Writing Short Fiction

So I have just finished taking part in a six week critiquing group at Clarion West. I spoke about Clarion West in an earlier post - they specialize in workshops for writers-in-training, with a special focus on writing science fiction and fantasy. For each week across six weeks, I had to write one short story (well, actually 'flash fiction') and then critique the other eight that were submitted by the other members of my team. Flash fiction for the purposes of the exercise was defined as short fiction with a word count less than 1500 words, but really this means that the fiction must be self-contained in that space. Earlier this year I wrote one flash fiction piece that was about 350 words long. That falls within the realm of what I normally consider flash fiction to be. Pieces above 1000 words are, for me, short stories, albeit short shorts!

For someone used to writing what is called 'long form fiction', that is, novels, trilogies, multi-book sagas, short fiction poses real difficulties. I am not sure that at the end of the six week exercise I really do understand what 'flash fiction' is, although I believe I am beginning to get my head around short stories. The problem is that I am constantly tempted to throw in references to larger worlds or settings or other characters to lead one away from the story in question and hankering after other 'dimensions' of the work. That is, the story acts as a teaser for something much larger, which may or may not actually exist. If it does not, then it is an exercise in frustration, and if it does, then one has not actually written a self-contained piece of writing.

In fact, I think pretty well every 'story' I wrote falls into this latter category. It might stand as a short story although almost all of it fits within a larger frame. I did discover a kind of intermediate form between the novel and the short story that could work for me, and that is the book-length anthology of short stories all taking place in the same universe. Individual 'chapters' may be read as stand-alone pieces, but together they also form a larger story. There are well-known examples of this in so-called classic science fiction. The most obvious example that comes to mind is Asimov's Foundation, which was originally a set of independent but related and chronologically ordered short stories.

As for true 'flash fiction', the 350 word text I wrote earlier this year seems to qualify, although it is not a story of which I am particularly proud. It was the first horror story I ever wrote, however. I have gotten interested in horror as a way of addressing issues of trauma. Also, I wrote another piece during the six week Clarion West exercise that might also qualify as flash fiction. It clocks in at 500 words. The only thing is, I am not sure it is actually a story. Instead it seems to be something else, a kind of meditation on the nature of the universe.

And maybe part of the problem is that I am not really very interested in what is called flash fiction. As an exercise I find it useful to learn to be that concise. But as a means of expression? Most flash fiction seems to be more idea-driven than other forms of writing. The story "turns" on a quirk, a blemish in the operation of the world, a surprise. That is, it contains a kind of punch line, like a joke does. I'm sure there are people that like this, but I, it appears, am not one of these.


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