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Calum Kerr, flash fiction writer and founder of National Flash Fiction Day, shares his tips on the clichés and mistakes that can send a submission straight to the reject pile.
In May of this year, with National Flash-Fiction Day (NFFD) approaching, I found myself reading and reading and reading. I was a judge for a flash-fiction competition which had received nearly 100 entries and also editor for this year’s NFFD anthology, with nearly 400 submissions to select from. As such, I was mired in editing, reading through all of these stories and constantly trying to work out what I liked and what I didn’t.
In the absence of a colleague, friend, family member or random stranger to talk to, these thoughts on my preferences spilled out sideways into Facebook as a stream of statuses of the things I didn’t like. These gained much more attention than anything else I normally post, with a number of people asking me to elaborate on what was rapidly turning into a set of “rules”.
Some people also suggested that I might turn it into an article or blog post, including the lovely people at Litro, and so here it is.
Just one caveat, however. These aren’t really rules. I hate the idea of flash-fiction having rigid rules and wouldn’t be so arrogant as to suggest that I should draw them up. I could find you examples of stories which do some of the things I’m complaining about and still succeed – I’ve even broken most of these “rules” myself at one point or another.
But an editor sees an awful lot of stories, and these are some of the more common clichés that can mean a story lands in the reject pile.
They are in no particular order, having been inspired by stories in my reading as I came to them.
#1: Cheap, throwaway, jokey twist endings
I have had some discussions recently about the ways in which a piece of flash-fiction can be compared to a joke. This comparison makes me nervous. Yes, flash-fictions can be like jokes in that they present the world to you in one way and then reveal it to be otherwise at the ending. This does not mean they have to be funny. That reversal can be sad, or shocking, or exciting, or whatever. But any reversal at the end of a flash-fiction needs to be embedded in the story as a whole. You have to be able to read through it again, knowing the ending, and see how it was leading, and misleading, you all the way.
Sometimes I come across stories that are just a build up to a pun. I mean, really, what’s the point? Story, for me, is all about character, and in those punny stories character is utterly subsumed into crow-barring in that last line. If you want to write jokes, by all means write jokes. I love jokes. But if your flash-fiction is serving nothing other than a cheap gag, then it’s just not funny.
#2: earnest meditations on the meaning of life, with no plot or characters
Do I need to say more? I mean, it’s just not a story is it? It’s a treatise, a manifesto, a tract, a prayer. Yes, there are “slice of life” flash-fictions in which little might happen, and a lot of internal life is revealed. But these still have character, they still have setting, description, maybe even a little action (making a cup of tea is still action). So, please, if you want to write directly about how you see the world and your place in it, feel free, but don’t call it flash-fiction.
#3: crazy surrealism for no purpose
Small Czechoslovakian traffic wardens!
You see? It doesn’t do anything. Surrealism is fine. I like surrealism. I write it myself, from time to time. But it has to serve a purpose. Surrealism was conceived as a way of representing the unconscious, the dreaming mind, in art. It uses juxtaposition of imagery and the introduction of fantastical elements to do this. However, in the same way that Freud and others analysed dreams to find the deeper meanings – theory and techniques which are used by psychoanalytic literary critics to find the “subconscious” of a text – a surreal story needs to have layers that can be unpicked, and meanings which can be deciphered, even if they ultimately contradict or don’t seem to cohere.
What it is not about is simply being wacky and crazy and breaking up the text with the occasional random
Is it possible to do the former and for it to look like the latter? Of course. But it’s also possible to jam random thing together with the thought of being “zany” and for it to look like exactly that.
On a separate point, I hate the words wacky and zany too.
#4: poems submitted as flash-fiction
These come in two types. First, there are poems. I don’t mean prose-poems (I’ll come to those) I mean properly formatted poems with lines which stop and restart, sometimes with capitalization at the start of every line, and with stanza breaks and everything. Every time I judge or edit any selection of flash-fictions, we always get a few of these. Poems. I mean… why?
The other type is the aforementioned prose poetry, and here I know I am on shakier ground. Whole academic conferences are now devoted to trying to unpick where prose poetry ends and flash-fiction starts. It is a veritable no-man’s land strewn with barbed metaphor and unexploded similes. Suffice it to say, once again we are dealing with the absence of something vital, sometimes plot, sometimes character. There is a sense of “this is not a story” about them; a dwelling on matters without moving onto the next thing; stopping to have a really long look at A rather than journeying to B and beyond.
Again, I like prose poetry, and when done well it can be astonishing, but it just isn’t flash-fiction.
