"You know what? The bastard blows me out of the water. This guy writes Maine like Ardai writes New York. If you're not reading him, you don't know what you're missing." --Chris F. Holm, author of "The Collector" series, The Killing Kind, and Red Right Hand.

"A refreshingly new voice in noir." --Ed Kurtz, author of Nothing You Can Do and The Rib From Which I Remake the World.

"A glorious boilermaker of noir and East Coast gothic. The action is taut as a sprung snare and Bagley tightens the screws with every page." -- Laird Barron, author of Swift to Chase and Blood Standard.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Flush That Flash

I’ll just come right out and say it. Most flash fiction is crap. I see you out there, your mouth hanging open, your head shaking. Did Bagley mean that? Yeah. I did. I’ll say it again. Most flash fiction is crap. Ca-ca. Excrement. Shit (or shite, for my friends across the pond). And for those of you ready to point a finger at me and say, But you write it too, you hypocritical prick, I’m including all but a couple of my own pathetic attempts.*

Here’s the problem: flash fiction (or a short-short or whatever term you prefer) is passed off as a legitimate form of short fiction. That means "short story." The keyword here is story. If a piece of flash fiction is to be accepted as a short story, then it must satisfy the requirements of story. It needs round characters, a vivid setting, convincing dialogue, a plot, rising tension, a climax and resolution that brings about some sort of change in the protagonist. Fiction Writing 101.

That’s a tall order for “stories” of 2,000 words or less, and it’s why I say most examples of flash fiction cannot be considered short stories. At best, they are only scenes; at worst, they’re nothing more than literary masturbation. In our genre, flash writers tend to go for shock over substance. That will only take you and your readers so far. I rarely write or read flash anymore. I’m tired of all these empty little sketches.

Look. If you want your flash fiction to be taken seriously, you had better put in the proportionate amount of time and effort as you would for a 10,000 word story. Too many beginning writers think that shorts are mere practice for the “real” work of writing novels. So it’s okay if their flash fiction fails to deliver the basic elements of story because it is, after all, only a warm-up for the real thing.

Bullshit. Writing good short fiction is tough. There are successful novelists who could not write a decent short if their lives depended on it. As in a poem, every phrase—every word—of a short story has to pull its own weight. I just don’t see that attention to craft reflected in the majority of flash fiction appearing on the web. I wish to hell I did. Instead, so much of the stuff out there reads like the author chugged a twelve-pack before cranking out 800 words and sending their masterpiece off to some flash forum where editorial input is either weak or nonexistent.

Now bring on the angry villagers with their pitchforks and torches…

*There were a few good stories posted on the old Flashing in the Gutters, but mine were lousy and I’m glad they’re gone. I wrote more than my share of shitty flash fiction. Only “Bank Job” and “One More Mess” work as stories. I’m not saying they’re perfect, just that they work.


Chris said...

Fair warning: no pitchforks here. In fact, I couldn't agree more. I'm not a huge fan of flash, and I'm including the one and only flash story I've ever written in that statement. As someone who loves story and character, I find all but the best of them ultimately unsatisfying. My own, I wrote to dip my toe into a new pool (well, that, and I found the story distasteful enough I didn't want to flesh it out too much.) I tried my best to incorporate three discrete acts into the story, but I still think it reads like the horror version of a joke -- all setup and punchline. Under the right circumstances, I suppose I'd write another, but I can't imagine what those circumstances would be.

(And don't worry, fellow commenters-to-be; I'm not talking about YOUR flash stories. Your stories are brilliant -- the exception to the rule. Honest.)

Gerald So said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerald So said...

I'm a concise writer in general, agreeing with your sentiment that every word of finished prose or poetry should be meaningful.

Few of my stories feature the surprise twist that thematically identifies flash fiction, but several are categorized as flash by length. I participate in flash fiction events to challenge myself to pack a fully developed story into a few words. It's a skill I don't want to lose.

There's practically no money in flash fiction, poetry, or short stories, but if I chose not to write them for lack of pay, I'd write a lot less overall. I'll continue to write what comes, be it a poem, story, or novel.

Keith Rawson said...

