By Kira Homsher
Long before I discovered the terms “prose poetry” and “flash fiction,” I was writing very short, inscrutable paragraphs that, as far as I could tell, didn’t belong anywhere and certainly could not get published. I kept long documents filled with these paragraphs, which tended to waver between narrative and poetic, and I referred to the documents whenever I ran out of inspiration for a short story and needed to borrow old sentences or phrases. Occasionally, I even stuck these paragraphs in longer pieces of fiction, hoping that the poetic language wouldn’t distract too much from the larger story.
After years of writing seemingly genre-less chunks of words, I discovered Amelia Gray. Although I had never heard of her before, I was compelled to pick up her book AM/PM in a thrift store in Brooklyn. I flipped to a random page and was immediately hooked. The book, published in 2009, consists of 120 stories that are, for the most part, 1-2 paragraphs each. It only took me about an hour to read, but I’ve since spent many hours rereading it. In so few words, Gray managed to create addictively poignant stories and vignettes, incorporating setting, characters, and dialogue with simple, poetic language. Her stories were both hilarious and somber, strange and commonplace.
After reading Gray’s work, which was not only publishable, but publishable as a book, I became more confident that the little snippets I was writing might be able to stand on their own. I revisited my word doc of “scraps” and pulled out old bits of writing I wanted to rework. I soon found out that a flourishing scene of writers were publishing short short stories (also known as “flash fiction,” “micro fiction,” “flashes,” etc.) in online magazines. Flash fiction, often confused with prose poetry, is generally defined as a genre of literature which tells a complete story in 500-1000 words. It differs from prose poetry in that the writing is generally direct and narrative-driven rather than ambiguous and symbolic, and it incorporates characters, setting, and dialogue to further a plot.
What draws me to flash fiction is that with such an economy of language, every sentence counts. The genre is a bit like poetry in that you end up spending much more time thinking about the individual words in each sentence than you would writing short stories and novels. I am an excessively slow writer and flash fiction excuses my bad habit of overthinking every sentence. I see flash as a vehicle to work out rhythm, to experiment with plot, and to experience the satisfaction of seeing a story through to completion in what feels like a … flash. (Forgive me.)
Many magazines (see Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, Vestal Review, etc.) specialize in publishing flash fiction. The genre is attractive for a lot of online magazines due to its brevity and compression, as distractible online readers are generally more likely to finish a shorter piece of fiction. When submitting flash fiction, you should get a sense of the aesthetics of the magazines you wish to submit to by reading past publications, and you should also familiarize yourself with the guidelines. While most magazines tend to specify flash fiction as being >1000 words, some magazines are looking for stories as short as >500 words or, in some cases (see Penny Fiction, Wigleaf, 100 word story, One Sentence Poems, etc.) just a few sentences. Different editors seek different things in the flash fiction they publish, but almost all publications are looking for narratives that have an indescribable lasting effect, written in language that surprises.
Nothing inspires me to write more than reading a satisfying piece of short fiction. Often, when I hit a block, I visit my favorite online flash magazines and read a few stories until I feel motivated again. The genre is a joy both to read and to write, and I hope that more presses will become receptive to publishing the form in print. While flash is popular in literary circles, few flash collections make it to the bookstores. That being said, many notable authors such as Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, Joy Williams, Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Clarice Lispector do feature flash fictions in their short story collections. I’d argue that flash is a useful genre for all fiction writers to attempt, as it changes the way you think about the individual sentence as it relates to the story as a whole and provides a wonderful opportunity for experimentation.
A Philadelphia native, Kira Homsher is currently an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech, where she serves as Fiction Editor for the minnesota review. Her writing can be found in Ghost City Review, Bedfellows Magazine, and Unbroken Journal, and is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly and Middle House Review.