Monday, July 28, 2014

Wordcraft -- Tiny stories brief as bubbles

The topic under discussion at last weekend’s ArmadilloCon convention in Austin, Texas, was as brief as the subject: “Writing a 500-Word Story.” I bit.

For someone perpetually working on novels, where characters can take five hundred words just to walk across the street, I’m fascinated by the idea of telling a complete story in so few words. I already knew it wasn’t a matter of cutting a word here, a sentence there from a longer story. For someone like me, used to thinking in three-act structures, writing flash fiction means rethinking the entire structure of story.

Search engines such as Duotrope’s Digest and The (Submission) Grinder usually shoehorn any fiction under 1,000 words in the “flash fiction” category. Speaking practically, many publications prefer their fiction to be as short as possible. And that’s without including publications looking for drabbles (stories written in 100 words) or the excruciatingly terse twitter fiction written in not more than 140 characters.

Forget writing a synopsis or outline. The essence of flash is being in the moment.

“You’ve really got to pick what details are important,” said panelist Michelle Muenzler, who loves reading (and publishing in) Daily Science Fiction. “You’ve got to imply more than you say.”

Although the obvious solution would seem to be slicing the moment in time the story occupies as thinly as possible, she admits that in some longer flash fiction (700-800 words), she’s written as many as three or four individual scenes.

Go for words with multiple layers of meaning, panelists said, two, three, the more the better. And for the most precise words. And slash articles, the “a’s”, “an’s” , “the’s” whenever possible. Both panelists and audience members compared extremely short fiction to poetry, with the same brevity and precision of language.

There still must be a story, with characters, conflict, and resolution. Panelists dismissed alleged flash fiction that reads like a scene or opening chapter of a longer piece, emphasizing the need for the short fiction to stand on its own legs.

Suggested writing methods included stories written as snippets of overheard conversation, or even, Muenzler suggested, stories written as lists. (Fellow panelist/author Rie Sheridan Rose’s advice: “eavesdrop everywhere.”)

One panelist cited stories written as aphorisms that, cumulatively, imply a narrative. To be sure I knew how an aphorism (“a short, pointed sentence expressing a wise or clever observation or a general truth”) could be used as part of a story, I went to and found this statement by the late Nikita Khrushchev, quoted in New York Times Magazine: “Life is short. Live it up.” How’s that for part of a story?

Although flash fiction’s pedigree goes at least as far back as Aesop’s Fables, the technology revolution increased its impact when readers began looking for fiction that was easy to read on their phones. Whether the larger screens of e-reader devices will stem its growth is still to be determined.

As with any writing, the best way to learn how it’s done is to read it. Sheridan Rose cited publications specializing in the genre, such as Every Day Fiction (, Flash Fiction Online (, Daily Science Fiction (, Mirrorshards (, and Nature Futures, an imprint of the science journal Nature, requiring some actual science ( She also recommended the ezine Cease, Cows ( Some of these are paying markets, some aren’t. Mirrorshards is a personal blog.


Story contest update: FenCon’s deadline for its short story contest has been extended to August 1. Deadline for the conference’s young writers contest remains September 20.

(Next Monday -- more from ArmadilloCon or an ex-police chief’s suggestions for Dallas Mystery Writers? Check in to see which it’ll be.)

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