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Writing Flash Fiction: Introduction (The "What" and "Why")

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Even with our ongoing cultural obsession with really long books, the literary scene may actually be trending toward very short works. Flash fiction is a relatively recent concept but it's spreading with zeal, with new flash markets and anthologies cropping up just about every day.

While flash fiction is a limited form, it's also one with a lot of promise, especially for certain groups of people. Whether it's working adults with only an hour a day to commit to the craft, teenagers in need of some crucial industry experience, or would-be novelists looking to build their reputations, flash fiction offers an easy entry point into the literary marketplace. It's popular with readers, too - an easy fit for small screens and all-too-brief breaks.

I have a complex relationship with flash fiction. I've written dozens of pieces, including "Starless Night," my first professional sale, and "Swarm Mechanics," my most recent pro-rated sale. Most of the rest...they didn't do quite as well.

writing flash fiction

From "Starless Night," published in Nature: Futures, March 2018.

This is the first in a planned series of posts on writing flash fiction. For today, we'll keep it simple and look at some of the basics.

What is Flash Fiction?

It's a trickier question that you might think, because a lot of people have their own special definitions for flash fiction. I've heard people say that flash fiction has to be under five hundred words, or under a hundred words, or exactly a hundred words (that's actually a drabble). I've also heard people say that the length doesn't matter as much as how it's written - in response to some prompt or in a certain amount of time or what have you.

I'll keep it simple and go with the definition favored by speculative markets and logging tools like the Submission Grinder: Flash fiction is any work of under 1000 words (and anecdotally, they're typically around 500-750 words). This can vary by market - some will take pieces that are a little longer (1500 words in the case of Daily Science Fiction), others may restrict submissions to 750 words or even less - but 1000 is standard. The term flash fiction is really just a more elegant replacement for the redundant term "short short story," which always looks like a typo (and stands opposite the oxymoronic "long short story," generally a work over 5000 words).

Advantages of Writing Flash Fiction

There are a lot of reasons to start off writing very short works:

  • Flash fiction pieces can be written quickly. This is an obvious plus - it takes less time to write a short piece than a long one. Even a slow writer can finish a flash piece in under an hour. This makes flash fiction ideal for anyone with a tight schedule, but it's also highly recommended for the kind of person who never finishes anything. If you have a hard drive burdened with dozens of unfinished novels, then this might be the form for you.

  • Flash fiction allows for more experimental writing. The brevity of flash fiction means that many pieces are experimental. Flash pieces make for good experiments if you've wanted to try something a little avant garde. They also allow more experienced writers to play around with new genres, perspectives, forms and characters.

  • Flash markets have high acceptance rates. This makes sense if you think about it - most markets pay by the word, so for the price of a single standard length short story, a market could buy three or four flash pieces. This is even true for markets that pay professional rates, which makes flash fiction a good way to help writers qualify for organizations such as the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

  • Flash fiction pieces can be used to expand and promote long-form works. Of course this is true for standard short stories as well, but the above factors make flash markets especially desirable for novelists in between projects. A character vignette can do wonders to promote a novel or develop a story universe.

Hazards of Writing Flash Fiction

But one must always take the bad with the good. There are a few caveats here:

  • There aren't as many flash markets as you'd think. Look at something like the Submission Grinder and it might seem like the world is ruled by flash fiction, but this is an illusion. There are only a handful of reputable flash markets in any given genre. Other markets - those without word count floors - may consider flash fiction, but these publications aren't designed with flash pieces in mind and are unlikely to take them. Once you've exhausted the available markets, your choices are either to aim lower or try and expand your work into a longer story.

  • Flash fiction (and writers) doesn't get a lot of respect. This one's a judgment call, but experience tells me that flash fiction writers are low on the totem pole. I once received a rejection from a literary market in which the editor told me that what I wrote was "good for flash fiction," which tells the tale right there. Meanwhile, the SFWA will not grant associate status for selling a flash piece at a professional rate, and while (as mentioned above) flash fiction might help boost your word count to qualify, it'll be an uphill struggle to sell the 13-16 pro-rated pieces you'd need to qualify from flash alone.

  • Flash fiction can be hard to write. Maybe people look down on flash because they assume that shorter works entail less effort, but that is not the case at all. 1000 words is only about three pages, and that's not a lot of space for a complete narrative. You're expected to set the table and serve the whole meal while a typical lit-fic writer is still boring his hungry guests with his "wit." There's a reason why a lot of flash fiction pieces - even those in high-tier publications - read like they're about half a story. That's what you get when you haven't mastered the form.

Over the rest of this series, I'll be addressing that last issue. We'll talk about finding ideas for flash fiction (probably the hardest part of the process), writing in a small space, editing pieces to get them under those word count ceilings, expanding pieces to make them more desirable to non-flash markets, and maybe even look at a few little cheats to make things easier.

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