Notions about flash fiction

Most professional writers agree that standard manuscript format means double line spacing, one-inch margins and Courier typeface (because each letter takes up the same space on a line).

The other standard that seems to be settling in is that maximum length for flash fiction is one thousand words.

If we use those two standards, we arrive at a manuscript length for flash fiction of four to five pages. Maybe six, if there are a lot of short paragraphs and plenty of white space.

You would think that any experienced writer could knock that out over a weekend and still have time for Sunday morning brunch. You would be wrong.

Working as a slush reader over the past four months for Every Day Fiction has shown me how many writers, who think they can write flash, just don’t have a clue.

Wading through the slush, we see bits and pieces of stories. Anecdotes. Aphorisms. But only one in ten is a complete story and one in twenty or thirty is a good complete story.

Yes, you say, but many of those submissions are from writers still learning the craft. Maybe, but the sad truth is that even experienced writers struggle with flash. Many experienced writers can’t write anything less than novel length.

Best-selling novelist James Michener is supposed to have said, “In six pages I can’t even say hello.” He has lots of company.

Since last June, I’ve written fifty pieces of flash fiction, about one a week. Some I’m still polishing. Some I have retired; I call them dead soldiers. Twenty four have been accepted for publication, most of which have appeared in print.

And here are some notions about flash I have developed over the past year; no hard and fast rules or standards, just notions that work for me:

  • Keep character count low; no more than three. The story feels crowded if there are more.
  • Don’t give any character a name or description unless you want readers to pay attention to the character. Readers have different expectations after being introduced to Millie Roberts, the red-head at the register, than for the check-out clerk. And it’s fewer words.
  • Make every word says just what you want it to say. I know you’ve heard this one before but you can’t hear it too many times. You have a thousand words and precision cuts to the heart of a thing with speed and clarity.
  • Slash most adjectives and ALL adverbs. Be ruthless. You can smother a noun in modifiers, cut the courage right out of it, and any verb that needs modifiers can be replaced by a stronger verb. Ran rapidly and scrambled mean the same thing and scrambled sounds exciting.
  • Write about our world. You must explain special rules for a fantasy world and that chews up word count. It can be done, Every Day Fiction has present some marvelous fantasy flash, but it’s difficult to pull off and should be set aside unless there is no other way to tell the tale.
  • Focus on small events. One man battling a nest of hornets he stumbles upon in his backyard is no less dramatic, has no less conflict, than a score of soldiers engaged in jungle combat.
  • Be aware of word count every second you write. People say, “I can always come back when I’m done and trim it down.” Maybe so, but many can’t. It’s easier to keep track of the ticking meter along the way.
  • For God’s sake, edit. Submitting a first draft is lazy. You can scrub the life out of a story, of course, but nothing is so brilliant that it can’t benefit from a bit of polish.

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