Friday, December 11, 2009

Flash Fiction=Fiction in a Flash (and then some) feat. Simon Larter

So the other day--like, you know, a few weeks ago--I had a brief conversation with Simon Larter (known to some of you as *@WritingAgain) that went something like:

Me: What is Flash fiction?
Simon: Fiction in a flash. [Eyeballs roll]
Me: Okay, Mr. Longwinded, will you post something cool about it on my blog?
(Note: The above conversation is based on a true story)

Anyway...I asked Simon to enlighten us about flash fiction because he's a frigging pro. Okay, he didn't get his MFA (though I'm convinced he will in ten years time), but he's published several pieces of flash fiction, won several contests, and writes like an effing god of flash fiction. I'm serious. If you don't believe me, just check out a few of his stories: Uncle George, Alcoholic Cat, and All in the Timing. If you're still not impressed, go check out his published pieces in Flashquake or Per Contra. He's got another one forthcoming in LitNImage, but they're keeping it secret until April. **Bastards!

But first, a brief bio on Simon, just because:
Simon is rediscovering writing after a 15 year hiatus, and wondering why he waited so long. He is a husband and father of three whose day job in lightning protection may someday provide a wealth of anecdotes for the next great American novel (although he’s Scottish by birth). Between work, home renovations, and child duty, he still manages to find time to write short stories. He graduated from Drexel University with a degree in Civil Engineering, and is currently wondering how to work an MFA into the ***10-year plan.

Now, Learn a little something useful from Simon:

She was the one that suggested we hike up into the mountains to get our heads clear, then picked another stupid fight just as we came to that steep spot where the ledge gets narrow and the handrail’s broken, so if you ask me, it really wasn’t my fault at all.

* * * * *

Flash fiction. It can be just about anything you want it to be. Even one sentence.

* * * * *

"Are you sure?" she gasped. "Do you think it’s too soon?"

He kissed her neck and breathed in her ear. "It’s not too soon," he said. "I really care about you."

His fingers were moving, moving, and she arched her back and stopped thinking for a while. It wasn’t until later, as they drove home in silence with the steam fading from the windows, that she realized his answer hadn’t been the one she was looking for.

* * * * *

It can be two characters in three paragraphs and 77 words.

I certainly can’t offer any kind of comprehensive description of flash fiction here—as a literary form, it’s as varied and multifaceted as any other (and hence defies definition). What I can do, though, is give a sense of the possibilities when it comes to writing flash (or sudden fiction, or microfiction). And these are, of course, simply my own thoughts on the form and aren’t intended to be anything more than a rough guide.

One way of thinking about flash fiction is as a way to tell a story or capture a moment in as few words as possible—no backstory but what’s hinted at, no future story but what’s implied. I often think of flash this way: moments of realization, trauma, humor, memory, anything that holds importance. The two pieces I’ve published thus far have been moment-flash, descriptions of one brief period of time in which everything changes.

Another way of thinking about flash is as a method of exploring small yet significant ideas. If we look at my two brief examples above, we can see that either of them could be expanded into a full short story, or even a novel. In the first, I’ve set up a possible murder and cover up. In the second, the story could go any number of ways—unexpected pregnancy being the most obvious. Each offers a small sense of completion, but hints at a great deal more. There’s much left out of the stories—a before, an after, details of the during that aren’t mentioned—but I can let the reader fill in the blanks; I don’t have to do it.

The last type of flash I’ll mention is the story in brief. These offer a complete story arc, but in a very small space. I think my Uncle George story is like that. I said absolutely everything I wanted to say in about 750 words. Was there more that could have been done? Yes. Could it have been a short story? Yes. Could it even be a novel? Yes, probably. I could have drawn extended parallels between the shabby yet charming natures of both Uncle George and Funland, and explored how the narrator’s perceptions of both changed over time as he grew older—loss of innocence, coming of age, and all that jazz. But I didn’t, and the story stands as is; the emotion’s there, just condensed.

So flash fiction can be many things. I think, though, that even novelists could benefit from trying their hand at microfiction. The discipline it teaches is extremely helpful when it comes to editing—padding and filler have no place in flash. Also, it can help us to think in terms of small story arcs, and what are the chapters of your novel but small story arcs? Even within a chapter, a multiple-POV novel will have 1000 – 2000 word sections written from a particular character’s viewpoint. Could flash help make those sections pop? I think it could.

Why not give flash a try? See what the best flash writers do with the form on sites like Flash Fiction Online, Flashquake, LitNImage, and others like them. See if you can’t write one of the significant moments from your novel in flash format. The time investment’s small, the potential benefits great.

I’ll open the floor to questions and comments now. Has anyone else experimented with flash fiction? Interested in trying? Questions about how I write it? Where to publish it? Ask away, writer-friends. I’ll do my best to answer.

Wasn't that awesome? Feel free to bow down and chant, "I love Simon!" But first, be sure to make some comments, ask him questions, and beg him for his autograph. Seriously. He's like the Zeus of the Writer's Realm. He's even got lightning bolts. Next year, he starts on THE novel. It's gonna be brilliant, folks. Just wait. You'll see.

