There are many different kinds of story writing, and I generally focus on novel writing. But today I’m going to focus on shorter works of fiction. I feel like shorter fiction is often misunderstood and underrepresented, and so I’d like to highlight what it is and why it’s so wonderful.
When I first started writing novels, that’s pretty much what I focused on. I’d written shorter stories before, many years ago, but I didn’t know anything about writing them. I didn’t know how widespread and popular short fiction was until I really got into writing and started learning more about it.
In a recent interview I did with Kiersten Marcil of A.fm Creative podcast, I briefly touched on the difference between these types of stories but focused mainly on word count. Keeping in mind that each literary magazine or journal might have a slightly different set of guidelines in terms of word count, it’s generally accepted that micro fiction is anywhere between 100-400 words (sometimes less, as is the case with Paragraph Planet, who has been featuring 75-word stories every day on their website since 2008. Flash fiction is usually in the range of 400-1000. Short stories are anywhere from 1000 to 8000 words. Again, sometimes more, depending on the publication guidelines. There are novellettes and novellas that fall somewhere in between short stories and novels, and then, of course, you have novels which can range anywhere from 70K-100K and up.
About a year ago, I started taking an interest in flash and micro fiction and short stories. I started seeing tweets linking to stories that were so inspiring and impactful, and I started thinking, I want to write like that! To be able to elicit emotions in so few words would be amazing. So, I started studying the different forms of flash fiction and micro fiction and trying my hand at it. I took guidance not only in the wonderful small stories I was reading, but also from some flash fiction greats, like Kathy Fish, Eric Scot Tryon, and Tommy Dean. I found their stories to be fresh, visceral, and exhilarating. I followed them on social media and read not just their stories, but other people who they were tweeting about. Kathy Fish teaches a lot of flash fiction, and she often tweets the published stories from authors who used to be (or are) her students, thanking her for all her knowledge and insight and instruction on how to craft wonderful flash fiction.
There are different forms of flash, too. Hermit flash, breathless flash, even lists and mathematical equations! HAD (a part of Hobart Magazine) has done postcard stories, so pretty much anything you can fit onto a postcard and send it in to them. It was so creative and unique!
A recent story I absolutely loved for its creativity and powerful meanings behind the words was Eric Scott Tryon’s Wrong Math (published in Leon Literary Review in 2021) http://leonliteraryreview.com/issue-7-eric-scot-tryon/. The use of equations to infuse emotion into the piece was incredibly unique and just helped hit me in the feels, which is probably what most authors are trying to accomplish!
The more I learn about it, the more I realize it’s much more precise than a novel or even a short story. Flash fiction is raw and blunt and real, it’s unafraid to tap into the emotions and memories we hold deep in the secret corners of our minds. Something I learned from one of Kathy’s webinars was instead of writing about an event or a circumstance, take the most poignant moment from that event, something that resonates with you, and focus on that. That, and every emotion that comes out of that, will become your flash fiction story.
Some of the ways that can be used to describe flash fiction are that it’s short, to the point, in your face, and memorable. It’s concise, immediate, urgent. It is a story that lingers with you long after you’ve read the last word. Often, I’ll re-read the story right away just to breathe it in more deeply and really understand the meanings behind the words. I find excellent flash fiction to be razor sharp in its language. It leaves a taste on your tongue; leaves your skin rippling with goosebumps. It can be jarring (in the best of ways), it can bring realization, it can change how you think of something. Sometimes it’s so powerful, it’s like the author peered into your own mind and stole your thoughts or memories or feelings about something. It can be nostalgic; it can leave you breathless. To have such powerful emotions brought to the surface is an absolutely incredible thing to be able to do in the span of under a thousand words.
