Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If ever an art form was suited to its time, flash fiction fits the hyper-busy, bite-sized culture of the 21st century like a touchscreen-sensitive glove. Though the genre’s been around for at least a century, flash fiction has finally come into its own.
So what’s that got to do with you? If you’re like a lot of writers, you legitimately don’t have much time to write. Projects often end up choppy because you go so long between bouts of productivity and forget what you were writing about. Other projects lose relevance before you get around to finishing. Many – most, if you’re me – collect digital dust in the recesses of your computer’s file folders. Meanwhile, your skills get rusty. After six months of carting the kids to ballet and soccer or buckling under the weight of deadlines at work, you finally sit down with a cup of [insert drink of choice], crack open your laptop, and realize you’ve forgotten how to string a sentence together.
Enter: flash fiction. Let’s take a look at how writing mini-stories can solve all your writing woes.
Momentum is one of flash fiction’s greatest assets. The art form keeps you writing without dragging you away from existing projects. When you do have chunks of time to dedicate to those bigger projects, your writer brain will still be nice and nimble. Think of it as literary HIIT (high intensity interval training, aka super-short workouts for super-busy people). You stay in shape, and your endurance doesn’t suffer.Flash fiction ensures your writing skills stay fresh.Click To Tweet
Building psychological momentum
‘Psychological momentum’ is a heavily studied concept that refers to the way momentum affects success. A long string of perceived failures (in our case, unfinished projects) can make it very difficult to break the pattern. Likewise, a sequence of successes is empowering. An author who’s consistently meeting word-count goals has a great shot at developing momentum toward success. And an author who’s consistently finishing projects – just whipping them out week after week – puts him or herself on track to go on succeeding at finishing. Get more done; get more published.
Churning out dozens of micro stories has another major advantage: experimentation. When working on longer projects, authors are generally confined to a single perspective, tone, and voice until the work is finished. Though there may be room for multiple voices (using different points of view, for instance), the need for consistency often precludes real experimentation.Flash fiction creates a natural space for low-consequences experimentation.Click To Tweet
The freedom to play around with radically different voices, moods, and mechanisms can not only help you find your ideal style, it can give you a whole new level of flexibility for future projects. Radical, repeated experimentation can vastly improve your longer form writing, even if it’s just a kernel of inspiration at a time.
Chipping away the marble
A pithy quote from Mark Twain drives at the fundamental need to be succinct:
A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.
Flash fiction doesn’t replace the need for short stories and novels, but it can help you learn to identify the superfluous in your own writing.
Action item: one week, instead of writing from scratch, pull out a longer piece you were never quite happy with. Ruthlessly prune it down to 1000 words or less. The takeaway is twofold. First, you get a clean, crisp piece of fiction you can submit somewhere. Second, you got to practice whittling your own work. Like Michelangelo chipping away the marble to reveal the angel, the more you practice self-editing, the more you’ll be able to see redundancy, repetition, and stuff that’s just plain unnecessary.
Lousy stuff does sometimes get published. By and large, however, if you want to get published, you’ve got to get better. This is especially true in the world of self-publishing. An agent will look at quality to some extent, but will also overhaul a poorly written piece for the sake of a compelling story. When you’re publishing for yourself or submitting your work directly, you pretty much have one shot to convince the reader that they’re in for a treat.
And, hey, sometimes you’ll produce something amazing. ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ didn’t materialize out of thin air.
The thing about getting published is, you have to have work to submit. If you spend a year on a novel and nobody wants it, and you don’t have any other material to pitch, it’s back to the drawing board for another year of production. With flash fiction, you end up with lots of small pieces you can submit to various competitions and collections.
This speeds up the process considerably, leading to publication and presence – that is, getting your name out there. As you begin to garner popularity, it becomes much easier to convince people to read your work.
Building a reputation
There does seem to be a stigma attached to short fiction (or in our present case, short short fiction), though it’s more among authors than readers. The novel – the great magnum opus – seems like such a tremendous accomplishment (and hey, it is). But let’s look at a couple of re-framings of the short literary work, or the minimus opus, as it were.
First, the tapas approach, courtesy of Alex Morritt:
Short story collections are the literary equivalent of canapés, tapas and mezze in the world of gastronomy: Delightful assortments of tasty morsels to whet the reader’s appetite.
As a reader, I’m much more likely to order an hors d’oeuvre from an author whose name I’ve never heard than a full five-course dinner. Reading a novel is a major commitment, and it’s hard to commit to something you know nothing about. Just a little taster, though? Sure, everybody’s got time and appetite for that. I love perusing flash fiction journals and other platforms, and if I find an author that wows me, you can be sure I’ll add them to my list of people to keep track of.Readers will make time for flash fiction that they won’t for a longer story.Click To Tweet
Speaking of the wow factor, our second re-framing of the petite genre is captured in Paolo Bacigalupi’s oft-quoted proclamation:
Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them.
It’s probably true that lame flash fiction pieces will fade into oblivion. The ones that really nail it, though? They pack a punch. I’ll leave off here with a word of advice from Irving Howe on the composition of short short stories (that is, flash fiction’s maiden name):
Writers who do short shorts need to be especially bold. They stake everything on a stroke of inventiveness. Sometimes they have to be prepared to speak out directly, not so much in order to state a theme as to provide a jarring or complicating commentary. The voice of the writer brushes, so to say, against his flash of invention. And then, almost before it begins, the fiction is brought to a stark conclusion – abrupt, bleeding, exhausting. This conclusion need not complete the action; it has only to break it off decisively.
Good flash fiction gets you published
Once people know you and like you, they want more from you. It’s that simple. If you write 500 words that move me, pull me, compel me, shock me right out of my armchair – then, when you write a novel, you bet I’m going to read it.
So tell me: have you written any flash fiction? What have you learned from the experience? Anybody want to make a commitment to write a flash fiction piece every week/month/quarter? As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Or, if you want to hear more from us, check out So You Think You Know Your Short Prose? and How To Write A Killer Short Story for more on this subject.