*This is not just an unusual nickname bestowed upon him by kindergarten bullies. This is his Twitter name. Follow Simon if you want to be cool.
**In the event that I ever try to publish with this magazine, I'm just kidding. They're not really bastards. I think it has something to do with freakishly tight publishing schedules or something weird like that.
***Told you.


  1. Simon's FF is superb. He's got a masterful handle on how to draw the reader in, quickly. Anyone that hasn't already should head over to his blog and read, oh, everything.

  2. Thanks, Carol! This is my first guest post ever on any blog ever anywhere in the universe, so it's nice to have such an... uh... enthusiastic introduction. Seriously, good lady--you'd make me blush if I weren't too manly to do so.

    And I don't have lightning bolts. Only lightning rods. (Commence punning... now!)

    Thanks again for the opportunity, m'dear. You're awfully nice to let me pontificate on your blog. :)

  3. And thanks, Sara. You ain't so bad at flash yourself! (Really, folks. Go read a few of her writing prompt exercises. They're very good.)

  4. Interesting. You have tempted me to try it. Sounds like a great way to get ideas on paper, feel accomplishment and maybe even wrangle some unformed thoughts into longer form later on.

    I had not heard of the Great and Powerful Simon, God of Lightning. But thank you for the introduction, and the well-written post.


  5. Michele:
    Oh, please don't draw down the wrath of Zeus upon me with such an appellation! Good think I'm inside a building with lightning protection right now... :)

    But flash (no pun intended) is really a great way to explore little ideas. They can always be expanded later, but if not, they're marketable as they are, even at 500 words or less.

    Thanks for your comments!

  6. Great post, Simon! And Carol. You work well together. :)

    Flash Fiction is fun. Anyone who can't see that is missing something, I think. Just my opinion. You know how that goes.

  7. Glam:
    I think of flash as fun for sure. My whole goal this week was to get people who only think in terms of LARGE story arcs to think small too. It's fun and helpful.

    It might not seem fun to some people at first, but as I've said before, branching out and stretching the ol' writing muscles can't but help in the long term.

    Thanks for dropping in over here! :)

  8. Great post, Simon. It occurs to me that flash fiction, more than other forms, rely on a reader's experiences and knowledge to fill in the backstory. I wonder how well flash would transfer between cultures. Denver Bibliophile had a nice post recently on reader "scripts" Incidentally, he's basing his article on the same study I based my Narrative and the Brain post on.

  9. Livia:
    You're correct that the reader must fill in a lot of the gaps. I'd be curious to see how that works on a brainscan.

    I do recall your post, but should refresh my memory of it before I bounce to see DB's rendition. Thanks for the heads up!

    And I'm pretty sure that flash, like the short story, can be applied in any cultural setting. The degree of resonance the reader feels will, I would think, vary depending upon his or her degree of identification with that culture. Some truths are universal, though.

  10. I love flash fiction. I LOVE reading it. Loved your one sentence flash.

    It seems like it *shouldn't* take long to write flash fiction, but in my very limited experience, I think it takes me longer than writing 2-3 chapters of my book--every word has to count.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  11. misadventuresofmommy, I must agree!

    Simon, it's been a pleasure. You tolerate my silliness well. In all seriousness, I'm honored to have you guest post your brilliant article. I feel like I should make up a button that reads, "Simon guest posted with me first," or "Team Simon" or "Flash Simon if you're happy." Maybe not the last one.

    Michele, thank you for stopping by. I look forward to following your blog as well. I love a good mystery. And it's my pleasure to introduce you to Simon. He's intelligent, witty, and puts up with me. You might also check out #amwritingparty on Twitter, where Simon sometimes hangs out.

    Dang, Simon, I'm just pimping you all over the place. ;)

    Lady Glamis, thank you! Simon's a treasure, and flash fiction is wonderful! It's very much like enjoying liquor-filled chocolate--small, but really packs a punch.

    Livia, short stories specific to unfamiliar cultures have been the least satisfying for me--the opposite of what I would have expected and hoped. Though well-written footnotes can make the story understandable, it's difficult to feel moved by something so far outside the scope of my experience--it's not impossible, of course, but this seems to apply more to novels, such as Salman Rushdie's Shame, where the reader has adequate time and details to delve into the new world/culture. But short stories do as you speculate--expect the reader to fill in the gaps (in a very short period of time). It seems to me the absence of all the details a novel would provide might make it difficult for the reader unfamiliar with the culture to feel engaged by the piece. Well, it's certainly worth speculating. Great articles, by the way!

  12. Elizabeth, I can relate entirely! I think that's what makes it such a challenge for novelists. You have to readjust your mind to think differently. It can feel a bit like a Mensa challenge to reorient your brain from writing a novel to flash fiction. But it seems worth the effort. I think it can likely help you learn to tighten a story and eliminate all of the excess--the stuff readers might otherwise skim over.