I can't write them anymore and whenever I sit down with the express purpose of writing a flash piece my mind keeps working beyond the word count.(The last one turned into a 4500 word short that would've ended up pretty horrible if I had decided to keep it at it's originally intended length of 1000 words.) But flash is what it is, it's a sketch, a vignette, an excercise. While some of it may be pretty bad (Some it is downright sh*tty.) I do think it provides a training ground for newer writers
(Yeah, this guy right here!)to work with themes and ideas that won't stretch out beyond the thousand word mark.

Paul Brazill said...

For me flash is like punk rock. A free, fun, altenative to the anonymous stuff that the publishing machines produce. Most of the writers do it because they like it. Of course,at the height of punk there were loads of records released -and I bought most of them- but very few people will litsen to anything other than the Clash,Pistols, Ramones etc these days. I, however, prefered and still prefer the ramshackle DIY sound of the prefects, the pop group, the subway sect, the slits, the fall - which may be why I find it almost impossible to write much more than 1000 words! However, I've only been writing for 4 months so we'll see if I turn into Proust ;-)

pattinase (abbott) said...

I like them because I can sometimes develop some into full-fledged stories--which probably means I'm doing more an outline than a real piece of writing.
I do think the flash stories we did back in February were pretty strong examples of the genre.
However, I think haikus are the bastard child of poetry most of the time-so I guess I can see your point.
I find them harder to write than stories so I only do one once or twice a year.

Chris said...

I kinda like the punk metaphor. Funny, since I can't get enough two minute bursts of joyful noise, but flash fic leaves me kinda cold. Mostly, I think I've been colored by my experience writing flash, which didn't really give me the same high as a longer story does. I suspect my response to flash (that it's just not usually my cup 'o tea) is a little more measured than Patrick's, though.

Paul Brazill said...

Chris, five months ago I'd never heard of Flash Fiction and since then I've read a lot:Good, Bad & Ugly.In your case, 'the well 'at flashes in the dark was pretty good but 'the toll collectors' at BTAP was really fantastic so on that basis it's not the form for you!

Stephen Blackmoore said...

It comes down to bad flash fiction just being bad fiction. Sometimes flash works, sometimes it doesn't. More often the latter.

If you're not willing to put the time and effort and energy into a 500 word story that you would put into a 6000 word story you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.

I cut writers a lot of slack, but crap is crap and sometimes you just have to fucking stop it.

Now if all those 16-year-old emo poets talking about how their love is the dying rose, flaking into cold, cold dust would pick up the same message, we'd all be better off.

Hey, if I could do it, so can they.

Anonymous said...

My take is that it's all about the writing. If the story is well written I don't care if it's 600 or 6000 words. Same with the music I listen too--I enjoy The Ramones two minute tunes as much as I enjoy a twenty minute jam by The Allman Brothers.
[Full disclosure dept.-- For the past few years almost all my writing has been flash.]
John McAuley

Chris said...

Paul, I think you're perhaps being too kind to "The Well", but I agree with your assessment as to where my talents (dubious though they may be) lie. And also, thanks for the compliment.

And Stephen, I wonder if you're right, and the problem with flash is one of wheat-to-chaff. The form looks easy, because it's so short, so many folks are tempted to try their hand at it. In reality, I think it's hard as hell. (Heck, good poetry is harder still, which is why I've not attempted it. Good thing there's folks like Bagley and So out there, getting it done in that department.)

And I think it's funny that Patrick's got a good conversation brewing here, but he's just sitting back, taking it all in. Methinks he kinda wanted those pitchforks...

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Nah, I've been mucking about with other things since yesterday. I was working in the barn with an actual pitchfork a little while ago.

There is good flash fiction to be found, but it's the exception rather than the rule. If we're going to use a musical analogy, then think of a young kid who wants to play guitar. He wants to play the wild, flashy leads before he learns all the other things that make up a good song. Instead of learning scales and chords, he's wanking on that whammy bar.

I don't buy the "flash fiction as practice" argument. Why not? Because the best way to learn how to write stories is to write (and read) STORIES. Even if you're working at 1,000 words, you can still write a story. Not a vignette, not a scene that's all about the shock or the twist, but an actual STORY.

