When I hung my shingle out as a “Writer” on Twitter the most amazing thing happened: People began inviting me to share my work. They invited me to participate in all sorts of promotions and contests.
One type of contest stood out among the rest: the Flash Fiction contest. Participating in these contests taught me a great deal about myself, and a great deal about writing.
What Is it?
Flash Fiction Teaches Economy of Words
The importance of being succinct cannot be overstated. Or, to put it succinctly, “Omit needless words.” [Strunk & White, “The Elements of Style”]
It’s inevitable. You’ll agree to participate in a contest that has a maximum word count of 250 words. You’ll tell your story and find that it weighs in at 275 words. Twenty-five words might not seem like a lot, but that’s ten percent of the maximum word count! Imagine having someone tell you that you need to cut 12000 words from your 120000 word manuscript?
So you start cutting. And this is where the magic happens. As you comb through each sentence, word by word, the “needless” words begin to jump off the page at you. You finally come to understand what Strunk and White were talking about. Believe me, you will never understand what “five words too many” means until you’re sitting at 255 words for a 250 word contest.
Go back to the last paragraph you wrote today and cut five words out of it. Tricky, isn’t it.
Let’s look at it differently. Instead of just slicing five words, take a look at the total word count of that paragraph. Now, see if you can restate what was written using five fewer words. Try this. Your writing will improve.
By way of anecdotal evidence, I cut Necromancer Awakening (my bestselling dark fantasy) from 180k words down to 120k words, improving the story dramatically in the process. It would have been much harder if I didn’t have experience with flash fiction!
Flash Fiction Teaches How To Begin In Medias Res
If you’ve studied the craft of writing, I’m sure you’ve come across the phrase in medias res. It translates, roughly, to “in the middle of things”, which is where a story begins.
Writers…new writers in particular…often find it difficult to determine precisely where their story begins. They’ll write lengthy prologues, or a first chapter that accomplishes little more than setting up a back story that the writer is convinced is necessary.
“But the reader won’t understand without my prologue!” they say.
What’s really going on, however, is the writer is revealing a lack of confidence. Lack of confidence in his/her own ability to convey this information in a fun and interesting way, and lack of confidence in the reader’s ability to infer what’s going on.
I can’t tell you how many critiques I’ve written for other writers whose manuscript just doesn’t work. Worse, they don’t know why. It doesn’t usually take long for me to realize their story doesn’t begin until chapter 2 or 3. That’s too late. You’ve lost the reader by then.
If you’re one of these writers (and God knows I was) flash fiction will cure you of this. You simply don’t have the luxury of word count to present back story as an info dump. It has to happen in the conflict of the story…which is where it belongs, regardless of the length of your medium.
If you’re invited to participate in a contest, or hear of one on your Twitter/Facebook feed, give it a go! Heck, you don’t even need a contest. Just establish your own maximum word count and go!
Don’t know where to start? Google some abstract art and use that as a writing prompt. You’d be surprised how stories will spring from color treatments and other works of art.
Have you written flash fiction? I’d love to hear about it!
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