Flash Fiction


by Len Kuntz

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Even though a plethora of flash fiction exists today, I’ll admit to not having heard of the term until four years ago.

I was a little stunned by the discovery of this new-found form, the way you might be to all of a sudden learn that there’s an extra room in your house, a room filled with delicious treasures.

Browsing internet sites around 2010, I saw that talents such as Kim Chinquee, xTx, Kathy Fish and Meg Pokrass were turning out tight pieces of writing as short as 300 words—writing that was not poetry, though it often had a similar lyrical quality. Some of the pieces were even fully formed, containing a narrative arc and plot, while others sizzled instead, like Molotov cocktails left tossed in the air, leaving the reader to decipher whatever decimation might occur.

The sudden rise of flash fiction’s popularity is, in a way, akin to that of Twitter—both of them seemingly rising up out of the blue while quickly securing a place in our consciousness, should we choose to take an interest.

And much like Twitter—or Flash Chat for that matter—flash fiction is about brevity; about the ability to say something noteworthy or meaningful in a very confined space.

I don’t know if flash fiction’s appeal is, as many have said, a result of our shortening attention spans, but whatever the reasons, I’m happy to see how vital the form has become.

The allure of flash, for me, is that it mirrors many of the writing adages I’d been taught years ago:

  • start in the middle of the action;
  • make every word count;
  • hit the reader between the eyes;
  • murder your darlings;
  • deliver a unique, singular voice.

Along with these challenges, I love the notion of getting in and getting out, the idea of swiftly painting a picture that is clear enough to let a reader know what’s happening, yet one that also allows readers to fill in the blanks vis-à-vis their own imagination.

I’m far from an expert on the art form, yet I do think the best flash writing gives readers pause after they’ve finished a piece: it stops them from going onto the next because something shocking or wholly unexpected has just happened, or perhaps the writing was simply so taut and sonically rendered that there’s no other choice than to let it simmer, almost soul-like inside you.

Of course there are all types of flash fiction and just as many kinds of motivation for writing it.

I most like being able to take scraps of memory or biography, or maybe just a lovely-sounding line, wrap it in fraud, and then pepper gunpowder throughout the piece. The title of Kevin Samsell’s flash and story collection, “Creamy Bullets,” is a good description of the type of writing I hope to create: creamy bullets. Bullets that bite, while also having the tendency to simultaneously soothe.

While reading novels, we live with the characters for weeks and years, getting to know their idiosyncrasies and foibles. Novels transport us and often occur over great time spans. Reading a novel requires an investment. It demands patience and diligence.

Flash fiction is usually the opposite of all these things. Flash is a shotgun blast, or even a single piece of shotgun shrapnel plucked from within the greater blast. It’s immediate and jarring. The investment necessary is simply a few minutes.

We are lucky today, to see the proliferation of both styles of writing; having our cake and eating it, too.

To the novelists, I say, Bravo! Keep at it. We need you.

To the flash writers, I say, Keep dropping those bombs. Write on. We need you more than you might know.

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Len Kuntz is the author of The Dark Sunshine available from Connotation Press and at editor at the online literary magazine Metazen. You can also find him at lenkuntz.blogspot.com.

 

by John Towler

JC Towler

I’ve read a lot of flash as an editor at Every Day Fiction. (We have a tracking system that counts how many stories we’ve commented on, and I passed the 5000 mark during the second week of March.) It seemed to be a good time to come up with a “Top 10″ list of the most memorable pieces we’ve published in my four-year tenure. This list is based on my memory and opinion, and does not reflect any sort of editorial consensus of Camille, Carol, Joe or any of the other fine folks I work with.

These are all great stories from talented authors. I hope you’ll give them a chance if you haven’t experienced them already.

1. Cog Work Cat by Joyce Chng, published May 2010

The story blends poetry, fantasy, and love in a way that I don’t think has ever been eclipsed at EDF. Joyce has given us a couple of other very good stories, but this one was her best work.

2. Strikethrough by Matt Daly, published June 2012

A powerful piece about healing achieved in an unexpected manner. This is the only story Matt ever submitted to us, but he gave us a gem.

3. Saving Darth Vader by Kip, published May 2010

This story is one of the quirkiest roller-coaster rides you’ve ever been on. At one moment you are laughing out loud and the next nearly in tears for the feline protagonist. Kip gave us a number of great stories, but this one stands above them all.

