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.
19 thoughts on “Why Authors Who Want To Be Published Should Write Flash Fiction”
I’ve been looking at flash fiction recently an an greatly encouraged by your extensive comments and advice. I may just pick up on something I stated and actually finish it. Then I can find out where to look to submit it – in the UK.
Thanks for your comment! I’m so you found this article resourceful. I hope you’ll pop back in and tell me where to find your flash fiction piece when it goes public.
Thank you for this article. It is super encouraging. I have danced around publishing a novel and a short story series for years. I went through an 18 month period writing flash fiction five days a week. I slowed down; life happened, work and general discouragement. But this year, there is no turning back. This year is the year to get it done. I have resumed my weekly flash fiction writing to build momentum. I publish my pieces here.http://roseodengo.com/category/flash-fiction/
It would be great to get your constructive feedback on the stories.
Hi, Rose. I’m so happy you’ve been inspired to pick up momentum again. 🙂
I checked out your site – great work! I’d love to be able to comment on your pieces, but unfortunately company policy precludes me from doing so. I always enjoy reading stuff like that though, so thank you for sharing.
I do not consider myself to be an author. I suppose everyone can write, though. And writing flash fiction sounds like a great way to build psychological momentum by starting small. Your post makes me want to try to write something small and see if I can build some success. Thank you.
You’re spot on – everyone can write. I’ll even one-up you on that: I think everyone should write. It’s a great way to engage the world and build communication skills. Flash fiction takes a lot of the pressure off.
I do hope you’ll be inspired to write something. Pop back in and let me know what you come up with!
It’s kind of funny; I literally was working on a prompt list to plod away on for flash fiction today with the intent of beginning to post them in the spring and then this lovely article shows up in my email. I’m actually happy to see that there are so many potential benefits to it. Your analogy about appetizers versus a five course meal is actually so on point, and I never really thought of it that way before. <3 this.
I’m so glad this article was timely for you. Love it when the universe conspires to provide us with the encouragement we need when we need it. 🙂
Your prompt list is a great idea; have some fun with that!
I took your advice and wrote some Flash Fiction (for fun and practice) using some ideas I had for short fiction or novels. The freedom of brevity made the experience enjoyable and I finally put to “paper” stories I’ve been procrastinating on. Here’s to Flash Fiction! Thank you for your article Rebecca.
I’m so glad this worked out for you! I love the feeling of sitting down one afternoon and whipping out a story. Keep up the good work. 🙂
Rebecca, thanks for this post. I’ve earned my first few acceptances after a year of heavy submitting and most have been in flash fiction. Here’s “Rivet Here,” a recent story I’m happy with http://necessaryfiction.com/stories/ArthurKlepchukovRivetHere
Thanks so much for sharing this. I love success stories! Congratulations and keep at it.
Since finishing the online Future Learn Writing Fiction course last year, I’ve been honing my flash fiction chops. One item of importance? A writer’s notebook which you keep handy with character sketches, inventive words, story ideas, etc. I keep that handy, and when I spot a person who sparks my imagination, I grab the notebook and start imagining who they are and what they’re all about. Then gradually I pen a short story. This has been a fun exercise, and it keeps my brain and pen engaged, even if only in small spurts.
Thanks for your contribution. It’s such a smart idea to keep a notebook handy. Mark Twain did this (among others), and Anne Lamott at least used to stuff her pockets with 3×5 cards to make sure she never lost an idea.
Your character-centered writing exercise (ongoing!) is a wonderful way to focus and I bet you capture a lot of quality micro-contributions to the world of human psychology.
Thank you for sharing your idea with the rest of us. It’s so important for writers to stay connected and encourage each other.
Keep up the good work!
Great article. Oddly enough I’ve written several flash fiction stories for my blog quite recently following a flash fiction competion/exercise in my writing group. Rather than 100-500 words, I’ve allowed myself an upper limit of 1000 words, and am hoping later in the year to have written enough of these for a volume of flash fiction. Looking forward to reading your further posts and emails btw.
Thanks for adding your voice to the mix. I like the idea of a slightly higher word count. You still get the benefits described in the article, and you can take your stories a little further. I like to advise authors to practice writing at several predetermined lengths – that is, don’t just write till you’re done. Decide in advance how long the story is “allowed” to be, and stick to that word count no matter what. The story may prove longer shorter later, but initially it’s a great exercise to help authors see what they’re doing with their own language habits and instincts. Awareness is a tricky tool to acquire, but very useful.
Good for you, too, keeping up with a writing group. Sounds like you are setting yourself up for success!
I look forward to supplying you with further posts; thanks so much for that positive feedback.
Hi Rebecca. I have just found a great flash fiction weekly competition. It has a prompt and after long listing the readers vote as the shortlisted published online. I hope I get shortlisted at least ? Your article confirmed to me the benefits of flash fiction writing. As a busy full time teacher I can feel fulfilled that I am creating and completing stories which is good for my soul.
Sorry for the delay in getting back to you; I’ve been travelling.
I’m so glad you enjoyed the article and that you still make time for writing amidst your busy schedule. Good luck with that contest as well!
This is an excellent post on the subject of flash fiction. I enjoy writing flash fiction, and feel that writing the form can have definite benefits, when it comes to developing our creative writing skills. I highly recommend it.