Three flash fiction writers from across U.S. tell how they create tiny stories
(First in a two-part series)
“Flash fiction takes a big idea and places it in a small container, without any of the substance falling out.”
That’s how Nevada artist-turned flash fiction writer Jim McCormick defines the genre. He purposefully writes well beyond any imposed word limit until his story is complete. Then comes what he calls the reductive process.
Similarly, Florida FF writer Madeline Mora-Summonte says she writes “draft after draft” until she’s down to the required length. Doug Mathewson, a FF writer and journal editor from Connecticut, says that condensing a story can change more than just the word count.
Creating flash fiction sometimes requires meat-cleaver editing but, as McCormick says, the substance must be preserved. In recent email interviews, these three flash fiction writers discussed their techniques, offered their thoughts on word length and touched on an assortment of topics related to this literature in miniature.
Word limits are common to fiction journals and flash fiction competitions. Staying under a specific number of words–or in many cases hitting the number exactly–is formidable when trying to create a complete story and each of the writers has a slightly different perspective.
by Madeline Mora-Summonte
The boy’s on my porch. Come to rob me, I know. I’m old, alone. The gun bucks in my hand. Blood spatters the newspapers in his fallen bag.
“I start to write,” says Mathewson (also interviewed on the phone) “and as the story comes together in my head I have a feel for the word count.” He says he sometimes edits up or down, but “after a certain point it becomes a different story.”
He said a friend sent him a submission for his flash fiction magazine, blink|ink, that was a good story but too long. “He edited it [from 155 words] to 52 words and swore it was one of the worst things he ever had to do. Both stories were great and they were nothing like each other.”
Faced with a length limit, Mora-Summonte says she usually has to take out words to achieve the mandated number. “I always have to cut it down, to pare it to the core.”
McCormick, a former university art professor, compares the process to creating visual art. “I long ago understood myself to be a visual artist comfortable with an additive approach,” he says. He created collages, mixed media works and low relief sculpture by adding elements. Taking away was tougher.
“When I was painting I had great difficulty,” he says, “taking a piece of cloth to an unsuccessful passage of wet oil paint and wiping it out.
“What has been surprising to me, [regarding flash fiction] is that I employ essentially a reductive approach–an art of rescission.”
One similarity with his collage work, however, he says, “is shifting words or larger concepts clear across the narrative, like I might move a large shard of colored paper or a cut up photograph in a college…to see if it shakes the work up.”
Mathewson was once asked to write something that would be literally shaken up. He was asked to write a poem (one of several others) that would be stuffed into a piñata and broken open in a bar to celebrate a city pub crawl.
He got started writing flash fiction by setting a goal of having 50 pieces published in online magazines in one year. He accomplished the goal, but was then dismayed by what he says are drastically uneven quality standards among online literary journals. At one end of the scale are publications that seem to accept anything, he says, and at the other are journals that publish only one to two percent of submissions.
One of the things he’s learned about his writing is that shorter is better. “I have no capability for writing long stuff,” he says.
“Some people have a novel they’ve been working on for 10 years; it’s in its eighth revision,” he says. “I don’t have the patience for that.
“My idea is, you jump in, you do it and you jump out and it’s a whole piece. That I can do.”
Mathewson says he’s best at stories less than 500 to 600 words. His shortest published story appeared in Smith Magazine which focuses on six-word stories.
Mora-Summonte recently published a story of 25 words and another of 140 characters. The latter story, Mourning News, appeared in onefortyfiction.com. While some of her other published stories nudge the boundaries of flash fiction–one weighs in at just over 900 words–she says she does not have a favorite length.
“A good story is a good story,” she says, “whether it’s told in 25 words or 2,500.”
“Sometimes I’ve written 47 words and that’s all I’ve got to say,” says Mathewson. “Other times I’ve got 52 words and I don’t want to give any of them up.”