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GUEST BLOG: A flash of inspiration

2nd May 2012 - Calum Kerr

 

Calum Kerr is the Director for National Flash-Fiction Day, which takes place across the UK on 16th May. An anthology, Jawbreakers, featuring flash-fiction from Ian Rankin, Tania Hershman, Vanessa Gebbie, Jenn Ashworth, Calum himself and a host of others, being released to coincide with the day, is pubished later this month. Here Calum takes about the origins of the shortest of short story forms and offers his tips on writing your own.


"I'm running National Flash-Fiction Day," I tell people.

"That's nice," a lot of them say. "What's that, then?"

Surprisingly, it's not that simple a question to answer. If you look around for a consistent definition of the term, it's hard to find one.

The term 'flash-fiction' was first used in the title of anthology of short, short stories back in 1992, but they've been around as long as stories. Chekhov and Kafka wrote them. Hemingway famously wrote a story in just 6 words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." So, what is it?

Well, one thing that every definition does agree on is that flash-fiction should be very short, though the specified length of them varies. Some places define it as 150 words or under, or 250 or 500. The upper limit certainly seems to be 1000 words.

So, what other definitions do we need to play with? Well, some people think a flash-fiction should be written within a time limit - 10 minutes say. This is a useful idea, especially for those just starting in the medium, as it forces concision. Certainly, I would say that a flash-fiction should be written in a single burst, one period of constant writing in which the story is both started and finished.

Another idea associated with flash-fiction is that there should be no ideas in the writer's mind before he or she sits down; that the whole thing should emerge from a prompt unseen before the first moment of writing; that the prompt should be allowed into the brain and the story should flow without planning or preparation. This is probably the closest thing to a true definition of flash that I can find. It is the following of a prompted thought to its narrative conclusion which sums up the flash.

But, of course, you would expect me to suggest that there is much more to the process of flash-fiction writing. All I can do is tell you how I work.

Sometimes I work from prompts - images, titles, lyrics or lines of dialogue from books, films and songs, a random overhearing, a word or phrase suggested to me, etc. - but sometimes an idea will simply come to me in the that magical and unknowable way that they do.

Whichever route leads to the story's inception, I follow the same procedure. I gather the phrase, the images, the word, or the idea and I put it aside until I have the chance to write it. I do my level best not to think about what the story might be that would emerge from the prompt or idea until I actually start writing, and then I let it out. That's not always possible, but I try not to plan too much of the story in my head, before time, but let the creative muscles in my brain work on them only during the actual writing process.

I don't set a time-limit or a word count for myself. I let the story spin out for as long as it needs to, and become as long as it needs to be. Over the past year, when I have been writing a story a day, this has led to stories of between 6 words and 1600. The majority have, indeed, fallen into the 300-500 word range, but that was by design of story, rather than any emphasis on length.

The design for story is the key. A flash-fiction should be a snapshot of a larger story: a part which can represent the whole. It attempts to include all the same things as a longer story - characters, plot, description, theme, etc. - but to do as much of it by implication rather than statement. It is a distillation of story which allows a narrative to take a single idea from point A to point B, and imply all the letters beyond. I believe that it is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of the short-story, requiring exactly the right words in exactly the right order, to create a whole world in the minimum length.

And that's it. Those are my thoughts on flash-fiction today. Ask me tomorrow, you might get a different answer. But that's the joy of flash, if you don't like this answer, another will be along very soon!

 


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