Karen Jones on Flash Competitions – 3 February 2021

Flash Fiction is all about compression. Take a short story you like, halve it, again, then again. Make every word earn its keep, cut out whole paragraphs and ‘filler’ words like articles and qualifiers, expand and contract according to the word count of the competition … cutting down is easy if you’re ruthless.

Karen’s own career began when she realised her rookie novel of 75,000 words would have benefited from some training and took a basic writing course. After that she joined a writing site run by the BBC where someone ran a challenge to write stories in exactly 60 words. Even though these exercises were intended as a way of improving ‘serious’ writing rather than as ends in themselves, she became an addict of the short form. She has witnessed, over the last decade, flash fiction gradually becoming a genre in its own right with the springing up of Zines, competitions and a whole community dedicated to the format. She herself is Editor for New Flash Fiction Review Magazine and has judged competitions.

Compression on its own isn’t the best way to attract the eye of an overwhelmed judge. The title is key as the first element to be seen, and must inspire curiosity to read further. What might The true cost of carpeting Luxembourg, one of Karen’s own titles, be all about? It’s also potentially useful in bearing some of the weight of the story in such a tight form. There’s no limit set on the number of words in the title and since it’s generally excluded from the word count, why not take advantage? To show us to what extremes this facility can be taken, Karen showed us an example of a flash fiction piece by Ingrid Jendrzejewski where the single word ‘Ha’ followed the recounting of a projected split from a boyfriend in a 99-word title.

Karen asked us to choose which titles from a list would entice us to read on – single words were the least eye-catching, it was generally felt – and gave us an exercise to try our hands at composing a title in isolation. We ended up (among other things) Scraping burnt mince aff the ceiling!

After the title, the next most important element is the first sentence which should be strong, intriguing, exciting and pose questions, as well as setting the tone. There’s no place in flash fiction for clichés, elaborate descriptions, punchlines (usually), or twists. Sometimes the story starts in the middle, or even at the end. The back story is commonly left out – here the title can help to make sense of the whole. What is left for the reader’s imagination to supply is called the white space. Top and tail endings, whereby the last sentence mirrors the first with only a slight change, can prevent the story from fizzling out. Dark and depressing subjects are well suited to the short form because they are offered in a small dose (although cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, dead babies and even increasingly the Pandemic are so well-worn now as to be commonplace), and humour is even better, tending to be under-represented. Anyone can make us cry, but not everyone can make us laugh.

Some writers use flash fiction for soaring into the surreal. One of these is Elizabeth Ingram Wallace who creates a whole world for us to get caught up in.

Karen’s personal brand of flash fiction tends to be character driven. She is inspired  by characters from her own village of Muirhead  and will start with a first line, then a last one, and join the dots. She read us her poignant story about Mrs McLean.

Flash fiction isn’t normally more than 1,000 words long and can be as short as 300;  under 300 words tends to be classed as microfiction.

Some specialist types of flash fiction are:

  • the list – e.g. a shopping list, recipe or set of instructions through which the story is told
  • the hermit crab – a recounting of facts which releases the story within a particular framework; this category includes crosswords and Guess Who formats
  • the breathless paragraph: devoid as much as possible of punctuation, good for second person narration, but not something to offer to read aloud at Spoken Word Nights!

There is also the novella-in-flash which threads a series of stand-alone flashes into a sequence with a story arc and a character arc. Karen’s own published novella When it’s not called making love is an example of this, and brings to life the character of Bernadette.

Just before the break we played Word Cricket. We were supplied with 4 initial words – After the last flood – then were given more words at regular intervals which we had to weave into our narrative: trifle, bullet, flamingo, slippers, daffodil, red, sausage, carpet. After the break some surprisingly cogent and polished pieces were read out.

There are a great many outlets for the relatively new format of flash fiction, including National Flash Fiction Day which has competitions, an anthology, and hosts Flash Flood in which a flash piece is published every 10 minutes for 24 hours, this having the added attraction of permitting pieces already published.

Karen advised us to be on the alert for scammers and keep and eye on the fee-to-prize ratio in competitions. For submission to a Zine where there is no payment, £20 would be exorbitant, although £2 or £3 is acceptable.  The right length is whatever the competition or the magazine dictates, and observation of all submission rules is vitally important. Buy anthologies to get a taste of what the readers (the gatekeepers) are looking for, but don’t try to please judges. Don’t be afraid to re-submit a story that was unsuccessful; a change of title may make all the difference and judges have different tastes even on different days!

Damaris West

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