Paul Brazill said...

I suspect that if I ever wrote a novel it would be 'War & Crime'and 'the old man and the sea' would have gone to the fishmongers after a page or two. David Copperfield? 'I am born. And then some other stuff happens.Nothing to write home about'.Short attention span in my case.

John D. said...

"There is good flash fiction to be found, but it's the exception rather than the rule."

True, but you can say the same thing about fiction of any length.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

This is something that's always pissed me off about horror short stories. Not all, by any means, probably not even many, but it's a genre that seems to invite a single scene with a sudden shocking twist at the end.

Some of Lovecraft's shorts are like this. There are even some Stephen King stories I recall from one of his collections that really should have been called "Mr. King Clears The Crap Out Of His Closet And Sells It To You You Gullible Sap."

It's that format of everything looks normal if slightly off and then at the end it all twists around and something horrible has happened.

I hate to say it, because I actually do like the story, but Shirley Jackson's The Lottery does this.

But for god's sake can we do something different?

Okay, I'm done now. I had no idea I had so much energy on the subject.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I've read flash by Keith, Paul, and both Johns. There are always good lines and images, but I'm left wishing for full-blown stories. Keith and Patti are doing just fine with standard-length stories.

My other big issue with flash fiction sites (at least as far as crime/mystery goes) is the lack of editorial input. I may be wrong about this, but the pieces appear to get posted "as is" without revision. Working with a good editor will strengthen your story. Both Gerald and Kevin took turns working with me on "Pandora" before it went live on Thrilling Detective. It became a better story because of their involvement.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Stephen, "The Lottery" is a good example of story that I like despite the fact that almost everything about it is wrong. There's no protagonist (unless you want to stretch the point and say it's the whole village); Jackson head-hops with impunity; and everything is there merely to serve the twist.

Most of Lovecraft's stories would be hard-pressed to find publishers today. His characters are flat, his dialogue weak (and often cringe-inducing). Though I do admire his vision of Man's insignificance to the universe.

Except for ON WRITING, I haven't read King in years. I lost interest in him somewhere around 1990. His short fiction never did anything for me.

Paul Brazill said...

Patrick, I'm more than happy that I can come up some good lines and images!! really. ...If I compare short stories with flash by, say, chris h, yourself, keith, cormac b, patti then there is a lot more to munch on in the the short stories (in Patti's case a feast!) but the space dust fizz of flash has it's time and place. I have read some which looks as if it was spat out while listening to joy division b-sides but it my case it really is the best I can dish up and if other poeple want a nibble I'm as pleased as punch.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Paul, we can agree to disagree on flash. But I'm betting that sooner or later, you're going to do full-length stories and they'll kick ass.

Anonymous said...

A good editor [in any format/genre] is worth their weight in gold & Guinness.

John McAuley

Paul Brazill said...

Patrick,cheers! I hope so!

John - Have you seen what Elaine Ashh and Keith Rawson are up to at the moment?(No, not that.) It's a great education for me. You are so right about a good editor and I think Elaine cartainly fits the bill.

Sandra Ruttan said...

And now, there are TwitterStories. I'm not going to say all flash fiction is crap.... but a lot of it is. That said, a lot of short stories are crap too. A lot of short stories online just seem to be about doing something extreme, with no emotional connection to make you care about the characters or invested in the outcome.

But TwitterStories... The thought makes me shudder. I've only seen one, and that was enough.

Keith Rawson said...


I'm pretty sure Charlie Huston is running a twitter feed story. It's been interesting. And as far as online zines are concerned, most of the current zines (Spinetingler, thuglit, Plots with Guns, Crooked, A twist of Noir, thrilling detective, et. al) are running some pretty great stories. Yeah, you're always going to have the shock element in certain stories, but the quality character pieces you see around far outweighs the crap.

Jeez, Patrick, you started some serious shit with this little rant of yours

Sandra Ruttan said...

Keith, you're right. Of course, having just waded through several hundred of them for the awards has left my partner in a bad mood. And I don't wade through the slush anymore, but some of what we used to regularly reject was pretty bad.