Note: Today we have a guest post on flash fiction from Simon Larter. Some of Simon's flash pieces include Twister (published at Per Contra) and Rise, Lazarus (Flashquake). In this article, Simon shares about a piece that didn't make it to publication and draws some principles about what makes good flash fiction.
Thus far in my writing career (such as it is), I’ve specialized in flash fiction. That’s mainly due to my fiction writing class in my last term of college, which focused almost exclusively on flash, but I’ve found I enjoy the form. It allows me to explore small, yet important ideas without the burden of a minimum word count or expectations of elaboration.
Despite the low word count, though, flash fiction has to tell an interesting story, or it won’t work. The same strictures that apply to novels apply to flash, they’re just distilled and amplified due to the brevity of the form. Characters have to be immediately interesting, or at least identifiable; situations must be compelling, or at least evocative.
With those things in mind, why don’t we look at a bit of flash fiction? Hop on over to my blog to read the piece I’ll be examining. (I’m posting it there because I don’t want to clutter Livia’s blog with an epic-length post.)
(Waits. Whistles. Taps toes.)
You’re back? Good. Thanks for reading that.
So did you see anything wrong with it? On the surface, it’s not so bad. I feel that the prose is fairly decent, and I like a couple of turns of phrase in it—I kind of dig the “porcelain crescent” bit, and I’m quite pleased with the flashback scene in the bathroom. The editors at Flash Fiction Online thought it was all right too: this piece made it through the first round of editorial review, which places it in the top 20% of all submissions in a given time period. So again, is there anything wrong with it?
Needless to say (since you haven’t seen this piece in FFO recently), Cake and Coffee didn’t get accepted. In the second round of editorial reviews, I got some pretty crushing feedback. Here’s one of the comments:
The writing was good up to the ending. Even if I could figure out what angered Jean so violently, the story would still have no plot.
And that was the best of it. “Totally miserable and unappealing MC,” was another comment. Yeah. Not so good.
But what can that teach us about what good flash fiction should be? For my part, I think it tells us that something significant must happen to the characters. You might say that allowing someone to be scalded and possibly disfigured is significant, and in real life, yes, it is. But in fiction, being burned by hot coffee is only significant if it produces a change in the characters. Feeling “small and cruel inside” is not a significant change. And have I really set Jean up as capable of this kind of cruelty? I don’t think I have. It seems almost arbitrary, and at the very least, it’s a disproportionate response to the loss of a slice of cake, of all things.
Another problem—and all the rejecting editors noted this—is that I have a seriously unlikable main character. I might have been able to get away with that in a novel, where there’s potential for development and change. But in flash? There’s not much room for that. My main POV character was neither interesting nor sympathetic, and that brings the whole story down.
I hesitate to draw any concrete conclusions about flash fiction from this one example, since with all art, there are exceptions to every rule. A more talented writer might have been able to easily surmount the difficulties I’ve presented. Still, in my own fiction, I want to be able to learn from what I perceive are my mistakes.
In the end, I feel that Cake and Coffee turned out as a glorified anecdote, and not a particularly pleasant one. Flash fiction should be more than that. I feel it should mean something, express something true, tell an important story. Flash fiction should matter.
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 and flash fiction. He graduated from Drexel University with a degree in Civil Engineering.