Distilled Writing: The Art of Flash Fiction

Distilled Writing: The Art of Flash Fiction

From tomorrow, Wales Arts Review will spend the run up to National Flash Fiction Day celebrating the shorter form by publishing a series of stories specially commissioned from some of Wales’ most exciting voices. We preview this exciting venture with an essay explaining the craft from award-winning flash fiction author Jane Roberts.

Lydia Davis does it… George Saunders does it… Cynan Jones does it… We all do it – to varying degrees – whether we acknowledge it, or not. From a multitude of titles, one that has commonly adhered is ‘flash fiction’, or ‘flash’ – for those who like their short fiction with short titles.

Although a universal title might be argued, it is futile to attempt to define the exact, universal boundaries of a flash; these are wide-ranging. A total word count can range between a sentence, a 1000 words, or more. Perhaps it is useful to consider graffiti in this matter of dimension, say those etched onto the walls of the public and private houses in Pompeii. Flash, much like a piece of graffiti, has to convey a message – a timeless glimpse into a distant or present world – with a paucity of words. Few words, yet not words written lightly or in haste. The notion that flash is timed, quick-fire writing is erroneous; such writing does indeed exist and has many followers, yet a writer of flash fiction does not necessarily have urgency of time – unlike the Roman lover graffiti-ing on the walls of Pompeii’s public baths. However, the urgency, or immediacy, of the textual content remains.

It should be stated too, that the idea of flash is not to subjugate the content of a naturally lengthy story into unconscionable brevity. Précis and precise writing can be very different. Nor is the writing of a longer piece of fiction merely the act of putting a flash on the short story rack till its backbone snaps and becomes flaccid. That is torture – for the words and reader alike. The story will die, along with the interest of the reader.

Again, ‘experimental’ is a word often associated with flash. Yet ‘experimental’ is a word that can apply to the wider field of fiction format. Is not Eleanor Catton’s novel The Luminaries experimental at 832 pages long? So why should revered translator, novelist, and pin-up of flash fiction, Lydia Davis, be deemed avant-garde at eighteen words short?

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How to go about writing a piece of flash fiction? For any exemplum of writing there are rules to be found, rules to be practised, yet also there are rules to be broken: whatever the writing, the writer’s personality and style should shine through with an unyoked authenticity, because it is that which defines them to their readership rather than the number of adverbs that have been removed from the page.

Flash fiction lends itself in a very natural way to distilled sentiments and statements. Therefore, as a primer to the art of flash, let us contemplate, not the rules of writing per se, but rather the process of distilling a spirit.

Base material for the spirit is needed. The good stuff: sugar. Any crop with a source of sugar can produce a base spirit, just as any writer engaging with their grey cells can produce an idea. Imagination is the sugar. Now, the introduction of two important steps:

Step One: Fermentation

This is the process of creating the alcohol; here, the story behind the flash. The equation:

Yeast + Sugar = Alcohol + CO2

Sugar is the initial idea, the yeast – the organism that feeds on the sugar – is the act of writing. Thus, alcohol is the story, and the carbon dioxide (CO2) is the initial residue – all those words and ideas that are discarded on first draft.

Step Two: Distillation

Think of a short story as fermented, but only partially distilled. For a flash – a flash in the pan? – crank up the heat, and then subtract it again, in order to obtain the desired purification of words and story. The highest point of rectification of a spirit is approximately 95% ABV. How many novels achieve a punch as hefty as 95% ABV in every paragraph? This is the flash punchline. On the jaw. Between the eyes. Right on the chest, pummelling on the heart. A flash will always be – regardless of length – that whole piece of sudden, explosive understanding.

To get to this state of potency, the alcohol (the story) is heated till it vaporises, leaving behind all of the unwanted crud in the boiling vessel. The vapour of the alcohol is then cooled and condensed. The process is repeated – sometimes again, and again – until clear, pure drops of distillate are formed. The three separate results of distillation (in order): heads, hearts, and tails. The best, most desired parts are the hearts – pure, colourless and odourless. Imagine the hearts as the heart of the flash fiction – the purity of the story. These are the words and sentences that will have most impact. Knowing when to start collecting the hearts and when to discard the heads and the tails – with their potential foul odour and discolouration – is key to the art of flash. The discarded tails may still contain a considerable amount of alcohol (story); thus, the next round of story-telling/distillation presents itself.

Of course, there are further steps that can be employed in the production of a spirit/story. Maturation is a consideration, as are blending and finishing; the addition of all those final flourishes of flavour and refinement. Again, this is personal taste. Not every spirit, or story, benefits from these processes of maturation or re-editing.

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The novel and short story are celebrated in various months and weeks each year. Flash fiction has a day. National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD, UK), directed by author and academic Dr Calum Kerr, is celebrating its fourth birthday on 27th June 2015. For more information about flash fiction, NFFD events, and authors, visit the official webpage: http://nationalflashfictionday.co.uk/.

Manuals:

Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story – edited by Vanessa Gebbie, Salt Publishing

The World in a Flash: How to Write Flash-Fiction – Dr Calum Kerr, Gumbo Press

Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook – Various, Bloomsbury Publishing

Writing Short Stories (Writers’ and Artists’ Companions) – Courttia Newland and Tania Hershman, Bloomsbury Publishing

Collections for Further Reading:

The Collected Stories – Lydia Davis, Penguin

The National Flash Fiction Day Anthologies 2012-2015 – edited by Calum Kerr and Various, Gumbo Press

The White Road and Other Stories – Tania Hershman, Salt Modern Fiction

The 2014 Flash365 Anthology – Calum Kerr, Gumbo Press