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Size Matters

commentary by Jude-Marie Green

Can you tell a story in 1,000 words? Well, can you, punk?

When I think of flash fiction I’m reminded of that old television show, Name That Tune. The contestants challenged each other over smaller and smaller numbers of notes: “I can name that tune in five notes!” “Well, I can name it in four notes!”

“Name that tune!”

Name that emotion. Music brings up our emotions, tantalizes us with memories; and the best fiction does the same. Name that story: “I can suffuse words with a story arc, character development, and emotion in just 1500 words, 1000 words, 750 words!”

“Write that story!”

Is flash fiction relevant in today’s fiction market? Mary Robinette Kowal’s flash, Killer Robot Monkey, which clocked in at 942 words, was nominated for the 2009 short fiction Hugo award.

The writer’s job has never been more difficult; catch and retain the interest of a reader whose attention is multi-tasked and drawn to the next great thing.

The editor’s job is to keep that reader’s attention too. Flash fiction is the perfect method for capture.

Online, where there are few space limitations, short stories are still the favored length. The complete texts of novels are available online, from DailyLit to Tor.Com, but novels are delivered broken into parts, chapters, that approximate short story lengths. Online readers do not want to invest the time to read more in one sitting. They click through the offerings and settle where the eye is caught and flit away again the second they are bored or distracted.

Short enough to be read in one screen or one breath, more satisfying and less obscure than poetry, flash fiction fills a niche that is growing on the internet, the amuse-bouche of fiction.

But what do readers and editors want from flash fiction?

Not just a cascade of exquisite words. The compelling part of flash stories isn’t flash. The reader wants a story. Entertain me, says the reader. Satisfy me. Give me a reason to read and a reason to remember.

Aye, there’s the rub. A complete story: beginning, middle, end, a character arc, in fewer words than your daily text to your BFF.

Hemingway’s effort, Hills Like White Elephants, clocks in at 1500 words. This dialog-rich story rewards a careful reading. Few hills, no white elephants, but emotional loading that etches a place in the reader’s mind, a grain of sand that worries the emotions until a pearl is created.

Print media is well-suited to longer work since the eye does not tire as easily from non-flickering pages. As such, it was great to have The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction participate in the flash phenomenon and wow its readers with a three-page flash story by Tim McDaniel, Why the Aliens Did What They Did to that Suburb of Madison Wisconsin June 2006). Perhaps chosen as space-filler, this is the one story I remember from that issue.

Most online markets publish flash-length fiction. Quite a few specialize or focus exclusively on flash. This is a great length for experimentation, too, and helps to blow out the definition of what can comprise a story. Cat Rambo’s story, Ten New Metaphors For Cyberspace, certainly is not in conventional structure, but manages the story arc and still sweeps a reader’s breath away with its imagery and character.

Editors love flash fiction. We see it as part of our mission: To Seek Out New… no, that’s not it. The Last Best Hope… nope. We want to publish powerful stories with emotion that resonates in our minds and hearts long after the first reading and makes us want to read them again and again. Yes, that’s it. We want to remember that story.

And when it comes to flash fiction? Resistance Is Futile.

For more information, check out the history of flash fiction at Wikipedia.

copyright September 2009 by Jude-Marie Green

Jude-Marie Green lives in southern California. She is Associate Editor of Abyss & Apex Magazine of Speculative Fiction and her own flash fiction has appeared in Ideomancer and Every Day Fiction, and will be appearing in the October 2009 issue of 10Flash.

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10 Responses

  1. […] For the September column, I want to welcome Jude-Marie Green, Associate Editor of Abyss & Apex Magazine of Speculative Fiction. Jude-Marie has some interesting things to say about how flash fiction is influencing both the print and online fiction market these days in Size Matters. […]

  2. I think that writing good flash is also a hard-won skill. (One that I, admittedly, don’t have.)

    • Hi J. Kathleen,

      I seem to remember a conversation that started, “I only write novels, I can’t write short stories….”

      And yet here you are. I think your talent is in the words, not the length.

    • Whether or not that is so, Jeannette, you certainly have your own hard-won skills. You’re longer stories are marvelous pieces of story-telling.

      I particularly liked Touching the Dead. And I would love to have you take a crack at flash for the January 2010 issue of 10Flash.

      If it’s something you might consider, please send me an e-mail — keelycball@gmai.com. We can discuss details.

  3. What a great new feature here and wow what a beginning. I love the name that tune analogy: name that emotion. Does that ever sum up flash.

    And thanks for the reminder of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants!” I hadn’t even thought about its length ever, just that it is one of the few things of his I adore (that and the “Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and maybe a couple more).

  4. I am not Hemingway, but yes, I can tell a story in 6-800 words. And since I learnt quite recently that they are called flash fiction, I have enjoyed them even more :)

  5. Really great article. I enjoyed reading it!

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