4. The Destiny of Archer Deft by Douglas Campbell, published February 2010

Douglas is a regular contributor with an enviable near-perfect publication track record. It seemed everything he gave us was gold. But he went out on a limb with this piece and it is a laugh riot. Long live the Snooty Bird!

5. To Catch a Wolf by Warren Easley, published May 2012

Somebody brought up that May 16 was National Flash Fiction day and it just so happened we had the perfect story to celebrate the occasion. (We actually made it into a Flash Fiction Week at EDF and all the stories we published around that time were exceptional.)

6. Fire and Light by Sarah Crysl Akhtar, published July 2013

Sarah is EDF’s  Scheherazade. I don’t think there are many months that go by that do not feature one of her stories. She has a gift with words and a bottomless imagination and picking a favorite of hers was tough. This was not her highest-rated story from the readership, but it is the one that has stuck with me.

7. Speed Demon and Clockwork Dancer by J.R. Hume, published October 2013

The prose in this story is part of what makes it special, but one of the best anthropomorphic flash pieces I’ve read. J.R. is a long-time contributor to EDF. His Tears of an Android is another great read, but we picked that one before I started with the magazine, so it didn’t make this list.

8. Three Wishes by Cat Rambo, published August 2013

​We do not publish a lot of micro fiction at EDF. (Of the ​over 2,000 stories we’ve published, only around 30 have been 250 words or less.) I think Cat’s Three Wishes is the best of the bunch and it accomplishes the unusual feat of finding a twist on the well-worn three wishes theme that’ll moisten your eye.

9. The Widow’s Tale by J. Chris Lawrence, published October 2011

Chris has joined the EDF team as a slush reader for the time being, but I will look forward to the day he returns to the writing world so he can crank out more terrific pieces like this for us. (Well, hopefully for us.)

10. Idiot Robot by Shane Rhinewald, published July 2013

Comedy and science fiction seem to work well together on the big and little screen (Mork and Mindy, 3rd Rock, Futurama, etc.) but we have a tough time finding flash that pulls it off. Shane’s genre-blending piece finds the right balance and, like all good science fiction, speaks to issues beyond the words on the page.

If you are looking to have your story published by Every Day Fiction, you should first read our guidelines. It is embarrassingly apparent when people have not.

The key to publishing a story with us is to find that ideal mix of good writing, fresh ideas, and some sort of character development. We’ve had to say “no” to stories with knockout prose but which follow the “boy meets girl” trajectory with predictable outcomes. We’ve read pieces that are brilliant conceptually, but are delivered with a clumsy prose style that make them unsuitable. We love working with authors who don’t mind taking a bit of editorial direction and shaping their flash into something our magazine can publish.

____________

J.C. Towler is in the market for a gently-used Time Turner or Transmogrifier. He has been an editor at Every Day Fiction since 2010, but wears more hats than you could possibly be interested in knowing about.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Consider this as counterpoint to Erin Entrada Kelly’s recent excellent post on following your heart in choosing what to write.  I agree with everything she says, but offer this caveat:  if you really don’t know what you’re writing about, do a little research first.

What’s the worst thing you can say to a writer?  “You’ve gone and made a fool of yourself.”

What’s almost as bad?  “Your ignorance/carelessness/obtuseness caused great pain to someone who read your work.”

Now, there’s no safe genre guaranteed to insulate you from anyone’s ire.  Even a simple children’s story may ignite an unexpected firestorm.  Someone, somewhere, is ready to take offense at something.

I’m on the side of publishing, and keeping a flak jacket handy.

Sometimes, though, an author jumps enthusiastically into unknown territory and ends up rightfully skewered.

That happened with a recently-published flash fiction piece.  It earned scorn (mine), outrage (not mine) and considerable bemusement from readers.  (To be fair, it earned high praise from some readers, too, and a few offered sympathy for the torrent of fury deluging a work of fiction.)

I suspect the piece was a well-meaning attempt to understand unspeakable horrors.  But it struck many readers as a clumsy and painfully ignorant example of imagining oneself in other people’s shoes.

I felt, and remarked, that a solemn story about descendants and relatives of Holocaust victims ended up making me think of a Mel Brooks movie.  Other commenters expressed rage and anguish at the mangling of facts and the perhaps inadvertent trivializing of monstrous horrors.

