The Literary Life

Two top literary agents on trends in book publishing, with recommendations for your reading list.

Fiction in a Flash!

When you like your stories fast.

Recently we wrote about the resurgence of "doorstoppers," or long novels. The flip side is flash fiction, also called blasters, flashers, micro-fiction, micro stories, mini-fiction, fast fiction, quick fiction, minute fiction, skinny fiction, sudden fiction, furious fiction, postcard fiction, immediate fiction, smokelong fiction and short-short stories. You'll find it on the Internet, in printed collections and even on Twitter. In the hands of skilled writers it has evolved into an art form, and it's something you should know about if don't already because it's a fun, easy way to relax, whether you read it or write it.

What Is Flash Fiction?

What is flash fiction? Exact definitions vary, but all agree it's short--anywhere from a single sentence (like this one attributed to Hemingway: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn.") to 1,500 words--and has a plot and at least one character. You'll find flash fiction stories in all styles, from literary to traditional to experimental, and all genres, from horror to erotica, romance, mystery and magic realism. Some practitioners enjoy working in specialized forms such as the 55er (10 sentences, beginning with 10 words, each line with one fewer word, ending in one word--totaling 55 words), the 69er (a story of exactly 69 words), the Drabble (a story of exactly 100 words) or the 369 (one story with an overall title, consisting of three thematically linked 69ers, each with its own title--in other words, 3 69s). Whatever the form, the flash fiction story delivers quick satisfaction, something we all crave in our breathless, short-attention-span world.

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Flash fiction is hardly new. Some of the shorter Aesop's Fables fall into this category, as do some of the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Classic writers such  as Ovid, Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekov, O. Henry and Franz Kafka worked in this form, as have contemporary writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. Women's magazines and tabloids have run quick romance reads for years. Mystery magazines have long featured "mini mysteries." But the form's current enormous worldwide popularity is definitely new.

Read Some

Why try reading flash fiction? For the same reason you may prefer short novels over long ones. Very quickly you take in a fully developed story and its message, and this gives you a sense of completion and accomplishment. In other words, instant gratification.

Here are some printed collections we recommend:

Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka.

Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories, edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard.

Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories, edited and introduced by Jerome Stern.

New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas

Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas.

Sudden Fiction (Continued): 60 New Short-Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas.

Sudden Fiction International: 60 Short-Short Stories, edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard.

World's Shortest Stories: Murder. Love. Horror. Suspense., edited by Steve Moss.

We also recommend the following websites that specialize in flash fiction.

365 tomorrows

A Fly in Amber

DOGZPLOT FLASH FICTION

Every Day Fiction

Flash Fiction, a flash fiction site based on writers' prompts

Flash Fiction Flash, a free monthly newsletter for flash literature writers

Flash Fiction Online

Flashes In The Dark

flashquake

FLASHSHOT

Mslexia

SmokeLong Quarterly 

Pow Fast Flash Fiction 

Quick Fiction 

Vestal Review

Not surprisingly, Twitter has become a natural platform for flash fiction. We recommend these sites featuring twit-fic.

escarp

Nanoism

PicFic 

Seedpod Publishing

Thaumatrope, a Twitter fiction magazine

trapeze magazine

Write Some

Why try your hand at flash fiction?

  • It's a way to polish your fiction writing skills.
  • It's a way to write every day, especially if you're temporarily stuck on a larger project.
  • It's a way to create a complete piece of writing quickly.
  • It's a quick and easy way to get published online.
  • It's a great way to relax.

Here are some tips.

First, write your story without regard to word count. When you're finished, go back and edit ruthlessly, keeping the following points in mind:

  • Remember that regardless of its length, a flash story is still a story. It must contain at least one character and have a definable plot with a beginning, a middle and an end; something has to happen. There must be a significant event with some sort of closure or resolution. Typically, closure consists of either a summation, a realization or a change in direction or twist.
  • One of the appeals of flash fiction is that it delivers a large impact with a small number of words; its effect on the reader should be greater than the sum of its words. Keep your writing tight by eliminating unnecessary words, using contractions, and using adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Avoid description and explanation; let your reader figure things out.
  • Aim for strong, interesting characters we can care about. Setting is less important.
  • Write as if you're looking through a literary microscope: focus on a brief, interesting idea or event, a moment in time.
  • Find the small story within the larger story. For example, the flash fiction form doesn't lend itself to a story about how a marriage has gone bad over the course of months or years. However, it would be appropriate to focus on one tiny moment that sums it all up. Here's one of my attempts, a 69er called "First Night in Paris."

When he walked into their hotel room she glanced up from her romance novel and forced a little smile she hoped said she trusted him. "The Champs-Élysées at dusk is magnificent," he said, but she knew he'd barely seen it because even from across the room she could smell a woman on him, and she knew from the way he quickly averted his gaze that he knew she knew.

  • Start in the middle of the action, and give us a great first sentence as a hook.
  • Conflict makes for a compelling story.
  • Keep it simple. Focus on the moment and create one memorable scene. Strong verbs, active voice.
  • Much of your story can (and must) be implied.
  • If possible and appropriate to your story, keep the reader guessing about something until the end, then finish with a shocking twist as a payoff.

See also any of these excellent guides to writing flash fiction.

Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes, by Roberta Allen.

Immediate Fiction: A Complete Course, by Jerry Cleaver.

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, edited by Tara L. Masih.

What to Do With It

  • Submit to flash fiction websites and magazines (see list above), and also to print magazines.
  • Enter flash competitions; check out Absolute Write Water Cooler's Index to Sudden Fiction Markets. (Flash fiction even has its own award, the aptly named Micro Award.)
  • Give flash stories as gifts. Neil Gaiman wrote his 100-word story "Nicholas Was" to put on the front of a Christmas card. Read the story here.
  • Tweet it (see Twitter sites above).

So have you tried flash fiction? If not, you really should.

Fast.

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Evan Marshall is the president of The Evan Marshall Agency, a leading literary management firm that represents a number of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors.

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