photo by Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo
by Nik Perring
It’s true to say that Flash Fiction (or short, short stories, a term I find preferable and more accurate) is experiencing a prolonged surge in popularity. Little stories, we are told (and I wouldn’t disagree with those who are telling us this) are very well suited to our lives. They are manageable. They are fun-sized. Bite-sized. We can consume them in the amount of time it takes us to smoke a cigarette, or to drink a mug of coffee. We can consume them while we’re waiting in waiting rooms. On the tube. Even – as someone told me about my book – while waiting for traffic lights to go green. We can download them onto our phones and tablets, if we’re not flicking over a couple of actual pages in an actual book. And this is good. It’s a wonderful thing to get that literary hit, that fix of Story, in only a few minutes and that will, if done well, stay with us for a considerable time after we’ve read it, long after we’ve finished our commute, or completed our meeting. Once those traffic lights have turned green.
And, the number of places who provide us with these stories – the publishers, the magazines, the journals, the websites and ezines – have increased too. I’ve made it my business, as a writer of short stuff, to read them widely and many of them are excellent. All of them are doing their bit to deliver short fiction to us. And it all sounds very modern, doesn’t it, which has led to a misconception that’s more common than it should be – that the form of the very short story is new. Some would even have you believe that they were invented for the smartphone or tablet. They weren’t. Kafka never had an iPhone. Hemingway didn’t have a iPad. And so on.
So. Short stories are popular.
More people are reading them.
And there are more places providing them to us.
And you all know what that means, don’t you? That’s right – more people are writing them. YOU, I’d guess.
And I’m not saying that that is a bad thing. It isn’t! It’s good and it makes me happy. It keeps things healthy and accessible; art should be for everyone, after all.
But there’s a difference in how people view the creating of these short, short stories. To some, short stories are simply what they write; what they do. To others, they’re the diluted personification of the literary craft.
Others view them as a way to practise ‘proper’ writing. And others still, see this form as an easy way to produce a body of work, or as an easier way of being published.
And you know what, they’re right. Because writing anything is practice, and practice is good. The exact same principles of good story telling apply, regardless of the length of what we’re writing. These stories need to have good ideas, and those good ideas need to be converted into great stories. Those stories need to be told efficiently, and they need to move the reader in some way. They need to be well crafted and revised and shaped. They need to be brilliant.
And it’s true, too, that it is easier to get a piece of short fiction published than it is a novel. For one, most of the sites and magazines who are publishing this kind of stuff don’t pay (their editors, readers, or contributors – that’s quite a difference when you look at what advances one might get for a book from even the smallest of traditional publishers, and the salaries that publishing pros are on – even if they are meagre, as I’m sure they are in many cases). So, yes, it is easier. And, in a lot of ways, I think it’s a sensible route for people to go down. Getting stories in quality places is an excellent way of building your CV and to generate a readership. It’s also a great way to test the quality of your work – if it’s out there people can have opinions about it. That’s how I got started.
So there is some wisdom in this. There is sense to it, too. As I said, I think writing anything is good practice. And that’s what, as writers, we should all be doing as much as we can: practising, learning, improving – getting GOOD.
So, yes. It’s good. It’s sensible. What it isn’t, and certainly shouldn’t be though, is easy or fast (unless you’re ridiculously talented, in which case you won’t even need to read on). That’s both wrong and disrespectful to the form and to those who write it. Here’s the thing: a short, short story, a flash fiction – whatever you want to call it – is a story, that happens to be short. Simple as that. And because it isn’t very long, we might not spend as much time writing it as we would something longer. In fact, we may even be able toss out a whole first draft in fifteen minutes. Puke it onto the computer. Wank it onto the page. It can be gratifying.
But then what happens? Do we sit back, all smug, and say: Look how awesome I am, I just wrote a whole story in the amount of time it’ll take someone to read it? We could. But then we’d be amateurs. And you fine folk are not amateurs, are you? No, you’re committed and intelligent and not naïve enough to think that short, short fiction is the only literary form that doesn’t require any work additional to the writing of a first draft.
So, you do know what happens next. That first draft gets worked on. It gets shaped, moulded, refined, diluted, added to or cut away. It gets edited. And how do we edit these things? In exactly the same way as we’d edit anything else. Thoroughly, meticulously. With care and pride and with the desire to make this small bunch of words as good together as they can possibly be – to give the story the words it needs.
I have a sign on my wall. It’s something I came up with a little while ago while questioning my own writing process (when, yes, I probably should have simply been getting on with it).
It says this: ‘PRODUCT, NOT PROCESS’.
What’s important is what we end up with. The finished article. It doesn’t ultimately matter how we get there. It definitely doesn’t matter how long it’s taken us to write (though, for any of you curious folks, as an average, a story of mine – say 800 words – will usually take me ten days of serious work to finish). (And, for those of you who are really curious, this is my process: Write it longhand. Type it up, giving it a very lazy but organic half-edit as I go. Print it off. Edit the hard copy. Type it up. Repeat until done. Then, record it being read aloud. Listen to it back. Make changes. Type them up. Repeat that until done. Over and over. For days. And days. And days.)
So, what I’m really saying is this: do what you need to do to make your stories brilliant and to get them read. Want to make them brilliant. Enjoy the process of making them brilliant and of finding brilliant homes for them. But don’t forget that the most important thing is what you end up with: the story.
Story’s the important thing. And to make something brilliant and important isn’t easy, and nor should it be.