Friday, 18 July 2014

Writing Flash Fiction

Illustration by Clair Rossiter

July is upon us, and with it the fourth issue of Stew Magazine (hooray!) My flash fiction story this month is called Apocalypse Wow and it’s notable for being the very first thing I wrote for Stew, way back in January last year. The fact that it hasn’t appeared until now is more a quirk of scheduling than anything, and it’s a story I continue to hold close to my heart.

I’ve decided to celebrate the publication of Apocalypse Wow with a blog post all about flash fiction – why it’s worth writing, what types of stories are best suited to it and some of my own experiences of the process. I hope you’ll find it useful and informative, and that you’ll also consider checking out Stew Magazine to read the stories themselves.

If you’re a member of the SCBWI Yahoo Group, some of this material may be familiar from my month spent as moderator – I’m pleased to bring this advice to a wider audience.

What is Flash Fiction?

Flash fiction is generally defined as a complete short story of a thousand words or less, such that it fits on two facing pages of a magazine. This length makes flash fiction great for our ever-declining modern attention span, and is ideal for reading on websites, e-readers and mobile devices. There are lots of different formats of flash fiction - many of which drop precipitously in word length - from the Drabble (which is a story exactly 100 words long), through 140 character Twitter fiction to stories of just six words! My Stew stories are a positively indulgent 600-700 words, which still allows plenty of space on the page for some gorgeous illustrations.

Why should I waste my time writing flash fiction when most publishers aren’t interested in it?

For a long time, I looked down on short stories as a lesser art form, simply because I kept seeing statements on agent’s websites saying "no poetry or short stories." I was focused on writing something that would get me published as quickly as possible, so it's rather ironic that flash fiction eventually turned out to be my route into print! The other great thing about flash fiction is that it's not just quick to read, but quick to write as well (so it won’t take you away from your novel for too long). I particularly enjoy the fact that I can have an idea one day and have a complete first draft of a flash fiction story by the end of the next. I find that ideas can very quickly go stale for me; there are so many that I've abandoned in the past because I didn't like them enough to commit to a whole novel. Flash fiction is a great way of capturing my enthusiasm and getting it onto paper.

What sort of subjects make for good flash fiction?

Pretty much anything you like. Why not pick something fascinating that you want to explore - a specific idea, emotion, tone or voice? Flash fiction is also great for experimenting with structure. Some of my stories are very metafictional, and the September issue of Stew will feature Hacking History, which is a story about what would happen if your e-book got hacked while you were reading it! It’s unique among my stories for being written in three different voices (and is still only 600 words long).

This all sounds interesting, but I’m still not sure what I’d write about

You probably already have loads of things you could write a short story about, you just haven’t realised it! I've found flash fiction to be a great way of recycling discarded ideas and stopping them going to waste. Apocalypse Wow was an idea I’d had for a novel, and I’d already done a couple of weeks’ work on it. I loved the idea of writing the most positive book possible about the most negative thing I could think of (the end of the world). But somewhere along the line, I got whisked away by a new idea and Apocalypse Wow became another pile of words gathering dust in a notebook. When the chance came to write a story as my audition for Stew, I realised that the climax of the book would be perfect for a piece of flash fiction.

What's the difference between writing a novel and writing flash fiction?

At the most basic level, only length! If you're used to writing short chapters or blog posts, then you're already halfway to making the switch. But if you want to write a rounded piece of flash fiction, you'll need to consider what you want to say and how to express it as succinctly as possible.

My writing needs room to breathe and develop over thousands of words. Why should I strip back the evocative sensory detail/rich internal monologue/powerful world building that makes my work great?

You don't have to lose all of this good stuff in a flash fiction story. In fact, I'd argue that these things are what help to suck a reader into your world. The important thing to realise is that you can't do ALL of them in one story. Pick one aspect and build your flash fiction around it. For instance, I'd become frustrated at the lack of sensory detail in my early efforts, so I built a tale around the sensations a boy feels as he writes a letter using the last typewriter on Earth, and how this reflects on his future world where almost everything is done by direct brain control (you can read that one in Stew issue three).

Can I have plot development in a flash fiction story?

Absolutely - I seem unable to write a story without loads of plot! You just need to move the plot along more quickly - one of the reasons that short stories tend to end with a twist is that it's much easier to deliver a short, sharp shock than to have a long slow character arc. But you can do that too, provided that's what you're focusing most of your words on.

Stew Issue 4. Cover illustration by Joe Lillington

I’m sure that there’s more I could say, but I seem to have gone over a thousand words just talking about how to write a story in less than a thousand words! Feel free to ask me any further questions in the comments below, though.

Good luck with writing your own flash fiction, and I hope some of you get to read Apocalypse Wow in Stew Magazine (if you live in London you can find the magazine in branches of Foyles and at the Tate Modern shop).