A very little bit of research–i.e. five minutes on Wikipedia–might have stopped the author before she could cause so much unnecessary suffering.  And I do say suffering, deliberately.  Recent history is personal history for people still living; it is a wound that perhaps may never heal.

I don’t believe in censorship; I believe free societies can survive without scars even the worst of what words can do, if those words are well-aired in daylight.  And there’s great scope in fiction for reimaginings and personal judgments of events and the actors propelling them.

But there’s no excuse for egregious and preventable errors of fact.

Perfect truths can indeed be captured by authors who have not and never possibly could have experienced what they’re writing about.  Masterful art is alchemy–transmuting facts and individual experiences into universal human realities.

Richard Hughes, one of my favorite authors, had never been a little girl or a young woman.  He’d never gone blind, either. Yet a scene he wrote, about the moment a young girl loses the remainder of her vision to a congenital disorder, has stayed with me for nearly forty years.  That moment of anguish–a teenager falling at last into unliftable darkness while surrounded by guests at a dinner party, one of whom mistakes her crying out as drunkenness–was Hughes’ transmuting life into art.

Another favorite of mine is DuBose Heyward, best known for the novel “Porgy,” and librettist for the opera based on it.  But I cherish him for “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.” Heyward had most certainly never been a rabbit, or the mother of two dozen long-eared children.  I’ve never been a rabbit either, but I can swear to his capturing a mother’s feelings perfectly.

So, yes, to second Erin again, write about anything you please.  But take a little reasonable care while you do it.

____________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes impelling her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Every Day Fiction, Perihelion SF Magazine and Flash Fiction Online.)

by Robert Swartwood

FFC published this article by Robert Swartwood in April of 2009 about a form of flash Robert named Hint Fiction. He then ran a contest that led to the publication of hint fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer. Robert recently announced a new contest. Submissions are open for the month of April. The link to the contest appears at the end of this article. –Jim Harrington

robertswart

Flash fiction isn’t anything new. It’s been around since the time of Aesop.  Why it’s becoming more prominent and popular today is because of this nifty digital age in which we now live.

Modern men and women have established severe forms of ADD — they don’t like sitting still for extended periods of time, and looking at long lines of text on a computer screen? Forget it. Twitter just proves this new disorder by giving 140-character updates of just about anything — there is even an online magazine published in the Twitter format, and one author has even begun to serialize his novel using the application. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next year or two a new service is invented, a complete knock-off of Twitter, that displays updates of only 70-characters, because, let’s face it, 140-characters is just TOO MUCH.

Actually, the question I want to present now isn’t what’s too much.

It’s what’s too little.

Nearly everyone is familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

The legend of where this piece came from varies in detail, but basically Hemingway was challenged to write a story in just six words; he came back the next day with that little ditty, what he supposedly claimed was his best work.

Now do those six words constitute a story?

Some people think so; some don’t.

Some argue that there is no protagonist, no conflict, no beginning, middle, end.

Some argue that you don’t necessarily NEED a protagonist, conflict, a beginning, middle, end to make a story.

What is a story, after all? I’m not going to try to debase it by dissecting its Merriam-Webster definition. Everyone has his or her own skewed opinion of what it means.

Some are hardcore traditionalists who require the beginning, middle, end, protag, conflict, the whole nine yards. To them if any of those pieces are missing, then it’s not a true story.

Others are more lax. They understand inference plays a great part. After all, imagination IS key, but at what point does a writer depend too much upon a reader’s imagination?

Personally, I’ve always believed a writer should try to find a strong middle ground in his or her storytelling — a place where they can meet the reader halfway, just giving enough detail that the reader’s imagination is then able to fill in the rest. Those, I believe, are the best type of stories, because the reader becomes engaged in the process.

Good flash fiction demands this of its readers.  It only gives so much, enough that the reader can fill in the blanks, help finish the painting, and then, at the end, can marvel at its brilliance.

But what about those really, really, really, really, REALLY short stories?  The, you know, six-word stories.  Are they considered flash fiction?  If not, what should we call them?