With the flash fiction I’ve submitted and that’s been selected for publication, I feel it’s a stepping-stone for me. Before I really understood the art of flash fiction, I started writing them. I wrote with feeling, I chose powerful words, but I knew something was still missing. But I was nothing if not determined, so I kept trying and eventually, my pieces started getting accepted for publications that were a good fit for my stories. And that’s an important part of this process: when you have stories you want to submit for publication consideration, you need to research the place you’re submitting it to and make sure they publish the kind of stories you write. Not every lit mag is the same. Some are themed, some only accept certain kinds of stories, some are specifically for BIPOC writers, for example. Know your stories but know the lit mag you’re submitting to. Read a few previous stories, read their submission guidelines. Sometimes there are contests running or a call for certain kinds of stories, so those can definitely be a way to get your stories out there if you have what they’re looking for.
I know there’s still so much for me to learn and hone, and there are so many authors of flash out there that do it so magnificently that I, and you, can learn from. I’m proud of the stories that have made it to publication—one even achieved second place in a contest and was one of two that made it into anthologies. I tend to create very emotional stories when I’m writing these shorter pieces. But somehow, I want to tap even more into that.
My favourite one by far is one that I wrote in November 2021 and published on Vocal. It’s based on a non-POV character in the second book of a trilogy I intend to start writing this year. She was a real person in the early 1700s who was called the Witch of Wellfleet. Since she isn’t a POV character in the book, which means she doesn’t have any narrative parts, I wanted to give her a voice in a short story and explore all the emotions that may have been churning in her when everything happened IRL and in that part of my trilogy. This little side story is from her POV deals with all her misunderstood emotions, the agony she went through, how that fear and restlessness turned to anger and resentment, and how powerful she really was.
I started with a list of brainstormed words, powerful words, all of which I wanted to use within the story. And I loved writing it so much, and when I was done, my word count was… 1716 words. I couldn’t get over the synchronicity of that… because the entire trilogy came alive in my head when I learned of a pirate ship that went down off the coast of Massachusetts in… 1716. I don’t know if you believe in signs, but I sure do! It was so fun to write, and it amped up my excitement even more to get started on writing my trilogy. You can read the story if you like by clicking here.
I also recently attended Literary Cleveland’s Flash Fiction Festival. Kathy Fish was one of the amazing presenters. In hers and each of the others’ seminars, I learned more about flash fiction. There were prompts which helped me break out of a writing slump I’d gotten into. It forced me to dig deep into my bank of memories and emotions and pull out things I never knew were connected in the nostalgic recesses of my mind. Some of the writing exercises even made me emotional! And one of them sparked an idea for a scene in my current novel WIP (The Inheritance) that made me SUPER excited to dive back into.
Flash fiction is just a really fun way to explore and experiment in your writing. I really recommend giving it a try if you haven’t already!
It’s important to remember to have fun with your writing. Don’t be afraid to do something different, unique, bold. Experiment with form. Be as creative as you want to be. There are none of the rules for writing novels here, and that’s one of the things I love so much about flash and micro.
This is by no means an extensive list, but here are a few mentions of flash fiction online journals/magazines and other websites of flash fiction that I enjoy reading and who publish really great stories:
- Flash Frog
- Long Leaf Review
- Literary Mama
- X-R-A-Y Magazine
- Electric Literature
- Milk Candy Review
- Paragraph Planet
- Glittery Literary
- And last but certainly not least, Fractured Literary and Uncharted Mag
And speaking of both Fractured Lit and Uncharted Mag, allow me to introduce you to today’s very special guest, writer of incredible flash fiction and Editor of both of these wonderful online literary magazines, Tommy Dean. You can catch the podcast episode where I interview Tommy here.
Tommy has been previously published in the BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, New World Writing, Pithead Chapel, New Flash Fiction Review and others. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. It was also included in Best Small Fiction 2019.
His interviews have been previously published in New Flash Fiction Review, The Rumpus, CRAFT Literary, and The Town Crier (The Puritan).
Tommy’s first published collection of flash was Special Like the People on TV, he has a chapbook, Covenant, and his second full flash collection Hollows, just launched March 14/22!
Tommy can be found at his website at www.tommydeanwriter.com and on Twitter at @TommyDeanWriter.