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Like a lot of writers, I have a file full of plot bunnies. Some of them are fleshed out. Others are just an image. Some words. An idea. What do you do with them? Yeah, you can wait until you finish your next manuscript, but that might be a while. Some concepts you want to explore a little sooner, and that’s where flash fiction comes in handy.
So what is flash fiction? Generally speaking, it’s a very short story, and sometimes it’s called microfiction. Think of it as less rigid haiku (in a way). Some lit journals consider it anything under a thousand words. Some define it as five hundred words or less. There are flash contests and calls for submission that are as few as fifty words. Whatever the case, it’s becoming an increasingly acceptable form of writing. Many journals focus on flash fiction, and even more feature it alongside short stories. Over the last several years I’ve had just over a half dozen of my short stories picked up by lit mags, and most have been flash fiction.
You’ve heard the saying “Brevity is the soul of wit,” yes? Flash fiction relies on that standard. Just like a longer short story, it has a beginning, middle, and end. It tells a complete story. Of course, because that story is abbreviated, the writer is forced to get to the point, to make some stylistic choices that suit the form. I guess the question you might ask yourself is why bother writing flash fiction?
Like I said, flash fiction is great for getting an idea out of your head without spending the time it takes to complete a full-length short story, a novella, or a novel. Sometimes it’s just that the idea itself won’t sustain the length of anything longer. Many writers, myself included, enjoy flash fiction because it’s an excellent exercise and keeps your writing muscles limber. There’s something really useful about paring down your work until only the essentials remain—it helps you become a better writer, to include only what you must while still turning out a great, thought-provoking story. Several flash fiction pieces I’ve written have turned out to be the start of a novel. When I was writing THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS, my just-released psychological thriller, I used various flash fiction challenges to try new things for scenes within the novel. That’s the beauty of flash fiction: it allows you to try something without feeling bad if it doesn’t work.
One of my very favorite lit mags that regularly features flash fiction is PANK. There are hundreds of other, but PANK tends to pick really beautiful, thought-provoking pieces that really serve as a primer for how to do flash fiction right. If you’re not ready for PANK, but you’d like to try out some flash fiction, consider giving a weekly challenge a go. 5 Minute Fiction is my favorite, but I’m biased—until recently I moderated the challenge. For this challenge, you show up at the site on Tuesday night and get a prompt; you then have fifteen minutes to write, edit, and submit your piece (ostensibly, five minutes to write). If timed challenges aren’t your thing, there are others that give you more time. There’s a pretty good list of challenges available here. Give it a try—it might just become your favorite short story form.
Nicole Wolverton is a freelance writer and editor from the Philadelphia area. Her short fiction has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Black Heart Magazine, and Penduline, among others. Her debut novel, THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS, was released in March 2013 (Bitingduck Press). Publishers Weekly calls the book a “skillful mainstream examination of a psychotic woman’s final descent into insanity.” For more information, visit her website at www.nicolewolverton.com or follow her on Twitter.
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