#5: yet another story about suicide
Ah, yes, this one. If my status updates had come during another editing period, this could have easily said “yet another story set on a train” or “yet another story about divorce”. It is a strange thing, but there seem to be trends in the stories submitted at a particular time. However, over a number of years of this kind of immersion in flash-fiction, it is quite common to receive a glut of suicide stories.
Again, I have nothing against them specifically. Hell, I’ve written more than a couple of them myself. But, it seems to be a perennially popular topic with flash-fiction writers, which means that in any batch maybe as much as 10% can be about suicide. That means about 50 of them in the batches I was reading in May. If we accepted them all it would make for a very dour selection. So, when a topic as strong and yet as common as that one comes up, the story needs to be expertly crafted and/or be doing something new and interesting with the topic to make it past the “seen it before” sensors.
You would think this is rare in an abbreviated form like flash-fiction but you would be surprised. Remember, some writers are capable of conjuring up whole worlds in just 100 or even 50 words. The same story, expressed in 500 is going to be overlong, repetitive, meandering, repetitive, overwritten and repetitive.
This is where the power of editing comes in. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a seasoned editor can spot a first draft at twenty paces, and it’s usually due to over-writing. Good editing of flash-fiction will remove any redundancy, any explanatory “telling” to back up the “showing”, and find single words which can replace whole sentences. It will be pared down and, as a result, conjure a larger storyworld. That’s what I’m looking for when I read.
#7: cheap sentiment
Don’t get me wrong. I am a sentimental fellow. My wife often has to put up with me as sitting on the sofa, tears pouring down my face, as the credits role at the end of an episode of Doctor Who. I am a sucker for sentiment. And that is exactly why I dislike it when it’s cheap and easy: “Yeah, throw in a dying relative, chuck another dog on the fire, pull on their heart-strings, that’ll be good.”
No, it won’t. When the reader’s emotions are treated, by a story, as simple and easy to manipulate, it has the opposite effect, and hardens the heart against the story. I read because I want to be moved, but I don’t want to see you moving me.
Show me your world, make me live the emotion, but don’t tell me how to feel or I will turn away.
#8: “issue” stories, where the ending is supposed to teach us an important lesson.
I even remember the story that inspired this comment. It really riled me. I won’t quote it, just in case the writer is reading this, as I have no desire to be cruel with any of these “rules”. But suffice to say that it ended with a variation on an old fashioned moral of the “… and that was the day I subscribed to a particular viewpoint/political perspective/moral standpoint.” variety.
As with the Meditation Rule” and the Cheap Sentiment Rule above, if you want to try and convince me of your viewpoint, of the rightness of your way of life, religion, worldview, belief, whatever, then show it to me in story and let me make up my own mind. Don’t tell me what to think, as you will surely drive me in the other direction. And you will ruin the story because it will become a Party Political Broadcast by you, and that just ain’t flash-fiction.
#9: strong stories with weak endings, where the writer seems to have lost courage
No. Sorry. A little joke. But not a very good one, eh? And that’s sometimes the problem with flash-fictions. The author takes you by the hand, leads you down an interesting pathway into the woods, into the darkness, and then you emerge to find… Milton Keynes. Or the character wakes up and finds it was all a dream. Or the conflict that was suggested – the visiting mother-in-law, the dying spouse, the job interview – is finished off with “… but she was fine and now we get on really well.” or “… he recovered and lived for another ten years.” or “…and I got the job and I really enjoy it.”
I mean, what’s the point? Either the writer saw a word count limit coming up and decided they needed to wrap it up with a nice bow (rather than writing past and editing back, which is what I would always recommend) or they just don’t quite understand how story works. If you suggest a conflict of some kind, you can’t back down from it, it needs to be confronted and overcome – or not.
And that’s it. As I said at the start these were partly occasioned by being immersed in a bath of flash-fictions and partly from exasperation caused by repeated exposure. They remain, however, my personal opinions. In the end, though, they boil down to some useful ideas.
- Read other flash-fictions to see what is out there and how it’s done and what’s trending.
- Show as much as you can, without telling.
- Structure your story as a story, and don’t back down from the hard bits.
- Edit, edit and edit.
And, above all, write what is most important to you at that moment. If you are speaking truth, people will listen.
Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife - the writer, Kath Kerr - their son and a menagerie of animals. His new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property, is now available from Amazon or direct from the publisher, Cinder House.
What excellent advice, Calum. I really like your phrase ‘the power of editing’.
Nothing is more important than re-reading what has been written and trimming off all the fatty bits. Now that I’m trying my hand at novels, I am benefiting from the experience of writing flash fiction. It is incredible how much you can scale things down, and down again. The end result is so much better.
I would never have realised what a difference it makes without reading and writing flash fiction first and finding whole worlds within a couple of hundred carefully chosen words.