Flash Fiction – A Novice’s Tale

Flash fiction, micro-fiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction. Very short fiction goes by a number of names and its allowable word length varies – it may be less than 1,000 words, under 100, or, like the Writers Victoria Flash Fiction competition, up to 30 words.

The lower the word limit, the more important it is that every word counts. This makes flash fiction more akin to poetry than long form fiction, but with more plot and less imagery. It’s a quick dip – in, out, done.

But brevity does not imply rush. Flash fiction is also about restraint and precision and evocation.

Writers Victoria Flash Fiction 2022

As a newcomer to flash fiction, I happened upon Writers Victoria’s 2022 Flash Fiction competition, held annually since 2010. The task was fittingly brief: ‘30 days. 30 prompts. 30 words.’

Each day, the prompt word lobbed into my inbox at 8.00am. Then, along with hundreds of other participants, I had until midnight to submit an entry. The entry had to include the prompt word or an accepted variation.

Post-competition reflection

On reflection, I was pleased with some of my entries, barely satisfied with others, and a mite disgruntled with the rest. But my self-imposed task was to be disciplined about submitting, not to hold out for a work of genius.

To help me reflect on the experience, after the event’s completion, I turned to ‘12 Top Tips On Writing Flash Fiction’ by the award-winning children’s author Gareth P. Jones. The tips are published on the excellent Jericho Writers’ website.

Here are Jones’s tips, each one matched with one of my entries.

#1 Select Your Genre

Gareth Jones notes that ‘flash fiction can be in any genre’. As a reader of historical fiction and a long-time student of history (and having recently watched the second series of Bridgerton) it was no surprise that several of my entries had historical flavour.

Day 2 – glow
Miss Alice Wilmington strolled beneath her lace-trimmed parasol as she took a turn around the park.
‘Mama, it’s so hot. I’m sweating.’
‘My dear, ladies do not sweat; we glow.’

#2 Choose an Overarching Theme

Jones suggests that current events can be a jumping off point for flash fiction. In early April, I had read an essay about the arguments for and against the presence of brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park. The prompt word ‘dapple’ immediately conjured an image of these horses.

Day 17 – dapple
Bay, chestnut, strawberry roan and dapple grey
the high-country mob flashed before her eyes.
She wanted to love their brazen wildness,
but her heart bridled at ruined wilderness.

#3 Use One or Two Key Characters

With few words to work with, characters need to be kept to a minimum. Jones suggests making the protagonist ‘complex or flawed’ and ‘choosing first person over third person’. I now realise that I used third person for all of my entries, but I did follow the ‘complex’ character idea several times.

Day 21 – gold
Stella levered herself out of their old Corolla.
She keyed in the entry code and made her way to Doug’s room.
He blinked, vacantly.
So, these were their golden years.

#4 Make Every Sentence Count and Don’t Rush

After getting the initial words down, Jones recommends ‘peel[ing] away the unnecessary words’, followed by further carving and chiselling. I began my Day 7 entry (‘bright’) with a surfeit of words. The ‘story’ of the monk at his desk went through many iterations and much stripping away. The sunlight no longer ‘leached through the scriptorium window’, the monk’s eyes were not ‘bright with concentration’ and his pen did not hover over ‘hammered gold leaf’. I was not entirely happy with the final wording, but I think I made each word count.

Day 7 – bright
Winter sun stippled the scriptorium desk.
Back bent, fingers frozen, the monk’s pen did not falter.
His illuminations lit the room, brightening his soul with earthly delights.

#5 Prompt Visualisation

When inspiration failed for Day 16 (‘oasis’), I followed Jones’s advice and turned to old holiday photographs. When I came upon a photo of London’s St Dunstan-in-the-East, I knew I had found my ‘oasis’.

Day 16 – oasis
Glass and steel crowded the sky.
Red buses and black taxis charged along streets.
Tourists and office workers jammed footpaths.
Within St Dunstan’s bombed-out walls, Madeleine found her lunchtime oasis.

