Saturday, May 22, 2010

Fish Flish Flash Fiction

Before we get too deep in this, I must disclose, this little section will be in excess of 1,000 words. The brevity of things, of daily events, of writing is all well enough as long as something has not been omitted because of laziness or neglect. In the fiction sense of proposed brevity, let's talk about flash fiction. I will look at this from a few perspectives: as a writer, a teacher of writing and a publisher. After this discussion, we'll even wonder if flash fiction is its own genre at all.
In many definitions, flash fiction is considered a complete shot story told in one thousand words or less. As far as fiction classifications and word counts go, I've seen it broken down like this:
Flash Fiction: 1,000 words or less
Short Story: 7,500 words or less
Novelette: 7,500 to 17,500 words
Novella: 17,500 to 40,000 words
Novel: 40,000 to 300,000 words
Epic: 300,000 words and up.
I'm convinced that these words counts, as arbitrary as they seem, have their meanings in dollars and cents. Both Balzac and Dickens were paid by the word. Counting words in their day made sense because of letters or plates were used at the print house. The world of writing, however; I don't think is so wildly different today because word count is still important.
When I write, I never start a project knowing I'm going to quit in less than four pages, or so. Why would a writer do that? Last year, as I began Dysphoric Notions, I only had a very short story in mind, and now, I cannot imagine what the project would have been if I'd stopped short. This leads me to the first point: anyone endeavoring in flash fiction should not sacrifice good writing or good story telling for a low word count. Sometimes, a writer can fall into this form perfectly, and perhaps they fall into it by chance. Richard Brautigan in The Revenge of the Lawn uses the brief form with disturbing clarity in his short story: “The Scarlatti Tilt”:

“'It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin.' That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.”

This story is a mere two sentences, and they say it all. Whereas this piece might just be two clever sentences, it is intriguing. As a short (and I mean short) story, the fact remains: it is fiction. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. There is character development, setting and a sense of space. I only wish I could write something so clever. As I said, when I write a short story, and more importantly, when I rewrite that short story, I don't count words or use the word count as a confine. I am not paid by the word, and indeed, I am not paid for my writing at all.
In all of my experience as a teacher of writing, I like to share as many examples of what I consider good, or at least intriguing, work as I can to my students. Some pieces are short as is the case with “The Scarlatti Tilt.” A few short-short stories I really like are: “The Other Wife” by Colette, “The Dead Man” by Horacio Quiroga; “The Weather in San Francisco” by Richard Brautigan, and Isaac Babel's “Crossing into Poland.” Each of these pieces definitely fit into the flash fiction definition because of their low word counts. But, they all have something more important, they are all examples of good writing. Even if Richard Brautigan's work tends to frustrate students, his work is still valuable to me.
The best part about each of these pieces is that I use them for examples of other elements of fiction. For example, Colette's “The Other Wife,” I love because of the tension in the dialogue, and for that matter, the tension in the whole piece. Colette delivers more information in this short story than some writers can deliver in whole chapters, whole novels. “The Dead Man” is my example of perspective and narrative voice. Richard Brautigan's “The Weather in San Francisco,” I use an example of simile and description. Lastly, Isaac Babel's “Crossing into Poland,” I reference as place and time description. For some ungodly reason, Babel can paint the picture of a battlefield in an almost tender way. In the workshop session where I subject my students to these stories, we read them hoping to gain a perspective on writing, or at the very least, a discussion of writing. Their size is only noteworthy because we can read all four of these, have discussion on each and a writing exercise after each in one workshop session. I never once mention flash fiction as an option in either the discussion of the stories, nor do I mention it during writing exercises or assignments.

When we were developing guidelines for Umbrella Factory Magazine I explicitly stated: no flash fiction. That particular guideline was omitted at Oren's urging, he thought it was too harsh, too limited and superfluous. He was right, of course. What I wanted to avoid with the whole “I don't want flash fiction” gripe was some strange piece of writing that defies the logic of good writing. I had, in the months leading up to Umbrella Factory Magazine, been exposed to writers who never wrote one piece more than 1,000 words. Their writing, while a clever mixture of words, frightened me beyond belief. This was not fiction. It was not poetry. This was not cross-genre experimental work. I like cross-genre, it still follows guidelines, and rules, even if it has to make up the rules. My old buddy Mike Grady's cross-genre work was always worth a laugh: “creative non-play writing.” Tongue in cheek or not, I get it. Cross-genre is noble, and at the function of it, it is very cool. But the writers of this flash fiction I was just speaking about, well, this was something else entirely. Edgy? Nonsensical? An abomination? Or perhaps I missed something else entirely. As far as Umbrella Factory Magazine goes, I want to represent a writer and by doing just that, I do not wish to exclude a reader by publishing strange pieces of brief esoteric nonsense. So far, I don't think anyone has been disappointed.

So? Is this flash fiction a real genre? Well, yeah, probably. There are so many contests out there for it and plenty of writers doing it. In this era of brief messages, text-speak, Twitter, whatever, perhaps one thousand words will soon prove too many altogether. In the meantime, why don't we call it what it is: a short-short story. A short story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. If a writer can tell us a story and her exposition is less than 1,000 words, well then, fine.


  1. Hey Anthony,

    First of all, great to find your writing online! I haven't heard any of it since the Goddard days, so this is great.

    Second, interesting that you should write about Flash Fiction right now. The day before you posted this, I launched an online journal,, which is dedicated to publishing Twitter-sized stories (140 characters, spaces included). I'm not just publishing anything, however. I'm looking for stories that make good use of the form. which means including characters who want things, as well as a beginning, middle, and end.

    As you said, stories are more than "a clever mixture of words" -- and to be sure, many (if not most) of the submissions I've received have been little more than that . But the one I'll publish, those must be true, honest-to-goodness stories.

    Hopefully, you'll follow along on the little adventure, and maybe you'll find something worthwhile in such a short-short form.

    Again, great to find ya online,
    Kyle Callahan

  2. Hello Kyle, great as always to hear from you. You're project sounds interesting if not a little daunting. I can't wait to see a product. Thanks for reading. Be Well.