Me, I want to coin a term, so I’m going to do it here and now: those very, very, very, VERY short stories should be called Hint Fiction. Because that’s all the reader is ever given.  Just a hint.  Not a scene, or a setting, or even a character sketch.  They are given a hint, nothing more, and are asked — nay, forced — to fill in the blanks.  And believe me, there are a lot of blanks.

What is the word limit of Hint Fiction?  Well, if a drabble is 100 words, and a dribble is 50 words, then how about we say Hint Fiction cannot be anything more than 25 words.

One of the biggest hints in Hint Fiction is the title.  It’s like the setup to a joke, and the “story” is the punch line.  Without the one, the other won’t work.

For those of you wrinkling your noses right now, try to relate this to abstract art. Is a painting of three joined panels — one blue, one yellow, one red — art?  You’re probably thinking no, but I guarantee you there are some who would pay thousands for such a piece.

Here’s another question: Is Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night art?

Almost all of you will probably agree that it is.  And why do you think this?  Because ever since your very first art class in school you were told that it was art.  You were told that van Gogh was a genius and that The Starry Night is one of his masterpieces.

Let’s face it, art is subjective.  Either we like it or we don’t.  The same goes with flash fiction and, now that I’ve coined the term, Hint Fiction.  We can argue about Hemingway’s six-word story, or any piece of Hint Fiction, until we’re blue in the face.  In the end we won’t change any minds. We know what we know and we think what we think and nothing is going to change that.

If you haven’t realized it yet, I’m far from being a staunch traditionalist. I like trying new things. I think writers should be encouraged to try new things. It’s not always going to work, of course, but at least you tried, and that’s the important part.

As Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Now go out there and spread the good word about Hint Fiction.

Just remember to tell them who sent you.

 

Here’s the link to a follow up article we published in April of 2010, and here’s the link to the contest.

______________

Robert Swartwood lives in Pennsylvania.  His Hint Fiction has appeared in elimae, Lamination Colony, and The Northville Review.

Randallbrown

by Randall Brown

I write flash fiction because, in 2003, Vermont College rejected my application for admission to their MFA program. I hadn’t written “creatively” in fifteen years, and maybe it took that long to miss it. My undergraduate workshops—and this is not an exaggeration—frequently ended with my professor asking me either “Are you okay?” or “What did you do to [fill in name of person(s) in class]?” Yes, I was okay—and nothing, there was nothing I could think of that I did to [name of person(s) in class].

After that rejection, instead of quitting, I took online classes, and during one of them with Terri Brown-Davidson (who gets my vote for the one of the great, great creative writing teachers in the world), I decided to make the weekly 500-word exercise complete pieces. She eventually sent me to Zoetrope Virtual Studio and there it was—flash fiction, this form I’d discovered on my own before knowing it existed. Maybe that’s what drew me to flash, this feeling that it had been mine before it was “theirs.”

I have to say that I do love writing rules; in fact, I kind of collect them. Before I discovered them, I thought writing had no boundaries, only existed in ways I could imagine it. So I don’t want to give the impression that I found flash as this boundless, undefined thing. I loved its simple rule, the simplest rule of all to follow: don’t write beyond this word count. The word-count would often change—25, 69, 100, 250, 500, 750, 999—but that rule never did.

It’s an easy rule to understand, isn’t it? It’s completely arbitrary—unless you think of 250 words as equaling a page and then maybe certain word counts begin to have some logic to them. I found that governing principle fascinating and freeing.  I loved the constriction of time and space, how the anxiety of the blank page turned to the fear of a page too filled-up. I loved how, before the self-doubt could arise to stop me in mid-sentence, all the sentences were already there. I love that flash fiction, of all things, this most diminished of prose forms, re-defined me from the moment I found it, first in my self, then in the world. I love that most people in the world don’t know what it is, and when they do glimpse it, it doesn’t matter at all to them. I like that almost everyone misses it. I like that I didn’t.

I write flash fiction because that rejection from Vermont College, to me, said (once again) that I couldn’t write. I took the classes because I was tired of the world telling me their truths. They were never nice ones, you know. I write flash fiction because I discovered I could write. As long as I didn’t write too much.

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Randall Brown teaches at Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live (Flume Press, 2008), his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction (W.W. Norton, 2010). He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print, including online at American Short Fiction, Tin House, and Mississippi Review; and in-print in Cream City Review, Lake Effect, and Harpur Palate.

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