Who likes short shorts?

I’m between novels – making notes for the second while working on edits for the first – and as a result of this fairly disjointed workflow, I’ve also been writing a lot of flash fiction. I write flash fiction for three reasons. In order of importance, these are:

1. To keep my writing and imagination ticking over.
2. As a depository for the ideas I haven’t time to develop.
3. To create short sharp stories for readings.

However you feel about flash fiction – and there are a lot of people who deem it totally irrelevant – these reasons are good enough for me. Number one, in particular, is very important to me when I’m so busy. I can’t work on a novel if I have a spare hour – I need more space in my head – but I can write flash. For me, flash fiction is a fun and constructive way to write more often (notwithstanding J. Robert Lennon’s excellent ‘ass-in-the-chair canard’, of course).

Like most writers, I suppose, I started learning my craft with short stories. In the first two years, almost all of them fell between 1,500 and 2,500 words. This wasn’t deliberate – I was simply writing stories that told themselves in that sort of space. As my writing developed, the scope of my ambition widened; I wrote Meat (mentioned briefly here), abandoned a subsequent novel at 50,000 words, and started work on my extremely long-running novella The Year of The Whale, which I had almost finished when Riptide exploded in my life. Over the following year, Riptide was pretty much the only thing I worked on. By this point, my longer pieces had absorbed any time for short story writing, with flash fiction increasingly fitting into the small hours between proper writing sessions.

In essence, then, I’d stopped writing short stories. But I’ve had an idea nagging me for a while, and it clearly wanted to be a short story. I decided to make it a little more considered than my older shorts, and spend more time letting the character paint the world around her. I finally settled down to work on it last week, and I finished a first draft last night. In my head, I expected it to be about 5,000 words, which is easily double the length of my next-longest short story. It has been a very strange space to work in, especially after so long away from the form.

Some flash fiction packs a conventional narrative into a smaller space, and some flash fiction snatches at a single moment, a single voice – a heartbeat – and gives the reader just enough to fill in the blanks themselves. The short story expands on those themes (obviously), giving them greater room to grow, but for the form to have an inherent function, it needs to achieve more than simply stretching out those moments – more than filling in some of those blanks.

I seem to recall a quote – possibly by Chekhov, though I can’t find a source – declaring that all short stories are the end of longer stories. I think there’s something in that, and I like the abstraction inherent to the form. My best short stories – the ones I personally consider most successful – are the ones where I’ve managed to hardwire some sense of trajectory. I want my writing to have momentum. I aspire to a ferocity, a certainty of narrative. I don’t know how well I achieve that, but it’s what I’m working towards.

I have now finished this new piece, and I think it’s come the closest yet to what I’m trying to create. It’s abstract and a little dangerous, but I think I’ve generated the emotional whirlpool I strive for, with discontiguous strands of story focused to a single point. After so much time away from the medium, I found it quite difficult to write. Although I knew my character’s voice right away, and I knew what I wanted to achieve in the story, it took me a long time to untangle the threads and find my way. I’ve been plodding through it, whisky in hand, on odd nights for a couple of weeks. Last night I finally had the breakthrough, which involved redrafting the whole thing from present into past tense, cutting a couple of sections and writing a new scene. I’m now going to take a day or two away from it, and see if a little distance helps with the redraft. Happily, the first draft came to 5,220 words.

I’m now waiting for feedback from a couple of readers, but I wanted to write this post before talking to anyone about the story; I needed to get my own thoughts in order. At some point I’m going to write more about my ultra-flash fiction on Twitter, but I wanted to use my first short story in a year to have a think about why I don’t write them any more.

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: Q: When is a short story not a short story? | Strange Writer
  2. Pingback: The horizon | Simon Sylvester
  3. Pingback: Spotlight take two | Simon Sylvester

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