The Pleasures of Flash Fiction

I’ve had luck with placing very short pieces lately. Fiction Attic accepted a flash fiction piece, “River Bottom,” the day after I submitted it, and it appeared on the site one day later. The Cerurove included my piece “Happiness” in their inaugural issue, just released. My 300-word story incorporating a line from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ranked in this year’s short fiction contest hosted by the River Cities’ Reader, and draft: the journal of process posted a literary collage I wrote as an exercise in a workshop this summer at the David R. Collins Writing Conference. A somewhat longer story, “Ficus,” at 1400 words, was accepted for publication in District Lit. All of these were picked up on their very first submission, which always feels gratifying and serendipitous, hitting the sweet spot (one hopes) of a perfect confluence among editor and journal and reader and story and me.

In contrast, my long-form fiction hasn’t been as lucky. Two stories I’ve been sending out for years, “Ask” and “The Day of the Beheaded Barbie,” keep coming back to me. Sometimes they come back with encouraging rejections. That soothes the sting a bit—like the adult child offering to pay rent when she moves back in with you. You appreciate the gesture, and the rent will help, but really, the idea was that she would strike out on her own into a world that would embrace her, her own two feet firmly beneath her, going on with your love and blessing to be an independent organism now.

A very long, almost novella-length story that I’ve been sending out for some time was accepted for print in an anthology—but they only wanted or had room for 4 pages of the 30-page whole. (The excerpt is from “Bay City” and it appears, alongside an astonishing piece of art, in Domestic, available now from Willow Press.)

As we know, my collection THE NECESSARIES did not move forward for consideration for the Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, though the brief period when it was on the long list was very thrilling. My novel THE LIGHTED HEART has not yet been snapped up by an agent or publisher who has fallen in love and must possess it immediately. (I remain hopeful that this will yet be its fate.) But as I work on the next novel for NaNoWriMo, and watch—gratefully, I must say—the short fiction pop into print while the long fiction circles and circles, dragging like a drowned worm, I do wonder what might be going right with the short-short fiction that the rest of my stories can learn from.

I have some guesses.

  • Compression adds tension. When the words are limited, there can be nothing superfluous. Everything there must help tell the story, and through several means at once: sound, symbolism, meaning, and action. Perhaps this tight condensing pulls the reader in more quickly and pops her gasping for air—the kind of reading experience we want to have as readers, and want to give our readers when we write.
  • Like a joke, flash fiction demands you get in and get out. You simply outrun the reader’s attention span. You don’t wander away from a two-minute anecdote at the cocktail party; you might be gathering your munchie and drink, but by the time you’re sorted, it’s over. And you can move on to the next.
  • Small things are adorable. Like babies, kittens, and just-born turtles: we see something that small, and we’re irresistibly drawn to it.
  • The structure compels. Along with the compression comes speed; once you’re drawn in, things move quickly from beginning to middle to end. Or maybe:
  • We read flash fiction more like an image than a narrative. Here’s the theory that feels most compelling to me at the moment. Short short pieces rarely tell a complete narrative. Think of the unwearyingly clever six-word story. You could argue there is causality, character, movement, consequence, but you have to argue hard and be very imaginative. Think about Hemingway’s famous example: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” That’s a solid sock of feeling that invites you, the reader, to supply the narrative, which you do. What the piece offers, rather, is an image, a sensation, fully formed, and you shade in the subtext and meaning.

In our media-saturated and image-driven culture, in which we are trained to think fast and  sequentially, and decipher images quickly and subconsciously—like making decisions while driving a car—perhaps flash fiction corresponds more easily to that mode of thought, and that’s why readers are drawn to it. It puts a slightly different interpretive demand on us than do longer works, which are more linearly structured and both more and less subtle.

I’m not predicting the end of long-form fiction, especially not now that we have ebooks, and we don’t have to pay for our page lengths. But it asks something else of us. And I wonder now if, in my own case, my longer stories and novels are asking—and offering—the right things.

Here are some thoughts from other writers on short fiction as a form. Now go write!

The Pleasures of Flash Fiction

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