  13. I'd never really heard too much about flash fiction but boy was this ever a great explanation. It's fascinating, really, the small glimpses into a story...the moment that gives the reader everything and nothing at all, all at the same time. Amazing. Will have to give it a try. :)

  14. Elizabeth:
    It's true that almost every word must count in flash. I tend not to worry about that on the first draft, though. Because the ideas can be explored in such a small space, I usually get through one in 2 hours or so. Then comes the editing, of course, but I tend to write lean. My edits are often for content and redundancy.

    I'm glad you liked my one-sentence effort, good lady. I've seen that kind of thing called "hint fiction" before, so it might not strictly be flash. Still, it tells a story, and that's what I wanted.

    Thanks for your comments!

    Thank you, good lady. I wanted to capture at least some of the possibilities. And do give it a try. It's fun, and as I've mentioned several times, very marketable to online journals. Let us know how it works out!

  15. Carol:
    Ha! That last one's custom-made to get me in trouble, isn't it? Let's give that a skip, for the sake of my long-term health... :)

    You're great, m'dear. Every writer should have a friend like you.

  16. Great interview. Great and useful information, Simon. I wondered what flash fiction was but didn't want to ask because I wanted to save face. But now I know and will try it since I like writing fewer words...or less.

  17. Yikes - flash fiction posts are following me everywhere!! :)

    One of these days I'l give one (or more) a shot. Just need that extra time!

  18. JW:
    Good lady, don't worry about saving face. We're all out to learn more about our craft, and how better than to ask? But I'm glad I could clear some things up for you. And do try some flash. It's great fun. (And I think "fewer" was correct... :)

    It's actually a vast flash fiction conspiracy. I can't say any more though, as the powers-that-be might frown on any imprudent revelations...

    That said, take all the time you need, good lady. I merely offer options for expanding your repertoire. :)

  19. Carol- Thanks for the Twitter idea - I will do so!

    Wanted to let you know you are featured on today's post on my blog. Thanks for joining - I look forward to many interesting exchanges!


  20. Rhonda, I agree! Very informative with brilliant examples. Can't wait to see what you write up!

    Simon, I have a way of saying things that get ME in trouble. I'm just so generous, I'm willing to share my talents with you. Ha! Thank you for the lovely compliment. You're not so bad yourself. Although, I agree, perhaps Zeus is a bit hyperbolic. Well just stick with your new name from now on: Castor of Flash.

    Journaling Woman, so glad you stopped by! I was very curious about flash fiction--I'd been writing it for years, but had no idea there was a rhyme or reason to it, let alone a name. Simon explained things rather succinctly, I think.

    Jemi, I think you'd be an amazing writer no matter what you're working on. Your blog posts alone are like miniature works of art.

    Michele, you are so kind. I'll go check out your blog post now. Thank you for thinking of me!

  21. Simon, you are everywhere, aren't you? :o)

    I was excited to see that you were guest blogging! Not only does it allow even more insight into someone who loves Drunk Cats ;o) but also lead me to another blog that I now love! I wandered previous posts with a smile on my face.

    It amazes me how Flash Fiction is sometimes overlooked. I myself forget how freeing it can be to work on a short piece rather than a huge manuscript. As always, thanks for the reminder and I love the first one you posted here with the guy & girl. Yeah, she should have listened more closely to his response...;o)

  22. I meant to add this to my above comment:

    Carol - LOVE THE BLOG! lol I only spoke towards Simon above and failed to pass the love to you.

    I really did flip through your past posts and love them. It is such a wonderful thing to discover so many amazing people!

  23. Courtney:
    I'm so glad you could find Carol's blog through me. She's lots of fun, and I recall surfing the archives with a smile on my face the first time I stopped by her blog. :)

    I think flash is overlooked because novels are where the money's at (ostensibly), and short stories are usually seen as the gateway to novels by young writers. I'm very glad to have had a writing teacher who taught using mostly flash. First of all, it's easier to complete the assignments for class, and second, it taught me to think in small, cohesive units.

    Thanks for your comment(s)! :)

  24. Great fiction and great links!

  25. Thanks, Carrie! Glad you liked 'em.

  26. Southern Princess (Courtney, right?), thank you for your lovely comments. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you. My internet was down today. Blah. But I'm so glad you've enjoyed my posts. I very much look forward to browsing your blog as well. I'm already loving what I see. Fun, fun, stuff--right up my alley. I think you may very well be the southern, slightly more cheerful version of me ;)

    CKHB, thank you! I love that you were a former child actor turned writer. I can imagine there must be no end to your writing material. Great stuff. I look forward to following your journey.

    Simon, thank you for your kind comments. I tell ya, between the two of us, the flattery-slinging just may never end. But, please, don't stop on my account. I eat it up like sugar. And I'm pretty sure sugar's my absolute favorite thing.

  27. Fabulous post! I'm such a huge fan of flash fiction... It's tied for number two on my list of favorite things to write! (With poetry. And, of course, novel comes in a number 1.)

  28. Yay! I'm glad you love flash, Sara. It's such a fun way to express fictional ideas without all that overhead that comes with novels.

    And I'm working on appreciating poetry more. *Goes off to read Poetry for Dummies*


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