“The Bitter Kind”: A Recipe for Flash Fiction Collaboration by James Claffey & Tara Lynn Masih

Ryan Bollenbach here. Heavy Feather Review is publishing short pieces on the blog from writers who have collaborated on previous projects in order to give potential collaborators ideas and stoke excitement for The Zachary Doss Friends in Letters Memorial Fellowship (collaboration itself being the biggest takeaway I hope to create from all this). Please read about my late friend Zach and consider creating work for the fellowship. After May 31, I will award $50 to four pairs of writers who have collaborated, winning praise from friends of Zach, Brandi Wells and Leia Penina Wilson—and myself. The friends’/comrades’ work will appear in print in HFR Vol. 11.

I have asked numerous collaborators to contribute a piece about their process, and we’re taking a very liberal definition of collaboration here, so however they wanted to talk about their collaboration is welcome. Translators may make a run at collaboration in this regard. I provided sample questions but these features don’t have to be a one for one interview format, no siree. Collaborators might interview each other, or create some document such as Polaroids from a fake stan, etc. However, some collaborators have chosen to simply answer the questions, which is also great. Deviation is, of course, welcome.

James Claffey grew up in Dublin, Ireland, and currently lives in California. His collection of short fiction, Blood a Cold Blue, is published by Press 53. He is currently putting the finishing edits to a novel set in 1980s Dublin. His short fiction piece “Skull of a Sheep,” which first appeared in the New Orleans Review, is in W. W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International. His flash fiction “Kingmaker,” which first appeared in Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art, also features in W. W. Norton’s New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. “The Third Time My Father Tried to Kill Me” was published in The Best Small Fictions 2015, and he was a finalist in The Best Small Fictions 2016. His work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, and when not writing he teaches high school English in Santa Barbara.

Tara Lynn Masih is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle (both Foreword Books of the Year), author of the story collection Where the Dog Star Never Glows, and Founding Series Editor of The Best Small Fictions. Her flash has been heavily anthologized in such collections as Brevity & Echo; Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose; Nothing Short of 100; and in W. W. Norton’s New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. My Real Name Is Hanna, her debut novel, was a National Jewish Book Awards Finalist and winner of a Julia Ward Howe Award.

In October 2020, Claffey & Masih will release a collaboratively written novelette in flash, The Bitter Kind, with Červená Barva Press. Below is their formula for writing together. From the publisher: “In this original tale of loss and love, The Bitter Kind deftly alternates between Stela, the daughter of a ship’s captain, burdened by her family secrets, and Brandy, a Chippewa orphan, haunted by ghost wolves and spirits. The authors cross genres and borders between historical and contemporary, speculative and realistic, presenting two unforgettable characters on a journey toward their inevitable, fateful destination.”



2 collaborators (may use more): Must be able to get along for an extended period of time. Must be patient. Deadlines stretch out, life intervenes, and collaboration continues beyond the creative work.

1 part inspiration, 2 parts sweat: Must find a common goal, image, intention; must share a similar work ethic. Because writing is work and it’s not always fun. A willingness to listen, to see the other side of the story is necessary. But when it is fun, nothing beats sharing!

2 computers, 1 platform: Must be able to share files and agree on the method of structuring the collaboration.

1-2 characters (may use more): This might be the hardest ingredient to find. If you can’t come up with any, do what we did: borrow characters from your own literary works and expand on them in some way. Play with gender (Tara = male, Brandy; James = female, Stela). Think outside the box.

1 setting (may use more): Make setting a character. Stretch yourselves. Use research to fill the holes of knowledge and memory, know the specific flora and fauna of the setting.

1 beginning: You must eventually have one, but no need to start there.

1 conclusion (may have more): You must have a conclusion, but you might prefer to write to one instead of knowing it ahead of time. We knew our conclusion. The fun was building the back story.

1 genre (may combine more): The genre you choose to collaborate in might drive some collaboration. We chose literary; it allowed us more room in which to experiment, and some magical realism crept in!

Mix together the collaborators, the inspiration, the sweat, and the computer platforms. Stay organized (it’s easy to lose track of files when more than one person is working on them). Give your characters life (or death) and keep layering the recipe. In our case, we each discovered little details that the other included and expanded on them in our own sections. This provides complex flavor, depth and discovery. Write what you know, and write what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to go off the tracks with the story. There is someone there to catch you if you fail. Never let setting blend into the background. Prompt each other to reach for more. Pay attention to the details, check the specifics, the historic reference points. Be gentle. Be playful in the writing. Laugh. Again, be patient (life will interrupt).

Allow all collaboration to marinate for at least a few months. It won’t look the same when you return. You’ll know how to fix the problems.

Serves: Unlimited servings; share the spoils, the victories and defeats. Your names will always be linked, as well as your characters’ names.

Note: There are different ways to collaborate. Some write alternating chapters or sections, which was our method, some write a sentence, then allow the other to write the next, etc.; some give each other prompts, and revise each other’s work. Appreciate and acknowledge the strengths of your collaborator. Whatever method you choose, respect is the main starter ingredient and communication is the yeast that allows the work to rise and prosper.

To learn more about The Bitter Kind, contact Lori at TNBBC Publicity, read Claffey’s blog The Wrong Corner of the Sky, or visit Masih’s author website.

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