Want to learn how to write flash fiction? A book rec

Flash fiction, which generally refers to short stories under a 1,000 words, pose an enjoyable challenge. You need to work within the tight limits on length to create a memorable story.

If you want to learn more about the different possibilities for flash fiction, I recommend Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook by David Galef.

The book introduces you to different types of super short stories, including character sketches, vignettes, letters, lists, and what-if scenarios explored briefly and powerfully. It offers advice for strengthening your writing, and each section comes with its own writing exercises or prompts. Plus, it serves as a story anthology (with Steve Martin’s “Disgruntled Former Lexicographer” as one of the highlights).

On campaigns against disinformation

I appreciate that Tablet Magazine did this deep dive into government-backed initiatives against disinformation, and how they often just result in more disinformation: propaganda, a manipulation of narratives, a system ensuring that certain facts never surface and that reasonable but uncomfortable questions remain unheard and unaddressed.

One excerpt:

The first phase of the information war was marked by distinctively human displays of incompetence and brute-force intimidation. But the next stage, already underway, is being carried out through both scalable processes of artificial intelligence and algorithmic pre-censorship that are invisibly encoded into the infrastructure of the internet, where they can alter the perceptions of billions of people.

It’s important to make time to read this article and better understand the ways that technology is wielded by powerful entities (governments collaborating with huge corporations) to shape us – what we know, what we think, how we think.

Two types of AI scams

Artificial intelligence is a social disruptor. Although it may deliver benefits across different industries and in private life, it’s also a potential weapon, and there are already scammers taking advantage of it.

In one type of scam, criminals use AI voice-generating software to imitate your loved ones and pretend they’re in distress, maybe suffering a medical or legal emergency. Their goal is to scare you and get you to send money.

Another type of scam uses AI-generated artwork to convince you to donate to what you think is a legitimate charitable cause, like disaster relief for earthquake victims. The images stir up emotions and prompt you to act quickly. But the money just goes to scammers.

A quick productivity tip

This is from Oliver Burkeman on Twitter:

Scheduling a Monday start date for some task, while beginning to work on it a few days earlier, really can make you feel more confident about your progress (even though you know that you engineered the situation to create this feeling). Monday arrives, and you’ll likely be able to check off the task and stay ahead of the schedule that you crafted to your advantage.

When kids are doing worse on standardized tests…

… one solution is to lower testing standards.

In New York State, the Board of Regents plans to reduce the minimal score necessary for a student to be considered proficient in subjects like English and math. From the article at the link:

Last year some schools posted shocking results — in Schenectady, no eighth grader who took the math test scored as proficient.

By reducing the standards of minimal proficiency, we’ll still be able to claim that some kids do know math.

What do people mean by “nice?”

I was talking to a male friend the other day about the expression “nice guys finish last” and why niceness may be looked down on. “Is niceness bad?” was his main question.

And I think it really depends on what people mean by “nice.”

“Nice” doesn’t necessarily mean good, thoughtful, or genuinely kind. For both men and women, it generally refers to something more bland and superficial, like basic manners. So people may wonder if there’s more to you than niceness. What other qualities do you have?

For some individuals, niceness seems like a brittle shell barely covering a miasma of unpleasant or hostile feelings, such as peevishness, rage, self pity, cruel glee, and bitterness. It’s this barely concealed miasma, and not the niceness itself, that tends to push people away.

Another use for “nice” is a description of unassertiveness. (I don’t use “nice” to refer to unassertiveness, but some people do.) A “nice guy” may be someone who lets other people walk all over him. Maybe he doesn’t stand up for himself or show that he has boundaries and standards that help protect him against manipulation or predation. In this sense, “nice” is a softer word for doormat. And if someone behaves like a doormat, they usually don’t get ahead, and they may very well finish last. In any case, it’s possible to be assertive without acting like a jerk, though of course there are people who will step on anybody to get ahead.

Steven Pinker’s Views on Chat GPT

It’s worth reading this piece in the Harvard Gazette, where Pinker gets asked if he thinks that AI is going to supplant human creative and intellectual endeavors.

Overall, he sounds pretty optimistic (though maybe he’s downplaying the shakeup that many will experience as AI advances), but I do want to highlight one part that struck true to me. He points out that one pushback against AI is the need for people to connect with people:

The demand for authenticity is even stronger for intellectual products like stories and editorials: The awareness that there’s a real human you can connect it to changes its status and its acceptability.

