Seizure's Flashers Editor, Jack Cameron Stanton breaks down how to make your flash fiction shine.
As Flashers Editor for Seizure Online I read a hell of a lot of flash fiction and have noticed a range of common symptoms that end up weakening a story under 500 words.
The young author finishes her fourth draft of The Short Story at a crisp 980 words then turns to the web to find somewhere for it to be published. She sees a flash fiction competition, grimaces at the word count, and sets out on a darling massacre. One Red Bull and two hours later she removes the last adverb with trembling hands before glancing at the bottom of the word doc for confirmation: 499 words.
There’s nothing more obvious than a longer story that has been reshaped and curtailed to fit into a flash fiction word count.
Inflate then compress:
But I need to clarify here: write more words than you intend to keep. The young author writes a thousand words with the intention of reducing them to 300, thereby finding the micro-scene in the bigger picture, the fraction that alludes to a whole. She sends through a glimpse of a bigger world that resonates with the reader and leaves them mining their imagination for possibilities. That’s a way better approach. This advice seems contrary to the 499 words tip. It isn’t. Instead, think of it as the natural course of editing.
To recall the advice of Stephen King: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.
Submit one story, not five:
Although it is possible that one of the five or six flash fictions you have written are brilliant, flooding the submission portal with all of them at once is no way to increase the likelihood of being published. If anything, it’s the other way around. Often editors interpret submission portal flooding as somewhat frivolous. Pick your strongest story and just submit that one.
Try writing short:
Some of the best flash fictions are fewer than 250 words. Check out David Foster Wallace’ A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life. Another slightly longer flash fiction that I adore – and this is kind of cheating because it’s technically three micro-stories bundled into one – is Three Moments of an Explosion by China Míeville.
What China taught me about flash fiction is that in many ways flash fiction’s modes of expression can be more like poetry than prose.
David Foster Wallace showed me that the precise opposite can be true, too.
David Foster Wallace
Learn to love the delete key / Kill your beginning / This is where your story starts:
Pretty much 95% of the flash fiction I read could be guillotined. By that I mean, chop off the first paragraph, sometimes two. The way I think of it is that words are limited and so is the reader’s attention span. An editor once told me that the way I begrudged editing my own stories was all cognitively messed up. She told me that instead of comparing editing to murder, just snip out the section and put it to one side. If you miss it, you can put it back. But it’s rare you’ll miss it once it’s gone.
Choose a great title:
Your title plus first sentence or two will determine whether someone will read your story. I’m not talking about submission portal editors; they’ll read your story from start to finish, regardless. Same deal with friends and family. The people you want to grab are the casual readers.
As I’ve said earlier, every sentence matters. The title is your pyramidion.
Voice > plot:
With the fear of sounding picky here, don’t bother with plotting flash fiction. A moment and mood and voice are your friends.
Prioritise / time is the enemy:
Generally what pervades less striking flash fiction is an over-prioritising of sensory details. Too much description doesn’t colour, it cloaks. It’s tough for the reader to see your characters clearly if you spend the same amount of time describing a leaf.
Neatly tied-up ends are tiring:
Don’t do it. Don’t. 95% of the time denouement is flash fiction suicide.
Rules are meant to be broken:
So long as you’re doing it on purpose and you have a good reason for doing so and it works, break the rules. Flash fiction is your playground for aesthetic experimentation.
Edit your freaking work, man:
This comment seems like a banal note to end on but in reality, it isn’t. Edit thoroughly on a line level; send the story to your trusted grammar pedant; pace your back garden and read to the lorikeets or murmur sentences to yourself on the train (like me) – do all that stuff before submitting.
Jack Cameron Stanton
Jack Cameron Stanton has been published in Southerly Journal, Seizure Online, Neighbouhood Paper, and was shortlisted for the 2017 UTS Writers' Anthology prize. He edits Flash Fiction for Seizure online and has a Masters in Creative Writing from The University of Technology, Sydney.