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Writing: What is Flash Fiction and Why Write It Now?

Quick Change Debbie YoungAs someone who has spent most her career writing relatively brief items, from journalism to press releases and brochures, and as an ardent blogger (323 posts on my author blog at last count), I veer naturally towards short-form fiction when it comes to creative writing.

Although I read a vast quantity of novels, I prefer to write short stories, and until recently I was fixated on the classic word count of 3,000 per story.

But then I discovered flash fiction, thanks to a chance encounter on social media with National Flash Fiction Day, founded two years ago by British university lecturer and author Calum Kerr, and I quickly came to embrace what seemed at first glance an impossibly restrictive format: typically anything from 75 to 1,000 words, and sometimes even shorter.

Quick as a Flash to Read

Flash fiction is not new: people have long been writing stories of this kind and calling it various other names,  such as micro-fiction, ultra-short stories and sudden fiction. Ernest Hemingway, not known for his verbosity, once wrote a classic six-worder which is often quoted as the perfect example of such economic writing:

BABY SHOES
For sale. Never worn.

Part of the intrigue of flash fiction is what it doesn’t say. Just enough is revealed to engage the reader’s imagination and get him or her effectively collaborating with the author to fill in the back-story and the detail. Ironically one could write lengthy essays explicating such short stories. There is power in such brevity.

Why Now is a Good Time to Write Flash Fiction

So why the renewed interest in flash fiction now? It’s an ideal form for the digital age, in which more people are reading on smaller electronic screens, and in which wide access to the internet makes it easy to download and read short fiction in odd moments on the move.

Cynics might also say it’s the ideal length to grab the supposed short attention span of modern youth, but I think that’s unfair. If you pick up a good flash collection or anthology, it can have the same effect as opening a packet of sweets: you snack on one or two, and before you realise it you’ve consumed the whole lot at one sitting.

Despite the constraints of its low word count, flash fiction can accommodate satisfyingly traditional story-telling and, if desired, a sneaky twist. It also allows for experimentation, which is easier with a short form than with a novel-length work. Much dazzlingly creative experimental flash is emerging just now.

Personally I prefer flash collections in which the tiny stories are unified by a common theme, whether in structure – as in Helena Mallet’s Flash Fraction, comprising 75 stories each of 75 words, or Calum Kerr’s Lunch Hour, which riffs on the possibilities of what might happen in that brief midday time frame. In my own new collection, Quick Change, I’ve placed the stories in ascending order according to the age of the key players, literally from cradle to grave.

Why Write Flash Fiction?

Don’t be fooled by the brevity of this art-form. It takes real skill and effort to fit a great story into such a small framework. I believe that writing flash fiction is a very useful exercise for authors who want to practice expressing themselves within a limited word count e.g. journalists and bloggers, and indeed anyone who seeks to tighten up their writing in any form, eliminating superfluous words and cutting to the chase. That’d be just about any kind of writer: novelists, non-fiction authors, business executives. I write across a range of other genres, including self-help books for authors, memoirs and travelogues, and I am sure that my new-found passion for flash will help me write better in all of those genres.

It’s ironic that when writing more words each day is often perceived to be an essential step on the road to selling more books, the key message of this small-but-perfectly-formed genre is that less is definitely more. It’s also very satisfying, when you’re bogged down in a book-length work-in-progress, to take time out to write, hone and perfect a piece of work that will fit on a single page.

So while I plough on with longer book projects, I’m hooked on flash. I hope you’ll want to give it a try too.

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