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Flash Fiction by Les Stephenson

*Up From Down Under*

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*Column Editor - Les Stephenson*
 

Up From Down Under

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Flash Fiction

So, you’re interested in flash fiction? You’re certainly not alone. It’s a "worldwide phenomenon," (1) with print magazines and internet sites dedicated to writing and reading flash fiction. Anthologies of flash have appeared.

Do you have a good idea for a story, but can’t see it developing very far? The expert advice says: "Write it, feel it, grow with it. This is flash fiction."(2)

Don’t casually dismiss flash fiction. It’s here to stay and there are markets paying for it.

 

How long is a piece of … (flash)?

I assume you remember the proverbial question "How long is a piece of string?" These days it could be revised to "How long is a piece of flash?"

The answers, of course, vary. Flash fiction itself goes under sub-guises. "…fast fiction, sudden fiction, mini fiction…minute fiction, postcard fiction…micro-fiction…" (3)

One name I particularly liked, although I’ve never been a smoker, is "…the smoke-long story (just long enough to read while smoking a cigarette)."1 I have no idea how long it takes to smoke a cigarette, but that doesn’t really matter. You could read flash fiction while sitting on the toilet and call it whatever you like!

Oh, okay. I know some of you like numbers and statistics. Here’s a sum-up from looking at the literature and websites specialising in flash:

* micro-fiction covers anything up to 300 words.

* flash fiction is between 300 and 1000 words, with an average story being around 750 words.

But, and it’s a big BUT - if you plan on writing and submitting flash for publication be sure to check the submissions guidelines of the publishers. Many state specific requirements and will not even scan pieces beyond their word limits.

One site, Storybytes.com, only accepts submissions if the length is a power of 2. (That means 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, and so on up to 2048 words.)

 

Too short for you?

Do you read poetry?

Flash has been accused of pandering to the unintelligent whose attention spans are limited. However, such critics are silenced when an honest comparison is made to poetry – is that fodder for idiots?(4)

Consider the current popularity of sonnets (14 lines), limericks (5 lines), epigrams (short, witty poems), and the Japanese forms of senryu and haiku (3 lines, 17 syllables), plus tanka (5 lines, 31 syllables). Are the masters of such forms, or the aspiring-masters, just indulging the uneducated? Definitely not! Such a suggestion is ridiculous.

Tom Hazuka, who helped compile the first modern anthology of flash, aptly entitled Flash Fiction, adamantly stated "…length is not the distinguishing feature of quality."(4)

Pamela Casto, who offers online Flash Fiction Workshops claims that flash fiction "…can show us what ‘Keats said of poetry, ‘Infinite riches in a small room.’"(1)

 

Is it new?

Although the short story has a history back to at least Aesop’s fables1, flash fiction appears to have gained impetus from, and indeed owes its modern over-arching name to, Flash Fiction, an "anthology of extremely short stories" published by W.W. Norton & Company in June of 1992.(4)

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, we find:

Edgar Allan Poe (1808 – 1849), whose shorter stories would fall within our modern definition, is said to have "...concluded that, at least where literature was concerned, long and great were contradictory terms."(5)

Anton Chekhov (1860 -1904)…who once said, "I can speak briefly on long subjects."(1)

Jorge Luis Borges (1899 -1986). Arguably one of the finest writers of the 20th century. "Some of his pieces run only a half page long, and some even less."(1)

 

How do you flash?

To write flash/micro fiction you must appreciate the essentials of the genre. I’ve condensed the following points from my own experience and the writings of Camille Renshaw6, G W Thomas7, and T Myer(8).

1- Start strong. Use snappy dialogue, description or metaphor. First person is good for flash.

2- Make sure you include the basic elements of a story: setting, conflict and resolution. Beware of repeating anecdotes or describing situations – they may not be stories.

3- Write tight. Choose your words carefully. The tone of the story is important. Tone has to do with the emotion within your story as painted by your word choice, rhythm and the images you conjure. Use action verbs and remember: Show, don’t tell.