St Dunstan’s-in-the-East, London

#6 Start in the Middle & Use Descriptive, Concise Language

‘Don’t introduce the story – tell it’, says Jones. Begin at a point of drama.

Day 27 – soft
There was no point arguing.
She would have to be patient, take a softly-softly approach.
She needed a job and her own money if she was ever going to escape.

#7 Deal with a Single Conflict

‘Limit your conflicts to one single struggle or choice that your character encounters.’ For my ‘subdued’ flash fiction entry, I had in mind a young woman from the late Middle Ages, brazenly facing her (probably unjustified) death sentence.

Day 15 – subdued
Celeste bound straw to her breasts.
She wound it about her arms and legs.
‘A holy scarecrow!’ they jeered.
Head high, she faced the stake.
She would never be subdued.

#8 Use Descriptive, Concise Language

Shorter sentences, greater impact, says Jones. My Day 12 entry (‘shimmer’) included a long middle sentence. I like its descriptive aspect, but not its length.

Day 12 – shimmer
Marina splashed into the water.
The sea shimmered like a vast salt lake, its crystal light jitterbugging to the pulse of wind and tide.
Breathing deeply, she joined the dance.

Towards North Beach, from Bawley Point, New South Wales

#9 Create Surprise and Provide a Twist

‘A good piece of flash fiction often simply illuminates a fleeting moment … If you can surprise your reader then you’re onto a good thing.’ More sage advice from Gareth Jones. Having dipped my toes into the waters of tanka, I’m familiar with conveying fleeting moments and surprises (called ‘pivots’ in tanka). Some of my flash fiction (for example, Day 10’s ‘twinkle’) illustrated a fleeting moment, but I didn’t manage to create any surprises.

Day 10 – twinkle
At the wedding reception, Cedric watched the youngsters, twinkle-toed, twirling across the dance floor. His feet tapped beneath the table. He could still trip the light fantastic in his mind.

#10 Present a Memorable Last Line

Aim for a final line ‘with a little punch’, says Jones. I like my last line for Day 14 (‘horizon’). It’s succinct (so it meets the criterion for #8), it has no unnecessary words (#4), and it has a good, two-beat rhythm.

Day 14 – horizon
The move to London was meant to be a bold adventure.
But Margaret missed the outback skies.
Without the horizon, her vision vanished.

View from Sculpture Park, Broken Hill, New South Wales

#11 Write a Powerful Title

According to Jones, the ‘title is a part of the story’ in flash fiction. But for the Victorian Writers Flash Fiction Challenge, no titles were required. The word prompt became the de facto title.

#12 Get Others to Review and Critique Your Story

‘Be open to criticism and suggestions.’ Jones’s advice applies to all forms of writing. Beta readers, manuscript assessors, editors and proofreaders can all play a role in honing early drafts and later revisions.

The Victorian Writers competition didn’t allow much time for review and critique. The hint word was provided at 8am and entries had to be submitted by midnight. However, the flash fiction community provided excellent feedback. Although the undertaking was a ‘competition’, the spirit of collegiality and generosity shared by participants was more like a team sport where everyone was on the same side. Ultimately, there were some ‘winners’ – you can read them here – but I suspect every writer enjoyed and benefitted from the experience.

And that is Gareth Jones’s parting point – ‘enjoy the challenge’. Flash fiction ‘affords you the opportunity to play with a nugget of an idea and, hopefully, come up with something interesting, fresh and illuminating.’

My thanks to Writers Victoria for hosting their annual flash fiction exercise which is open to allcomers.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!

Links and Sources

Flash fiction, micro-fiction, postcard fiction ... one writing form, many names. I dip my toes in its waters courtesy of Writers Victoria's annual competition.
Writers Victoria tweet with prompt for Day 30 of Flash Fiction 2022

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