No matter whether you call it microfiction, sudden fiction, short-short or postcard fiction, flash fiction is officially in vogue. Usually defined as a story of around a thousand words or fewer (even as short as a sentence or two), flash fiction offers a unique opportunity to get creative and experiment. Since there just isn’t a lot of room for description, plot or character development, much of flash fiction’s power lies in its ability to hint at a larger story that’s lurking below the surface.
For some writers, such a limited word count might seem daunting rather than liberating—and writing flash fiction is certainly harder than it looks. So, for anyone who’s been wanting to try their hand but is unsure where to start (or if you’re already a flash aficionado and are now looking to get published), we’ve assembled some top tips—with the help of an expert!
Christopher Allen is the current editor-in-chief of SmokeLong Quarterly, one of our favourite online literary magazines and also one of the best places to submit flash fiction. Drawing on years of experience as an editor and writer, he shared some of his top tips for writing and submitting flash fiction, as well as some general musings on what makes the genre so great.
What do you think sets flash fiction apart from short stories? Is it just about word count?
Length is a starting point. I think it’s important to keep the definition of flash fiction as broad as possible in order to encourage experimentation and innovation. The last thing we’d want is to reduce the form to a few pat rules. That having been said, flash has a tendency to read faster than a short story. At the sentence level, urgency, rhythm and cadence play a much more integral role in flash than in longer narrative forms.
What are the key ingredients of compelling flash fiction, in your opinion? What should writers absolutely include & what should they leave out?
Besides urgency, rhythm and cadence, precision in terms of image and characterization is key. The flash writer should tell the story with the fewest images, metaphors and characters as possible. Scene-setting and throwaway character description—weather, eye and hair color and so on—if they are not integral to story, only serve to impede it. If you’ve spent your entire first paragraph describing the birds outside the character’s window, and your story is not about those birds, you really need to lose those birds.
How has your work as an editor influenced you as a writer? What has it taught you?
I’ve said this many times before, and it remains true every day: reading for literary journals has changed me as a writer. It has been a 24/7 masterclass for more than two decades. One of the main things I’ve learned is that the best stories result from a writer’s curiosity and need to share something wild and wonderful with the world. The best stories happen along a razor’s edge: where a story layered with heart, substance, innovation and immediacy, a compelling voice and a concept all come together. It’s a lot of work.
What kinds of stories would you like to see more of in submissions? And which ones have been done to death?
I don’t think we should put too many restrictions on our submitters. They should feel encouraged to do what they do and not to worry too much about pleasing a journal editor. I know everyone wants to be published, but it’s more important to keep honing your craft as you see fit. Keep reading, keep learning, but also keep control over how your personality as a writer grows.
But now here’s the thing: We read too many heartless stories that feel like they were written in a workshop merely for the sake of writing a story. Stories that ultimately have nothing poignant to say will probably get a speedy rejection from us. Cute stories that rely on a punchline ending will receive the same.
Sometimes when writers are dealing with an important, devastating topic—abuse, loss, mental illness, and all manner of pain – they rely too much on the topic to do the heavy lifting. We read 30 submissions a day, and probably 80% of them deal with these issues. You really do have to do something innovative and compelling. The topic alone can’t do that work for you.
What really turns you off in a submission (including the query letter, etc.)? And what makes you sit up and take notice?
We don’t read cover letters before reading the story, and often we don’t read them at all. Please don’t spend time writing one. Our editors, including our quarterly guest editor, read blind and have no access to the writer’s cover letter. All we need is a brief third-person bio, which we’ll read only if the story is accepted.
If you do choose to write a cover letter, please don’t write personal messages to us or the quarterly guest editor. In all likelihood we’ll never see it. And please don’t follow up and/or ask for feedback. Your message will almost certainly be lost on Submittable, and you’ll be angry that we didn’t reply. If you would like feedback, we have two forms on Submittable where you can submit and receive feedback from our experienced senior editors. All proceeds from these forms go directly to the editor(s) giving the feedback.
We will always sit up and take notice when we start reading a story and can’t stop until we gasp and say Damn at the end.
We love SmokeLong’s Global Flash Series, which you spearheaded. Can you tell us a bit more about the program: why you wanted to do it, what the process has been like, a moment that made you feel proud and/or inspired?
Thank you! My vision for the series has always been to celebrate non-Anglo writing communities around the world and to introduce these writers to the English language reader. When the stories receive recognition, we’re thrilled. One of the more recent stories, 熊貓飼養員 Panda Breeder, was chosen for The Best Small Fiction 2019.
Flash fiction is hot right now, but of course it has a long history – who in your opinion are the masters? The writers to look to, to see how it’s done?
Because I’m such a wacky Virginia Woolf fan, I see the essence of the flash narrative in Woolf’s “sketches”, in her need to explore the depths of what she called “The Moment of Being”. But this is definitely an anglocentric notion of the origin of flash due to my ignorance of the form’s history in other languages. We’d need to have this conversation with scholars from around the world to arrive at a relevant list.
As for contemporary masters, I’d get myself in all sorts of trouble if I started mentioning names. The Best Small Fictions, Wigleaf‘s annual Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions, and the SmokeLong Award for Flash Fiction are great places to start for writers who are new to the form.
Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press, 2018) and the editor-in-chief of SmokeLong Quarterly. His work has most recently appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2019, Booth, Split Lip Magazine and others.
SmokeLong Quarterly publishes flash fiction narratives of 1000 words or fewer—whether written by well-known authors or those entirely new to the craft. They take submissions 365 days a year, do not charge reading fees, and pay $50 per story.