Award-winning short fiction and flash fiction writer Vanessa Gebbie offers advice on how to write crackling flash fiction that sells.
What is a flash? It is something of a short short story. It is sometimes a prose poem. It is always a moment with echoes. It can be very very hard to get right. It shares attributes with poetry, and with short story and yet is neither.
To my mind a good flash leaves more room for the reader than even a good short story, and it sets up connections – it echoes and echoes in your head after you have finished reading.
That the end result is shorter than other forms of fiction is only 1% of the full answer. It’s so hard to pin down, and that makes it attractive, annoying, magnetic and intriguing.
Discover flash fiction is by writing it
When I was first working on my writing in an online group with a tutor, we used to do a lot of writing in timed sessions, inspired by words, lines of poetry, or visual prompts. And very often the pieces of writing would take on a shape, tell complete stories.
Sometimes, they needed little active intervention apart from a tidy – sometimes they needed a careful edit – but they were never ‘rubbish’, even in the early days. 99 times out of 100 they produced marvellous voices and characters that one could work on later.
At that time I hadn’t heard of ‘flash fiction’ as a specific product, but in the process of researching markets that would accept short short work, then sending the work out for consideration, I soon discovered the exciting range of outlets for fiction of this length.
The vital process of ‘flash writing’ is that of not thinking before one writes, not planning, letting go and just writing focusing on the prompt. That was one of the most important things I learned, something that has served me well, whatever I am writing.
Enter flash fiction competitions
You can make money from writing flash fiction in the same way as you can, if lucky, make some, but not masses, of money from writing any fiction. I don’t really write with money in mind. If I did, I certainly wouldn’t be writing literary fiction!
Payment for publication online may be rare – but there are always competitions. Some of the best known literary competitions for short fiction have widened their horizons to embrace flash – Bridport and Fish to name but two.
And it is worth noting that in 2010 a piece of flash fiction won a very good short story competition this year – The Bristol Short Story Prize. In the end a piece that was only 350 words long (that’s not a typo – three hundred and fifty!) told a far better story than pieces of nearly ten times that length, and won a decent prize – £500.
Or indeed, you need to be good enough to amass a quality collection and find a publisher. You should not expect to earn vast amounts from any short fiction, really. One needs to be realistic. But the relevance of this form and its potential ought certainly to become more and more obvious in this age of screen-reading of all types.
Be very, very disciplined
The main discipline of writing flash fiction is to remember that every single word needs to earn its place, far more than even in a short story. Every punctuation mark. ‘Is this really necessary? Is there a better way of saying this?’ – always goes through my mind when I’m working on a flash. And also, what is not said is as important, if not more so, in a way…
The joy of the flash writing process is that you can fit it into a spare half hour so long as you can be assured of no interruptions. You try to clear your head, and focus on whatever you choose for a prompt. A few words, chosen at random, a line of poetry, a photo – you can really use anything that inspires you. Don’t try to think too much, certainly don’t start plotting – let the connections come, and just write along with it.
It is allied to free writing, but the creative process shapes what you do after a while, so that in your chosen time allocation you shape the work, or the work reaches a shape itself.
I look at the prompt and wait until I have a character to hang the flash around. That’s important for me.
You cannot have many characters in a short story, and even fewer fit well in a flash. Every word counts. Or ought to. A flash is so short, it has room for one theme, or it becomes muddled. One event. One pivot.
I find the rewriting process hard – the initial creative splurge is wonderful – crafting those words takes effort!
When it comes to editing your words, then the challenges arise.
Identify whether what you’re writing is actually flash fiction, or just short
A flash is not, as said above, just a piece of writing in the same style and tone as something longer, only ‘topped and tailed’. The length, or lack thereof, is not what makes it a piece of flash fiction! – it needs shape, coherence, it needs to echo.
I love the immediacy in a good flash. The intrigue, like looking into a doll’s house and seeing a whole world opening up in there. I love reading flash pieces by really gifted writers, such as Margaret Attwood, or Etgar Keret. Tania Hershman’s are mesmerisingly good. I love the way you feel you’ve been exposed to something much larger than it actually is. And the way it echoes afterwards… thoughts and connections still bubbling.
Research the marketplace
The market for flash fiction has burgeoned, partly due, I think, to the rise of the ezine. Some of which is a good thing for flash fiction – but quality needs watching, as with any market.
My own favourite places are on the web – Smokelong Quarterly will always have marvelous examples to read, and is a bit of a Mecca for writers. Wigleaf is another. But this could just end as a list of my faves…
the best thing for any serious writer to do is to look at market listings such as the wonderful and free Duotrope (www.duotrope.com) – a searchable database of all types of market for all types of work.
Then, when you have found the right markets, as well as reading them and winging off a submission, take a peek at the bios of the writers already published there. Many will list other places they’ve had work accepted – and so your list expands.
There is no substitute for research really and only the writer can do it, in the end. We all write differently, and one market may be right for someone else but not right for you. The market is ever-changing and you do need to work to keep abreast of the developments.
Enjoy the process of writing flash fiction
My first words to an aspiring flash fiction writer would be ‘welcome, and enjoy!’ It is a terrific thing to write and the process of flash writing (as opposed to the end-product) is so helpful.
It can act as a real block buster for writers. I think any writer of fiction would find writing flash really useful – concision is a great discipline. It is a useful addition to the toolbox of poets and fiction writers alike.
And for teaching, it is a real boon – something immediately engaging. I use it a lot, and am always moved and delighted by the results.
I’m currently reading and judging a large competition for flash fiction, and the majority of entries are simply bits of work written exactly the same as longer pieces – baggy prose and all! Hardly successful flashes.
It is hard to ‘compare’ one form with another, as they all have their advantages and disadvantages for the individual writer. But of them all, flash may be the most universal, in the end.
Flash is marvelous, both as a tool in the serious writer’s toolbox, for the teacher of writing, and also for the reader in search of something a little bit different. Enjoy!
Vanessa Gebbie contributed to A Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (Rose Metal Press) and edited Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt Guides for Readers and Writers), which includes two chapters on flash fiction. Vanessa’s flash fiction and short fiction collections include Storm Warning. For more on Vanessa visit www.vanessagebbie.com.