Improve Your Writing in a Flash

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When I started paying attention to my writing (as opposed to when I first started writing!), there was something around called short-short stories; these days it’s known as flash fiction or sudden fiction, a very short storytelling form.

A famous example of the shortest form, six-word fiction, probably erroneously attributed to Ernest Hemingway is: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Hard to outdo that for drama and brevity!

And of course very short fiction not every writer’s literary cup of tea. But I’d like to suggest that, no matter what you write, trying a flash-fiction piece or two might actually improve whatever else you do.

How short is short? That depends on the publication (well, you do want to be published, right?). Generally, anything under 1,000 words is considered flash fiction, though some purists put the number at 100. Others push the envelope at 25. You get the drift.

Don’t be seduced by the length: good flash fiction is extremely difficult to write. When you’re dealing with so few words, every one of them has to count, every one of them has to be just right.

On top of that, you still need a story arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is how flash differs from a vignette: you still need to tell a story, make a point; and the fact that you need to do it with so few tools — words — means you have to be concise, clear, on topic, and… well, yes: elegant. It still needs to be readable, after all.

What do you need to watch out for? Adverbs and adjectives. Writing flash fiction is a terrific way to find out whether you lean too heavily on them normally — and how you can actually live without them. Ask yourself whether they are really necessary in getting your story told. In fact, ask yourself whether any of your words are necessary… you may be surprised at what you find!

Exercise: Feeling inspired? Then let’s get going! Try out the flash fiction genre now and see how it works. Your assignment is to write a story in 25 words. Exactly 25 words — not 24 or 26. And then revise it. And revise again. See how it works?

Markets: There are a number of online literary journals that accept flash fiction submissions; included here are a few to get you started; for a more complete list, just Google “flash fiction markets.” It’s interesting that a great many flash fiction journals specialize in speculative fiction; I’m sure there’s a parallel to be drawn between the genre and the style.

But, wait, there’s more! Here’s a great side effect to trying it out: even if you never publish any flash fiction, the very act of writing it, as an exercise, will help you develop a critical eye toward all your writing. Once you get used to asking yourself whether this word or that word is absolutely necessary, you’ll be able to clear away a lot of the overwriting that’s such a common pitfall for beginning writers.


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