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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Thoughts on Flash Fiction

Recently a short-short story of mine - a piece of flash fiction - got accepted into an anthology of horror due out in March. Although I prefer to write longform fiction, I've had good luck with shorter pieces, so I thought I would share my notes from several conference seminars I've given on writing flash fiction.


 Flash fiction isn’t anything new. Think Aesop.  It goes by many names: micro-fiction, postcard fiction, flash fiction, hint fiction. The short-short form rises to prominence in cycles. We are currently in an upswing  in popularity that started gathering momentum in the 1980s and is now a recognizable tsunami.  Its current appeal is due in large part to a readership used to swallowing their entertainment in short, pungent bits and bites - hit-and-run literary graffiti. Adding to its popularity is the use of handheld devices that accommodate stories that fit on one page. 

For most editors, "flash fiction" constitutes a tale between 300-1000 words long. It's longer than micro-fiction (10-300 words) but shorter than traditional short stories (3000-8000 words preferred by most magazines). Flash fiction is usually a story of a single act, sometimes the culmination of several unwritten events that sit within a larger, silent but implied context.Whatever you call it, it's a distinct genre that has its own markets, typically online zines and collections that publish stories under 1,000 words. Notice that markets define the genre differently in terms of word count, narrative style, and subject matter, so before you submit your work, be sure to check out each publication carefully. Read samples of what's been published and you'll see how wide the range is.

 "Flash" fiction has been too quickly dismissed by those who consider it easy, lazy writing that hardly requires the writer to break a sweat. But the fact is that any writing you do is a chance to extend your skill, especially if it involves reaching beyond your comfort zone. If you've tried your hand at writing these tasty bon mots, you'll know in a flash that there's nothing lazy about crafting a story of this size.  In fact, you may find yourself polishing and tweaking and revising it in an endless loop until you must force yourself to let go of it. In long fiction you can occasionally get away with a paragraph of prose that's less than stellar, but in a short-short, every word, even the articles and conjunctions, count and bear weight. Sometimes substituting "a" for "the" can change the entire sense of a paragraph.

 Remember Polonius, that guy in Hamlet? He's the one who claimed "brevity is the soul of wit." Flash fiction is nothing if not pithy and fairly begs to get turned into a setup for a one-line joke. A common misconception, though, is that the shorter the story, the easier it is to tell. Of course, as writers we know better. Mark Twain said it best: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." It's extremely challenging to capture the essence of character, setting, and plot in just a few pithy paragraphs.

In my mind, what sets well-executed flash fiction apart from near misses is that it avoids being just a terse character sketch or a quick glimpse into a scene. A classic fault is taking a short story and editing out all its flair in an attempt to create a flash story. The thing that makes it worth reading is not the clever language you crammed into 700 words, but how well you were able to seat those 700 words into a larger context of meaning. The best of flash fiction delivers that literary punch to the gut or tug on the emotions that you expect of longer fiction, but with more concentrated oomph. When the larger implications of the flash hit the reader, there's an aha! or oh fuck moment you didn't quite see coming. In the hands of a true prose stylist, these little stories can be jaw dropping or guffaw inducing, or both. Look no further than Robert Olen Butler's published collections Severance and Intercourse

Well, that's a start. Tomorrow I'll post some techniques and guidelines for crafting flash fiction that's sellable, because of course you want to publish that little gem you've labored over. Don't you?

1 comment:

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