What is Flash Fiction?

This outline is taken from my presentation at the awards ceremony of the Whangarei Library Flash Fiction Competition 2016.

Flash fiction is:

  • Exactly what it says it is – fiction that can be read in a flash.
  • It is short fiction
  • It is usually under 1000 words, often with word limits of 500, 300, 250 and 100 words.

There are intersections with “smokers” (articles that can be read in the time it takes to smoke a pipe of tobacco – not recommended as a practice, but a useful time indication), short-short fiction, micro-fiction. Sometimes the resemblance is so close these might almost be considered as aliases.

The skills involved are:

  • Concise writing
  • Precision, or to use the popular cliché, the right word in the right place at the right time.
  • Structure and management of style. Flash fiction is not necessarily narrative, although much shares qualities with narrative.

The strengths of Flash Fiction are:

  • FF allows experimentation for little time expense, or at least less expense than, say, writing a novel.
  • It may bridge the gap between prose and poetry.
  • It need not be conventional. Flash fiction may include vignettes (short descriptive works) and meta-writing (or self-reflexive writing and writing about the process of writing).

Flash fiction is not necessarily narrative, although much shares qualities with narrative. If it was necessarily narrative it might be better described as short-short stories, or even “Flash Narrative”. But as “fiction” has a specific meaning and we are wordsmiths, I regard narrative as optional.


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Jade Staircase Lament – In a Station of the Metro

Jade Staircase Lament – In a Station of the Metro is published in the “Hauntings” edition of Paper Tape Magazine.

Jade Staircase Lament – In a Station of the Metro is based on two early poems by Ezra Pound. Care was taken with the geography to ensure authenticity.

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Ophelia Redux

Ophelia Redux is to be published in the launch edition of Bare Fiction magazine on 21st December 2013. The issue can be pre-ordered from the Bare Fiction website.

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*** On Helen Weaver… featured in Blue Fifth Review

*** On Helen Weaver, Amelia Earhart and the Sibyl of Cumae is featured in Blue Fifth Review: Blue Five Notebook Flash Mob Special Sept 2013.

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Notes on *** On Helen Weaver, Amelia Earhart and the Sibyl of Cumae

*** On Helen Weaver, Amelia Earhart and the Sibyl of Cumae is a piece of flash fiction, with a limit of 300 words, written for Flash Mob 2013 with the instruction to “… push the envelope, challenge the constraints of flash fiction. Experimentation is encouraged. As there’s no entry fee for this competition, take risks and create something bold and fresh. Write something no one has ever seen before. Or write something we’ve seen before, but make us see it anew.”

*** is written as an experimental piece, in the selection and combination of material and in the structure of the composition.

The selection of material spans poetry, theatre, mystery and legend, music, geography and geology. This is an ambitious scope to manage. It may be argued that “borrowing” from other work to provide a back story to this piece is cheating in some way, but some of the pieces I have used in this way do the same, so I feel there is a “layering” of technique here.

The start and finish of the piece is based on “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot, which gives the piece a remarkable amount of freedom. Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” shares “Oed’ und leer das Meer”  – wide and desolate the sea – with Eliot, and this introduces the main theme of travel. The Sibyl is, of course, mentioned in the epigraph to “The Waste Land”.

The Greek theme is further extended by including the legend of Daedalus and Icarus, and Euripides play “Electra”. The musical theme is extended by including Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, particularly the thirteenth theme. This is a romanza which is entitled ***, hence the inclusion in the title of this piece and also contains a quotation from Mendelssohn’s “Calm Seas and Prosperous Voyage”, also included in this piece of writing.

The cast list has revealed and hidden characters. Helen Weaver is the least well known of the revealed characters, with her background only hinted at in the piece. Surprisingly, she is the main thread holding the piece together. Helen Weaver was a fiancée of Edward Elgar, but the engagement was terminated and Helen travelled to New Zealand – the Taranaki region. Taranaki is a large volcano and the region has beaches of black volcanic sand. There has been some speculation that the *** variation in the Enigma was dedicated to her, and not Lady Mary Lygon, as usually accepted.

Electra continues the Greek theme from earlier in the piece. Electra was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus murder Agamemnon, only to be murdered in revenge by Orestes and Electra, at least according to Euripides. Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were lost flying a modified Lockheed Electra aircraft.

The Sibyl was introduced to the piece initially as a commentary about ambition and consequences. Carelessly asking for a life as long in years as the number of grains of sand she held in a fist, she forgot to ask for the youth to go with it, and ended her life by withering away. The Greek oracles were famous for making ambiguous prophesies, and here the untended consequences ware self-inflicted,reflecting the theme of making decisions that frames this piece. (The Sibyl also adds an interesting time dimension to the piece, but this is not fully realised.)

The structure of the piece is that of a weave with borders. The narrator provides the borders, ending at the decision making process in the third paragraph and picking up aain at the meditation starting “We are all stranded…” and introducing a major theme in the piece.

I do not accept flash fiction should necessarily have a start, middle and end, preferring to experiment outside the normal narrative. Here the three main stories of Helen Weaver, Amelia Earhart and the Sibyl are intertwined. Including three narratives in one piece may seem foolhardy, but the medium allows experimentation for a small cost time-wise and Flash Mob encouraged the pushing and challenging of the boundaries. I would not like to try an experiment like this in a longer piece, simply because it would hold too great a time and effort cost if it failed.

This piece is not an easy piece to understand. It is dense in unspoken as well as spoken detail, has an unusual structure and uses characters ie: * that are not in the alphabet. It has several themes, unwise decisions, personal responsibility, the nature of adventure and unintended consequences, migration among others. It spreads across different eras and timespans.

*** On Helen Weaver, Amelia Earhart and the Sibyl of Cumae draws on ideas and fragments of one person’s mind, which is not going to be the same as another person’s knowledge. But in exchange it provides a challenge and a fabric which interested readers might be able to work from and develop. As such, it takes on a life of its own, and ceases to become a fossil narrative. At least I hope so.

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*** On Helen Weaver, Amelia Earhart and the Sibyl of Cumae

“*** On Helen Weaver, Amelia Earhart and the Sibyl of Cumae” is featured in the 2013 Flash Mob blog.

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Pandora and the Brain Surgeon

Pandora and the Brain Surgeon is published in this month’s edition of Blue Fifth Review Flash Special (June 2013).

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