For the longest time, I resisted writing short stories. I was a novelist. My characters need time to grow and my plots need subplots. I also fall a bit in love with my characters, if truth be told, and prefer spending tens of thousands of words with them.
Flash fiction is defined as an entire story – beginning, middle and ending – all told in somewhere between five hundred and a thousand words. That’s two to four pages of typewritten pages. There’s no time to fall in love, no time to develop setting and certainly no room for subplots.
So why do I enjoy it so much?
My first piece was a futuristic, science fiction-y sort of story about a highly efficient medical system that did actuary reports on patients. The idea came to me, but I never saw it as a novel so I wrote it out and, to my surprise, “The Savings Account” was immediately picked up and published in The Dime Show Review.
Egged on by this success, I dashed off a few more pieces, each in a slightly different genre. “Bad Angel,” which I suppose could be called horror, was picked up by Piker Press, and “Mahjong Mornings,” general fiction, was published by Across the Margin. A paranormal piece called “Women are from Mercury” was not only published by Across the Margin, but was named one of their best pieces of flash fiction for 2016 and the eye-catching artwork (shown here) was picked up around the world.
Aside from all the fun I was having, along with some nice additions to my writing portfolio, there were other benefits to these short-lived stories. First of all, they let me dip into my idea notebook which is filled with absolutely everything from fairy tales to horror. These were ideas I never expected to develop but, as writers know, you can never let an idea escape. It may come in handy down the road.
I never expect to become a horror writer, or write much of science fiction or fantasy. But in exploring these other genres, I’m forced to expand and vary my vocabulary – and turn my imagination loose in new ways. My writer toolkit grew.
Once started, I realized flash fiction is harder than it first appears. This abbreviated story form forces you to consider plot very carefully. There are only a few dozen paragraphs to work with and each word must count. I wrote a mystery for a competition and had to introduce believable characters, describe a murder, conduct the investigation and set up motivation – all in a thousand words. Oh yes, it had to be fun to read too. It was a tremendous exercise in understanding the critical components of a mystery and storytelling.
I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent trying to cut half a dozen words out of a piece because it went over the allowed amount. Sometimes a story seems all too perfect at 1,006 words. However, if a publication won’t accept it, then it’s not really perfect, is it? I learned to get a little more creative with word choices and be a tougher editor of my own work.
I’ve been surprised how writing flash fiction prods me out of writing ruts and frees me from writer’s block. They renew my energy and gear me up for the story form I enjoy most – the novel.
I see flash fiction now as preparation for writing a new chapter or launching another project. It’s like going to the gym to exercise my creative muscle. And it works.
There are more important reasons for writing flash fiction. The first is especially key for new authors although this works for experienced authors too. Publication credit. Most flash fiction sites don’t pay; compensation comes from the joy of sending your piece out into the world. However, publication is publication. If you are sending queries to agents or publishers and have little writing experience, this gives you something to cite. It means someone out there read your story and found it worth publishing. Of course, the more prestigious the literary journal, the better. But anything beats nothing.
For experienced authors, writing flash fiction can introduce new readers to your style or remind faithful followers you still exist. Post a list or link on your website letting people know where a free story can be found. Free is always appreciated.
For my own free flash fiction stories, click on the Just Stories link at the top of this page.