Thu 16 Oct 2014
by Thomas Kearnes
I haven’t written a story under 1,000 words in well over a year. Even then, I wrote only one new flash during all of last year and just two new ones in 2012. I’ve published older pieces here and there, either sprucing up something previously left for dead or remarketing a piece after its original online home went dark. That said, I’ve definitely kept busy. I crank out roughly three short stories a month, maybe four or five if they’re on the shorter side (say, 2,500 words). If school and work eat up my leisure time, I feel secure in the knowledge I have enough shorts available for publication that I needn’t worry about running low and missing an opportunity.
None of this, however, explains why I’ve drifted away from flash in the last couple of years. The discipline was certainly good to me. I’ve found homes for far more short-shorts than I have traditional shorts. Part of that, though, is due to the fact I’ve written far more flashes than longer pieces. To decompress after tearing through a new first draft, I scanned the last couple of years of FFC. I paid special attention to revered flash writers (like Randall Brown and Meg Pokrass) explaining the appeal of the discipline and what they believed made flash a discipline unto itself as opposed to just a really short story.
I’ve come to the conclusion that despite whatever flash publications backed my work, I was never really a flash writer. At least, not in the vein of those I’ve been learning about through their own explanations and their work itself. My most dramatic difference with what I assume is the prevailing wisdom on flash is that I refuse to embark on a first draft unless I have a three-act narrative securely in mind. (Yes, sometimes I outline my longer shorts.) Depending on images and sounds and unicorns to convey my message to readers freezes my heart with terror. Narrative is the backbone of my fiction, the base from which all other elements originate. I admire flashes that eschew conventional storytelling, but I’ll never pretend to understand how they work.
I kept plugging away at the discipline, however, and I’m not proud of my reasoning. Simply put, I considered a 1,000-word story far less of a gamble of time and energy than a 20-page marathon. If a flash fails, you’ve only lost an hour or two. If a story five times that length fails, you’ve lost one or two weeks. The arithmetic seduced me. Also, there are scores more venues seeking flash than short stories, at least online. If a particular flash was reasonably well-executed, marketing was sometimes a breeze. Contrast that with having to pound the pavement for a year or longer with a short story, even a terrific one.
Also, it’s only recently that I acquired enough confidence to hop from one longer piece to the next. I’ve received enough positive feedback from peers and editors to believe I can pull off a work of fiction that’s 4,000 words or longer. My problem now, and what will continue to be my problem, is selecting the most compelling premise of the dozens I have swirling inside my head. (There are plenty of bad ideas in the mix, of course.) Still, it’s a huge relief to know I can construct a narrative of enough complexity to run past 15 pages.
Perhaps another reason I clung to flash fiction so long without truly understanding it was that I was too nervous about striking out in new directions. As any of you familiar with my flash fiction can attest, I had a basic formula: let one scene in kitchen-sink realist style play out in real time. Occasionally, I experimented with second-person narration or quasi-prose-poem affectations, but well over three-fourths of my flash stories fell under the “one-scene wonder” category. It still humbles me to realize that all along, I was submitting to editors who likely viewed scene-driven flash as the mark of the amateur. (I should also mention that back then I rarely read flash publications or flash writers discussing their craft. I was petrified I’d discover everything I was doing was wrong, wrong, wrong.) What can I say? I was an amateur, and my one saving grace was a knack for conjuring lapel-grabbing premises.
Also, flash fiction allowed me to rummage through all the baggage of my romantic and sexual pasts and still convince myself that I was creating actual art instead of psychotherapeutic dribbling. Yes, I know, a couple of years ago, I encouraged all of you to excavate your personal histories for flash. If you decide to do this, however, I’d caution that you embark on that particular first draft because you firmly believe general readers will enjoy it, not because you just need to vent.
All this said, I will forever be thankful I toiled at flashes for as long as I did, because it gave me a crash course in several aspects of fiction writing and publishing. Most importantly, I learned to line-edit, cutting every unnecessary word, every deadwood phrase. This skill has served me well with my longer fiction, often allowing me to excise as many as 750 words from a first draft. Secondly, I learned how to conduct myself with editors far more quickly than if I’d been submitting only longer pieces.
I’ve learned that speculation about my future as a writer or about the future of publishing itself is a waste of time. Maybe flash will continue to rise in prominence. Maybe flash will hit a dead end once faced with a general readership that has no clue how to appreciate it. Maybe scene-driven flash will come in vogue. After all, even unicorns can overstay their welcome.
Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. His two collections are Pretend I’m Not Here (Musa Publishing) and Promiscuous (JMS Publishing). His fiction has appeared in Litro, The Adroit Journal, The Ampersand Review, PANK, Word Riot, Eclectica, SmokeLong Quarterly, wigleaf, Storyglossia, A cappella Zoo, Spork, The Pedestal, Digital Americana Magazine and elsewhere. His work has also appeared in several LGBT venues, such as Diverse Voices Quarterly, Diverse Arts Project, Educe Journal, and the Best Gay Stories series. He is studying to become a drug dependency counselor. He lives near Houston.