Flash fiction - all you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask...

I hope all is well in your writing world, wherever you be!

Now - in response to a writer who asked me to write a post about flash fiction - here you go. 

The trouble with flash fiction or any of the other names this marvellous form goes by - sudden fiction, micro fiction, one-page fiction, short short stories - and on and on, is that it is extremely hard to pin down. And actually, that is part of its attraction, both for writers and readers. One of the issues is immediately obvious, when you look through the market guidelines for potential submissions - the wordcounts vary hugely. Sometimes it is defined as ‘a fiction of under 1000 words’. Sometimes higher. Sometimes, it is ‘under 500’, or 300, or 250. Sometimes it is ‘one page only’. Then, of course, there are the subdivisions. A drabble is a fiction of exactly 100 words. Then there is the dribble, (yes there is...) at 50 words.  And I’m sure there are others being invented every day.

    Perhaps the shortest, the completest, shortest story every writer knows, is this - the six worder written by Ernest Hemingway, 

“For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Sorry if this is one you’ve seen before, and are fed up with seeing - but it is a rather good example of what flash fiction is, so bear with me. Consider your own reactions to this little story, the first time you saw it. Odds are, as you read, you began to feel something  - sad, probably, as you began to understand something about the scenario here.

   The narrator says nothing at all about the circumstances. He does not tell you anything much. He simply makes a statement, a simple advert, for heaven’s sake. He has some shoes for sale. But here is where the power of a well-done flash comes in ... you, the reader, fill in what is not said.

(There is a much fuller analysis of the story on the excellent website Flash Fiction - and here is the link:-  http://flashfiction.net/2011/01/hemingway-for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn.php. That site includes many good examples of flash fiction listed as links by the authors’ names - and discussions, articles, lists of journals and so forth. There are many more markets  for flash work listed on the website of the writer Tania Hershman - follow the link from Flash Fiction or go to www.taniahershman.com)

I have judged a few flash competitions - among them the inaugural Fish One-Page Prize, Bloomsbury Writers and Artists Yearbook, and Lightship, and I am always struck by the number of entries that seem to be simply a paragraph or two sliced from something else. As if it is only a matter of wordcount - when it is not that at all!

       A good piece of flash fiction, for me, is one in which I, as reader, am not just complicit, but necessary. I am needed to add something important - to fill in the spaces left in the weave of words. Just as the short story is often described as being akin to poetry, flash fictions (or any of the other names they go under) are that little bit closer to poetry again.

      I think ‘flash’ is a good name - and I have often written that a flash story is something like seeing a darkened room illuminated for a second by a bright light. You have time to take in most of it - but not all. You have time to notice things, but not the whole. Your mind works on the image, recalls what you have seen, and pieces it together again - adding context. The shadow in the corner... what was it? Was that door ajar? Who was that on the bed? Why were there three glasses on the floor?

     But as ever, the opposite is also true, name-wise. ‘Flash’ perhaps gives the impression that these little pieces are easy to write, quick and meaningless. Oh sure, I know some who dash pieces off, and think that is it. Done, finished - and indeed, there is nothing wrong with using the liberating technique of fast unfettered writing (the ‘flash’ process). I use it all the time myself in the hopes of creating fresh characters, voices and scenarios. But the very best pieces of flash fiction you read will have been carefully scrutinised at the rewriting stage, each phrase, each word examined to ensure it really does earn its place.

There is nothing better than reading them for yourself, to see what I mean. The internet is a marvellous medium for flash publication - spend a few hours seeking them out, and you will soon find work that makes you shake your head - and then suddenly, something else that makes you see what I’m talking about - because it shines!

if anyone wishes to learn more, there is an excellent book, ‘A Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction’, published by Rose Metal Press (US). It is available from the usual suspects in the UK as well. And there is a superb chapter on flash fiction in ‘Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story,’ by the writer mentioned above, Tania Hershman, who is one of the UK’s foremost proponents of the form.

But enough of the plugs! If you go to the wonderful, useful Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook website, http://www.writersandartists.co.uk/2012/02/flash-fiction you will see an article I wrote for them a while back. The competition is finished now - but the article contains not only a list of terrific published writers of flash, but also a fun writing exercise... perfect for creating something fresh and new... who knows, maybe the beginnings of your own great flash?

Happy writing!


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