Senior Nonfiction Editor for jmww journal (500-4000). Even if the submission came in under word count, an overriding heaviness persisted.

When adapting, it is essential to let the new piece grow free of the existing prose—even if this creates dissonance between the full narrative and the emerging short piece. Focus on a moment of change that drives to a realization and then dissolves, movie-scene-change-like, into resolution.

You’re more likely to find a workable excerpt in your opening chapters, where exposition is built in. I’ve excerpted as far into a manuscript as chapter ten out of twenty-two, but those shorts came from a travel adventure. “Place” was constantly refreshing itself and new characters entering offered new perspectives.

My own work-in-progress, “American Mary,” involves a marriage of two chapters into a short story. I started with a 3800-word chapter, “North.” In taking a fresh crack at it as a short story, well! Why did I think the reader needed to know how the protagonist found a hotel? How she checked in—zzzzzzzzzz … sorry, dozed off there for a moment.

Once you have found a likely few paragraphs or pages:

  •  Drop the reader, boom, into the most active section. No exposition.
  • The first sentence should be clear to the point of simple: subject-verb-object establishing who and where, who and what, or what and where. From Alice Munro’s mesmerizng “Red Dress—1946”: My mother was making me a dress.
  • To create simple sentences, even long simple sentences, delete every adjective and adverb. Munro’s second sentence: All through [WHEN] the month of November I would come from school and [WHERE] find her in the kitchen, surrounded by [WHAT] cut-up red velvet and scraps of tissue-paper pattern.
  • Replace conjunctions (I’m looking at you, “but”) with a noun or verb. See where that takes you. An existing sentence from “American Mary”: I’d escaped my father. But with Jean; if I could feel anything, it would be terror. New sentence: I’d escaped my father. Jean, however—if I could feel anything, it would be terror.
  • Kill backstory. Clarify only that which needs to be explained, and only as you encounter it. My writing mentor, Carlie L. Glickfeld, says “Move relentlessly forward.”
  • Rid the piece of the tangents that a longer work allows. Existing sentence from “American Mary”:  … my Lonely Planet guidebook, yellow and green cover proclaiming ‘Southeast Asia on a Shoestring’. New sentence:  … my Lonely Planet guidebook.
  • Banish transitions. Paragraph-return! New section!
  • Some prepositions can be disposed of. Existing sentence: She swung sinewy legs to the bar by crossing them, so that two guys approached. New sentence: She swung sinewy legs by crossing them, throwing around a great deal of hair in the process. Two guys approached.
  • Don’t be shy about pulling from various parts of the manuscript to make the short piece work.

I’d converted the original chapter to 2500 words. But now I had a piece that would be markedly more difficult to place—between the 1000-1500 many literary magazines expected for a flash and the 5,000 expected for a short.

To nurture my 2500, I went back 50 pages in the manuscript and annexed half of another chapter, one that I’d previously considered adapting. Even so, as many times as I read it, it never struck me as having the “there” there. Coupling it with “North,” however, enriched both: “Mary” sets up “North”; “North” brings “Mary” to fruition; and the piece moves toward wholeness, which is critical in excerpting. The adaptation should benefit from brevity. You might begin by asking yourself: Why does the new piece I imagine need to be told as a short?

The converse is also true. After you’ve played with a section, miraculously, you will find that your original draft could use a good weeding. Your new story will act as a napkin-sketch for excavation. Ultimately, I pruned the chapter I added and, behold! Sentences had deep subtext, huge chunks of exposition tidied up, sentences with multiple clauses blended into clean-lined rows.

Trust yourself: as challenging as it may seem, you may have the miracle of the short draft in your full-length work.


Alle C. Hall’s work placed as finalist for the 2021 Lascaux Prize and as a semi-finalist for the New Guard Machigonne Fiction Contest. Other work appears in Evergreen Review, Litro, Tupelo Quarterly, Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Another Chicago, Literary Orphans, and The Citron Review. She placed First in The Richard Hugo House New Works Competition, and is a Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net nominee. Alle blogs at About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children. Find her on Twitter @allechall1

Review of Flash Fiction International

June 30, 2015 § 2 Comments

Flash Fiction International pbk mech.inddA review by Sarah Freligh:

In 1992, James Thomas concluded his introduction to the anthology Flash Fiction by  wondering “whether ‘flash fiction’ will be an avid endeavor of the present literary generation.” Twenty-three years later, evidenced by the recently published Flash Fiction International edited by Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill, the answer would seem to be a resounding yes, yes indeed. Representing six continents and roughly four dozen  countries, the eighty-six stories collected in this anthology suggest that flash is not only alive but thriving.

Though the book’s title announces the anthology as “flash fiction,” the introduction often refers to the form simply as “flash”—not merely, I suspect, in the interest of brevity. Rather, by opting not to corral these works into the small pen of a specific genre, the suggestion is that flash transcends genre, that the best works are hybrids combining craft aspects of both prose and poetry. Indeed, what’s collected in this volume include not only fiction, but prose poems and brief nonfictions as well. So whether a story is fact or fiction seems of less interest to the anthology’s editors than the question “is this flash?”  That ongoing conversation comprises the section at the end of the anthology, “Flash Theories,” in which practitioners offer up a feast of ideas ranging from the appeal of flash to nuts and bolts advice about craft.

