Writing Flash Fiction: Interview With Brevity Editor Dinty Moore

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By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

The new interest in flash is due mostly to the emergence of e-zines and other online publications. People are also buying more anthologies than in days past. Most e-zines accept flash; many specialize in flash or are flash-only. You can write flash in any genre from sci-fi to erotica. You can also write flash that’s non-fiction or creative non-fiction.

In searching for markets for your flash, look for related terms like sudden fiction, micro fiction, and postcard fiction. Brevity editor Dinty Moore says, “For fiction, I prefer sudden fiction, and for nonfiction, I am using the term short-short or sudden nonfiction. I suppose the terms don’t really matter, but what I want to get away from is the idea that short works come out in a ‘flash,’ or as mere sparks. They take development and they take time.”

Misconceptions about flash

Flash is easy. Flash is hard, harder than longer fiction to write. Writers who enjoy a challenge should tackle flash. “Making something so short a complete literary event takes skill, care, and attention,” Moore says.

Any short-short is flash. This is the most common misconception about flash. Flash is not about length alone. There is no set word limit for flash. If you’re writing for a certain publication, follow their word limit guidelines. I’ve published flash ranging from 100 words to 500 words. Some journals allow flash that’s close to 3k.

An excerpt from a longer piece, if short enough, is flash. “One of my pet peeves is the writer who sends me work and says, ‘Here is an excerpt from a longer piece that might suit.'” Moore says. “First of all, that phrasing shows a lack of confidence. Second of all, I don’t want an excerpt, I want a whole.”

Flash differs in its style, structure, word choice, etc. from longer fiction and an editor can spot a excerpt from a larger non-flash piece. If you’re looking to meet a word count, you’d be better off shortening a piece originally written as flash.

Flash is flexible in terms of storytelling conventions. Even though you’re writing flash, you still need to tell a complete story in terms of structure, character development and resolution.

Dashing off flash pieces will give you a greater quantity of stories to submit and a higher number of credits. This may be true but just because a piece is short doesn’t mean it requires less time to write. Poetry writers can attest to this. Just as a good poem can take years to finish, a flash story can take more time than a novel for a writer who’s particular. You may get immediate gratification from finishing your flash sooner than you would have finished a short story but you may take longer to edit the piece, rework your word choices or simplify your storyline.

How to approach flash fiction writing

Word economy

It’s no wonder that Ernest Hemingway wrote flash; his economic style was perfectly suited for it. One of his most famous is only six words long: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

The most important aspect of flash is word economy. This is another example of how poetry techniques are important tools for all writers. Not only does word economy allow you to convey your ideas within your word count limits, it adds to the flash feel of your story.

Word economy is not about fitting your story into word count parameters. It’s about making choices that keep the writing tight and brief.

Moore says, “The successful short essay starts fast and moves quickly, but doesn’t sacrifice vivid language to do so.”

The help of a crit group or writing buddy can be invaluable for the flash writer, especially when first getting into flash. Often we pare down our stories to what we think are the bare bones only to have a friend return a critique with another couple dozen words trimmed off the count. For example, “blue-green” could become teal. “A worn pair of jeans” could be “worn jeans.” This kind of editing gets easier as you practice it, It will also help you tighten your longer fiction and make it more compelling.

Your story idea

“Often, the essay centers on a single significant moment (or idea, or metaphor).” Moore continues. “‘Single’ is important, because if there is a single significant element in the essay, that element can be explored and illuminated in 750 words (the word count limit at Brevity). If there is too much to say, nothing is fully drawn.”

Like any creative writing, you can begin with a story idea. Maybe your idea is based on a character, a bit of dialogue or a “what if?” scenario. The key to using your story idea in flash is to keep it small. A good rule of thumb is the bigger your idea, the bigger your work should be. Some story ideas are conducive to a novel, some are better suited to a short story. Write first, think about your length later. If your flash idea needs 5k to be successfully told, maybe it was never meant to be flash.

Better left unsaid

One trick of flash writing is knowing what not to say. Assume your readers will fill in the gaps. Leave off backstory and superfluous details. Make sure your connections flow and make sense without telling us what fills in the blanks. Moore says, “Some writers, perhaps frightened by the stingy word count, fall into the bad habit of preaching and explaining.” Show, don’t tell: the writer’s mantra.

Other tips

  • Begin with action; drop the reader into something already happening.
    • Ideas:
      • In the middle of a robbery.
      • During the fight that ends a marriage.
      • An elephant breaks loose at a circus.
  • Shock or surprise your reader. You only have a line or two to grab a flash reader, whereas a novel reader might keep going for a full page. Human nature guarantees that sex and/or violence should work.
    • Ideas:
      • Make a character nude—in public.
      • Open a box that contains a body part.
  • Push your reader hard toward the story’s end. Don’t give your reader a chance to stop and think about things. To paraphrase the King Of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland: Begin at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, then stop.
  • Don’t hold back. Say everything you need to say in your story. Don’t let the word count stop you from communicating. Use the restraints to present just what is necessary. Think of it like watching a magician. Instead of the old “nothing up my sleeve, nothing behind my back, nothing in the hat” spiel, you’re just saying “Voila! Rabbit!”

Words of wisdom

Moore offers this advice to writers who want to try flash: “Don’t write one short piece and hope it is wonderful and makes your reputation. Write ten rough drafts of ten different ideas; save one. Write ten more, save two. Then develop those three and see what you learn.”

Markets for flash writing

Dinty Moore’s next book is a the memoir BETWEEN PANIC AND DESIRE: NOTES FROM A SERIAL PROJECTIONIST, which “journeys from 1962 to 2006 in twin strands: my pathetic life, and major cultural moments.” He has also published Toothpick Men: Short Stories (now in a new expanded edition available from the author), The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes and edited Sudden Stories: The Mammoth Book of Miniscule Fiction. His personal site is dintywmoore.com

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