Limiting the Experiences Women Can Have as Women

I recently heard an argument that Louisa May Alcott wasn’t a woman – or at least, she wouldn’t have identified as a woman nowadays. Had she been alive today, the argument went, she would’ve identified as a man or maybe another gender identity.

I found the evidence unconvincing, as it amounted to quotes cherry-picked from her diaries with a disregard for context – sometimes textual context but also, more broadly, cultural and historical context. I also found the reasoning fundamentally sexist.

Born in the 1830s, Louisa May Alcott lived in a culture that not only had a more constricted social role for women, but also a narrower view of what a woman should or can be (that a woman must be very feminine, must think a certain way, must act a certain way, and never overstep her bounds).

Alcott didn’t like feminine things. Some of the traits that were dominant in her, such as a love of adventure and a bold assertiveness, were considered men’s traits. Furthermore, she wrote in her diary about falling in love with women – something that, in her culture, was conceived of as a manly thing to do, as only a man would love a woman romantically. (And in the second half of the 19th century, the “inversion theory” of same-sex attraction came about, arguing something similar about the psychological makeup of gay people.)

It’s no wonder that she sometimes used masculine language to describe her longings and her traits. No wonder she struggled with womanhood and how to describe the ways she wasn’t fitting in. (Also, no wonder she was a proponent of women’s rights.) Even nowadays, we still use gender-based or sex-based metaphors for different character traits – for example, saying that somebody “has balls” when they’re being brave.

To say that Alcott shouldn’t be identified as a woman strikes me as profoundly sexist and limiting. The argument boils down to the following: “The fact that she wasn’t comfortable with womanhood means that she wasn’t a woman! If she were actually a woman, she would’ve been comfortable being feminine and settling into a constricted role. She wouldn’t have wanted to be anything else or do anything else. She would never have used masculine terms, even metaphorically or playfully, about herself.”

Many women, however, chafed against narrow roles and narrow conceptions of womanhood. They bent, broke, or played with various stereotypes. That doesn’t mean they stopped being women. To say otherwise is to compress womanhood into a particular personality and a particular way of thinking and feeling. It limits the experiences that women can have as women – and that includes the experience of wanting to not be a woman, for one reason or another.

Just as a personal anecdote, one of my friends growing up was a tomboy who often longed to be a boy, for three main reasons: 1) She was berated by her family for not being feminine (and she wondered why she just couldn’t have been born a boy to avoid the need to be feminine) 2) She found it harder to fit in with girls socially and 3) She hated the changes her body underwent in puberty and how she was sexualized. It was only in college that she became more comfortable with herself and her body; she understood, not just as an abstract idea but as a realization deep in her bones, that she could be a woman while not being feminine – that womanhood doesn’t have to be limited to certain ideas about femininity. (And this was somebody growing up in the late 20th century! Her struggle took place in a society that’s freer for women.)

But, you may argue, maybe Alcott would have identified as a man nowadays. Who can say? Isn’t it a possibility? Her family and friends used the nickname Lou for her (which was a common nickname for any Louisa, including a Louisa more feminine than Alcott was). But maybe Lou in 2022 wouldn’t have identified as a woman at all!

I have no idea what she would have done in the 21st-century USA. You can’t transplant people from one culture or historic era into another and pretend that they would have turned out the same. People aren’t just a product of genetics; they’re also shaped by their culture and upbringing. (Likewise, you can’t interpret everything in history or other cultures through a specific 21st-century viewpoint and pretend that other people would’ve thought about things just as you do.)

Had Alcott been born nowadays, I don’t know what path her life would’ve taken. Maybe she would’ve lived openly as lesbian or bisexual. Maybe she would’ve enlisted in the military and then gotten a job as a war correspondent. Maybe she would’ve worked for an advertising firm or driven an ice cream truck or become a foster parent. Many possibilities.

I hope she wouldn’t have been limited by the imposition of sex stereotypes, as these still flourish nowadays. The pressure to conform to stereotypes is especially hard for girls who don’t fit in socially, who aren’t feminine, or who aren’t comfortable with their bodies (including how they’re constantly sexualized). But the fact is, there’s no ironclad rule about being feminine or being comfortable with social expectations attached to womanhood. Also, there isn’t one way to feel or think as a woman, and there isn’t one female personality. It looks like we still need that reminder.

