Keep it short. One of the first directives I received from publishers in the year 2000 was to try and keep the word count low and the picture content high. I was writing for newspapers and magazines which were expanding on to the web. Online publishing platforms were all looking for an audience. No one wants to scroll beyond the first screen view page, was repeatedly told to me.
We live in a culture promoting instant gratification. Limited time. Short attention spans. Twitter, initially limited to 140 characters and now expanded to 280 characters demonstrated the power of brevity. Initially publications thought they could use the space provided on their websites to run longer stories and add extra content. But in many instances, they’ve gone in the opposite direction. Publications accepting unsolicited creative writing submissions are often asking specifically for pieces that are short, preferably under 1000 or 750 or 500 words.
Creatively I like a challenge. Box me in and I will try to figure out a way to use the space within to my best advantage. That is part of the idea behind what has become known as flash literature. I say part of the idea, because just cutting something down in and of itself does not necessarily result in satisfactory piece worth reading.
Entire books have been written about the art of writing Flash Fiction and writing Flash Nonfiction. Peruse the internet and you’ll find a variety of definitions. In 2016 I took a class offered at St. John’s College in Annapolis taught by Lynn Auld Schwartz and got my initial introduction to writing Flash Fiction. We read pieces by authors that included Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel and Robert Olen Butler and we wrote and discussed our own short pieces. I became hooked, jotting down brief story ideas whenever I had the chance. They didn’t always work. Some stories that I’ve written—fiction and nonfiction— in the short form have taken years to refine. Lynn still teaches classes at introductory and immediate levels online. If you’ve never written flash before, it’s a good place to start.
The act of cutting away the unneeded components in a story, fiction or nonfiction, is an important exercise which forces the writer to consider line by line what is truly important. But in the process of doing this, you may discover, that you’ve left something out significant that will require you to dig deeper. This means that instead of subtracting words, you are adding them.
A word I like to use when contemplating short prose is distilling. Your writing job when undertaking flash prose is to extract the most significant elements of what you want to convey. If you are a chef, just think about simmering broth on a stove. The longer the broth cooks over a low flame and excess fluid evaporates, the flavor becomes intense. Time can help you assess whether you need to add a few more ingredients. A good piece of flash should be intense.
Randall Brown, writer and Founder and Managing Editor of Matter Press and the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts often uses the word compression when describing the attributes of a piece of flash prose. Compression, pressing together the elements of a narrative in a manner that retains the story arc while intensifying the reader experience is one of the gratifying results of completing a flash piece. It’s another word I often think of as I write “flash”.
At this juncture I’m going to mention a few more magazines. Wigleaf, Smokelong Quarterly and Vestal Review, that specialize in Flash Prose although there are dozens more literary magazines specializing in the shorter form they also call Micro, and short short. Whatever name you prefer, hundreds of literary publications include various forms of flash prose in their publications. For a challenge, Jellyfish Review this month is asking for submissions of one or two lines (sentences) only.
In journalism you lead with a hook. The first paragraphs ideally provide the Who, What, Where, and When. But in creative storytelling, the narrative can take a circuitous route. How skillfully can you distill your story into a space of less than 1000 words? The rewards if and when you can get it right are gratifying.