Though diverse in form and varying in length, what these eighty-six pieces do share is an allegiance to the classic mode of storytelling in which conflict is introduced immediately—what Janet Burroway refers to in her book Imaginative Writing: The Element of Craft as “a state of unstable equilibrium.” Take “Lost,” by Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet, which opens, “In a country filled with missing people, disappearing is easy” (85). Or “The Snake” by Kenyan writer Eric Rugara with the ominous introductory sentence “The kid saw it first” (73). Or Cate McGowan’s “Arm, Clean Off,” which wastes no time getting down to the title’s nitty-gritty: “The irrigation machine took it, slashed his arm off, a thick gash and a click of bones as it sliced right through” (158). Read that sentence out loud and listen to how the assonant rhyme of the last three syllables demands that we slow down, linger on the horror of the opening image. It’s prose, but it’s poetry, too.

While the Internet has created a kind of borderless publishing house that has contributed to the flourishing of flash worldwide, these stories counter the notion that “brief” serves up literary fast food to be inhaled and forgotten. “Brief” here does not mean a quick nor easy read. Though short in compass, each of these stories is dense, rich in subtext. They require us to read and read again, to dig beyond the surface glitter of beautifully rendered images and sculpted sentences and go vertically in search of the vein of gold. As Richard Bausch suggests:

When a story is compressed so much, the matter of it tends to require more size: that is, in order to make it work in so small a space its true subject must be proportionately larger (233).

Ultimately, these are stories that linger and haunt, that go on after the last sentence has ended. I think of “That Color” by British writer Jon McGregor, a deceptively simple story of an extended moment at home between a long-married couple, an unnamed, archetypal “he” and “she.” Told from the vantage point of the husband, the story accrues its quiet power in alternating narrative and dialogue that slowly pulls the curtain away to suggest the wife’s plight. The story ends as quietly as it begins, with two concluding sentences that land like punches: “I felt for her hand and held it. I said, But tell me again” (147).

Such is the power of story, of these stories: To tell us, again and again.


Sarah Freligh is the author of A Brief Natural History of an American Girl, winner of the Editor’s Choice award from Accents Publishing, and Sort of Gone, a book of poems that follows the rise and fall of a fictional pitcher named Al Stepansky. Sad Math, the winner of the Moon City Poetry Award, is forthcoming in November 2015. Recent work has been featured on Verse Daily, in The Sun Magazine, Brevity, Rattle, Barn Owl Review, and in the 2011 anthology Good Poems: American Places. Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.

Fish Flash

February 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

fishWe are all about flash nonfiction here at Brevity, but our pals at SmokeLong Quarterly like it short and fictionalized, and they’re offering a $500 Kathy Fish Fellowship. Here’s what you need to do:

Go to SmokeLong‘s Submittable Portal.

1. Answer the question: “What about flash fiction appeals to you, and what do you hope to accomplish with your writing if you are chosen as the fellow? ” in less than 300 words.

2. Four samples of your flash fiction (stories of 1000 words or less). Please include word count after the title of each story. These samples may be unpublished or previously published in venues other than SmokeLong. The writing samples should, as a whole, best reflect your ability, style(s), etc. Show us who you are as a writer through these samples.

There is no application fee. Application deadline is March 31, 2013.

The submission portal doesn’t open until March 1st, but details are here.


Wanted: The Flash

November 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Marie Alexander Poetry Series Press is putting together an anthology of prose Flash Sequences.

Below are guidelines from the Marie Alexander site:

  • A flash sequence is an accumulation of two or more prose pieces, with each segment not to exceed 500 words.
  • Writers may submit more than one flash sequence; however, each writer’s total submission may not exceed 10 pages (double-spaced, 12-point type, one-inch margins).
  • We encourage submissions of every sort; rather than try to define the form, we hope each writer will use whatever organizing principle seems best in any particular case: fiction, nonfiction, prose-poetry, whatever.
  • Email pdf files of submission and cover letter to Wesley Fairman at
  • Please use “Anthology Submission” as the subject line.
  • Make sure author’s name and email is on all attached documents.
  • Previously published material is okay as long as author holds the copyright.
  • We will accept submissions from January 1 until June 1, 2013.

Hayden’s Ferry Review Says “We Want Short Forms!”

November 1, 2010 § 1 Comment

From the HFR Folks:

Hayden’s Ferry Review is calling for flash fiction, prose poetry and short essays on/about/exploring these forms for our Spring/Summer 2011 issue. Our special focus on short forms is designed to explore and celebrate big achievements in small spaces.

In addition to this general call for short forms, we’re also asking writers to respond to the issue’s cover image, a photograph taken by artist Christian Houge on the island of Svalbard. Responses to the image should be in either prose poetry or flash fiction forms. HFR editors will select one of each genre to be printed on the inside of our Spring/Summer issue’s cover.

To see the cover image and learn more about this submission call visit:

The submission deadline is December 15th. / Hayden’s Ferry Review pays its contributors.

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