Being Realistic and Entertaining: A Look at Private Investigator Fiction

When you read or watch fiction involving private investigators, there are two main ways in which they’re unrealistic:

Illegal Activity

Most fictional PIs break the law in blatant ways. Regularly. Some examples:

  • Committing burglary.
  • Illegally hacking into people’s phones or online accounts.
  • Tampering with people’s mail.
  • Sneaking onto people’s property to take photos of them in private places.
  • Impersonating law enforcement.

While I have no doubt that there are some law-breaking PIs in real life, most are going to obey the law, because they would like to keep their license, stay out of jail, and avoid getting sued or having any evidence they provide tossed out of court.

Types of Cases

In fiction, the typical PI investigates murders. A number of them even work alongside the police. They show up to crime scenes, poke and prod the bodies, and stroll around casually dispersing their DNA everywhere.

In real life, private investigators rarely help with murder investigations. If they do, what usually happens is that the family of the victim is frustrated with the progress of the official police investigation. So the family hires a PI to review the evidence, talk to people (including people the police may have already interviewed), and use other tools in the PI arsenal to gather information. Maybe the PI will uncover a new lead or new evidence for the police to follow up on. But they won’t be hanging around the police detectives working on the investigation side-by-side with them.

Real-life cases that PIs work on often involve potentially false insurance claims and other kinds of fraud and dishonesty that are a part of white-collar crimes, civil litigation, or relationship conflicts. They may also help locate missing persons. Sometimes their work contributes to investigations of violent crime; it just isn’t as common.

Realistic Fictional Entertainment?

Are there PI stories that stay within the bounds of real-life legality – and that don’t always involve murder – while also being suspenseful and entertaining? To what extent do you need to bend the rules to keep a story gripping?

Years ago I watched Spotlight, a movie that doesn’t feature PIs but instead focuses on a group of journalists uncovering a sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Something that struck me about this movie is how it depicts journalism realistically. The journalists don’t pull off any daredevil stunts, and there aren’t any wild action sequences. They do a lot of plodding investigative work, like searching through records for hours and persuading people to agree to interviews.

And yet, the movie is still suspenseful. It still has an underlying tension that carries it forward from one scene to another. You sense the high stakes that come with asking the right questions at the most opportune moment. You sense the complex emotions that the journalists feel when uncovering new information.

I’m interested in fiction that can more or less stay within the so-called boring rules of reality while still providing a great story and great characterizations. In the area of PIs, are there any fictional ones who are sticklers for the law while still pursuing complex and exciting cases?

Does the Lake in Your Story Need to Be Blue?

When you learn how to draw, one of the things you need to resist is your brain’s desire for a shortcut.

For example, when you want to draw an eye, the brain is going to offer you an abstract version of an eye, an oval with a circle in it. This is a shortcut, something that can easily get across the idea of “eye” without much effort.

These shortcuts have their uses. If you’re playing Pictionary, the oval and circle can easily communicate “eye” to your teammates. Same goes for when you need a representation of an eye in a lecture you’re giving, a lesson you’re teaching.

But if you want to draw an eye more realistically, you realize that there isn’t one shape for it. The shape of an eye depends on an individual’s characteristics, the angle at which you’re seeing the eye, the shadows on the face. In a painting, an eye may be nothing more than a dark slash or a glimmer of light.

You have to override the brain’s bias towards a simple shortcut and instead see the eye as it is, or see new creative possibilities for it.

In writing too there’s a tendency to default to the brain’s shortcuts. You’re writing about a lake, and you automatically decide to describe it as blue. This is your brain’s default color for water and the way you picture it.

There’s nothing wrong with a blue lake per se. The lake you’re writing about may be a brilliant blue color. But it’s worth stopping and thinking about whether blue is the best description for your lake, or just what your brain had the easiest time coming up with.

Maybe the lake is gray or black, because the day is overcast. Or maybe it’s blanketed in neon green algae. There may be patterns to the colors of the lake, like the fact that it’s reflecting trees in autumn.

Ultimately, you may decide to stick with blue as a description of your lake. Even then, if you’ve given your blue lake some thought, it will more likely have a unique quality. You’ll make it your own lake and not just the generic result of a brain taking the path of least effort.