While it’s good to hear from readers, I’ve learnt to be wary of students from creative writing courses enquiring about my short fiction, a few of whom seem to have selected my stories at random in the hope I’ll complete their course work on their behalf. Lauren Lara is not like that. With a deeper understanding of what makes fiction work than I have, I feel honoured by her expression of interest in my flash fiction and grateful she’s agreed to share some of her knowledge on my blog. Following on from Shelley Weiner’s guest post on the elements of the short story, I hope you enjoy Lauren’s contribution as much as I have.
by L. C. Lara
Flash fiction, a genre made popular by our increased use of technology and fast-paced lifestyles, is said to have origins dating back to Aesop’s Fables. Tara Masih, the editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, even goes so far as to suggest ancient chants as the starting point for very short stories.
Flash Fiction is only one of many names given to this condensed genre. Labels for the genre vary country to country, editor to editor, and by story length. Sudden, Micro, Nano, Hint, Short-short, Napkin, Pocket-sized, and Postcard are a few alternative labels provided by editors like Robert Shapard and Tara Masih. So, if you get ready to submit for publication and can’t find Flash Fiction listed, check to see if it’s categorized under another title on the submissions page. For example, Sudden refers to stories of 1,500 words; Flash word limits vary (typically capping at 750-1,000); and Nano is reserved for shorter word limits of 100-300 words. There are even stories limited to 140 characters.
If you want to try your hand at writing Flash Fiction, here are a few things you should know:
Flash fiction welcomes risk-taking, but it is more than just an experiment. Pamelyn Casto claims that Flash Fiction is good for the experimental writing of stories and gives examples such as a magazine quiz, bulletin board messages, and telephone answering machine messages. Flash is a good place to experiment, to learn, and to challenge oneself as a writer. It’s easier to discard a 500-word story if you don’t like it than it is to trash an entire novel. In another essay, Deb Olin Unferth suggests:
Flash fiction is a place for reckless daring. You write strange sentences in a new voice. You attempt a bold plot structure. You explore a topic you’ve always avoided…you must also take risks…the effect of the short is fast (even if the making of it isn’t) and yet complete. (116)
If tempted to think Flash is only for amateur writers and workshop papers, Robert Shapard reminds us that “great writers have been writing very short stories since long before the novel. Petronius wrote short-shorts in ancient Rome, and Marie de France wrote them in medieval times.” He lists writers like Borges, Cortazar, Kafka, Calvino, Dinesen, and Kawabata as some of the well-known twentieth century writers who wrote in this condensed form.
Flashes are compressed, but most believe they are still complete stories. There is some debate among writers as to whether or not Flash must be a complete story. Some writers argue that Flash must include all story elements; while proponents of experimental Flash are more inclined to disagree. Although Flash stories have plot, they seem to be emotion-driven over plot-driven.
In Michael Martone’s essay, “Title: The Title: A short short story’s own short short story,” he explains:
I have noticed that the genre’s most definite defining instruction found in the guidelines for contest and anthology solicitations spells out the length of ‘short.’ It seems length is, perhaps, our only agreed upon convention…Often, the only defining characteristic of the short short story is the kind of length, or lack thereof…a kind of essential DNA, as close as we get to formula or rules (45).
The essay, “Writing Fixed-Form Narratives: Who’s going to stop you?,” by Bruce Holland Rogers, tells us, “Since definitions are hard to pin on a moving target, I don’t sweat definitions much. For me flash is short…the essence of flash fiction is in how I experience it as a reader and working writer. Flash fiction is fleeting and ephemeral…strike a deep and life-enhancing chord” (143).
Ambiguity calls for a working relationship between the writer and her reader. With ever shrinking word limits, fitting all elements into the story becomes a greater challenge and what is left unsaid becomes increasingly important. There is no room for sloppy writing in Flash, every word must be pertinent to the story. Flash writing is precise. Al-Sharqi and Abbasi remind us, “In the flash fiction, conflict produces tension by not only what is said, but also what is only subtly implied… Suggestion is a valuable way of informing readers indirectly, about the story’s substance.”
The blanket term “Flash Fiction” covers a wide range of sub-genres, styles, and forms. There is no one specific definition of Flash Fiction that all experts seem to agree on, but each of their definitions call for brevity. Flash can be:
- Romantic, surreal, political, moral, satirical, humorous…
- Mysteries, thrillers, fantasies, memoir, fables, literary…
- Written in traditional story form, as strictly dialogue, as a list of instructions, a questionnaire, a news article…
There aren’t many limits placed on the genre.
And in case you’re wondering what to do with all of those Flash stories you’ve written:
There is a market for Flash. There are markets for general Flash Fiction, markets specifically for Creative Nonfiction, Science Fiction, Flash/Prose Poetry crossovers, and more. Flash Fiction can be found in online journals as well as print and online anthologies. Flash novels and single author story collections are also growing in popularity. Flash Fiction has even come off the page with Flash Fiction open mic readings and podcasts. Apps have even been created to send daily stories to readers through text message. Contests and story prompts exist online through blogs and social media. There are many more markets for Flash than what are linked in this post. A quick web search will provide you with numerous other submission opportunities.
So get going, innovate and experiment. Challenge yourself to create a compressed story, cultivate a symbiotic relationship with readers. Most importantly: just write!
Thank you, Lauren, and I look forward to checking out those links.
See also Lauren’s latest blog post about overcoming submission anxiety.
Follow these links for my 99-word microfiction and for my published flash fiction under 1000 words.