4- Edit and re-edit. Good flash, including micro-fiction, takes time to mature. It’s not two-minute noodles. I advise writing your first draft then putting it away – don’t look at it for at least 24 hours. Then edit it. Put it away again. After another day do a thorough ‘hatchet job’ on it. Now, count the number of words and do a final edit to see if you can reduce it by one-third. Have you killed all adverbs and other superfluous words?

5- Imagery – you only have time for one important image. If the image misleads the reader, that’s good. Keep your readers guessing.

6- Implication. The more you imply, the less you need to explain. Use allusions to general knowledge of historical events or famous situations.

7- A twist in the tail, or punch line, is a good ending. Michael Mallory, a widely published crime writer, once recommended his practice of using jokes in creating flash fiction mysteries.9 The reader should react in some emotional manner, such as laugh, smile, or even weep.

8- Aim for: minimum words, maximum effect.

Although unaware of Michael Mallory’s advice, my first attempt at micro-fiction (15 December 2004) was based on one of the oldest and most clichéd jokes I knew:

The Answer

It beckoned him all his life. 'Take the chance,' it said.

He was sick of being cooped up. The grass looked greener on the other side.


Plucking up enough courage, he ran.

The chicken crossed the road.

I would probably prune a few words, if writing it today. However, it does meet the requirements of setting, conflict and resolution.

Consider this flash that has been called "The World’s Shortest Horror Story"(7):

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.

In my opinion, it doesn’t meet the requirements. It lacks resolution. It’s a situation, not a story, but it could easily be changed from a horror situation to a piece of romantic flash:

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door. It was the last woman.

There we have setting, conflict, and a twist that provides resolution.

Okay, it’s over to you. Your turn next.

 

Where should you flash?

There’s a huge and expanding market for flash fiction. I’ve listed some websites for you below. Remember to check the submission guidelines – each site differs in what they require or will accept.

 

"Let your creative spirit soar and get lost in the fun and power of writing flash fiction!"(10)

 

Quoted and Cited References

1- Casto, Pamelyn. Flashes On The Meridian: Dazzled by Flash Fiction.

http://www.heelstone.com/meridian/meansarticle1.html

2- Heffernan, Pamela. Why Write Flash Fiction?

http://www.fictionfactor.com/guests/why.html

3- Porterfield, Kay Marie. Ten Reasons to Try Flash Fiction.

http://www.kporterfield.com/journal/flash.html

4- Hazuka, Tom. Flash Fiction: A Thumbnail History. 1998

http://wwwenglish.ucdavis.edu/spark/issue3/thflash.htm

5- Goodstein, Jack. Flash Fiction: Good Things Come in Small Packages.

http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/apr02/goodstein.htm

6- Renshaw, Camille. The Essentials of Micro-Fiction.

http://www.pifmagazine.com/SID/313

7-Thomas, G W. Writing Flash Fiction.

http://www.fictionfactor.com/guests/flashfiction.html

8- Myer, T. Writing Erotic Flash Fiction.

http://www.katyterrega.com/flashfiction.html

9- Mallory, Michael. Writing Hot Flashes.

http://www.thewindjammer.com/smfs/newsletter/html/hotflashes.html

10- Heffernan, Pamela. From Beginning to End – In a Flash! 2004

http://www.fictionfactor.com/guests/flash.html

 

 

Markets

http://www.flashquake.org/

http://www.storybytes.com/

http://www.vestalreview.net/

http://smokelong.com/home.asp

http://apollos-lyre.com/

http://www.angelfire.com/biz5/authors/flashme.html

Caution: Erotic Flash Fiction - http://www.cleansheets.com

 

Other References

Wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_fiction

The official Homepage of Michael Mallory

http://www.michaelmallory.com/

Anton Chekhov

http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Bluffs/7745/chekhov.htm

Jorge Luis Borges

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jorge_Luis_Borges

The Work of Edgar Allan Poe

http://bau2.uibk.ac.at/sg/poe/Work.html