... is a thing now, you know.
A story that is less than a thousand words long can be a wondrous thing, a sort of prose poem, but in the form of a story, by which, I loosely mean, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and with some sort of event or character development, and, preferably, both.
In my experience, though, that isn’t what people write. What a lot of people write when they think they’re writing flash fiction is more like an extended book-blurb, or a passage from a short story or even a novel.
This is the problem with the emergence of so-called new forms. People have been writing flash fiction since they’ve been writing at all. Good storytellers tell a story without any real regard for the length of the narrative.
As with genre labeling, writers are now being herded into labeled forms, so that everything we do must fall within a specified category. That’s why the term ‘flash fiction’ was coined, so that another category could be specified, another form prescribed.
We now have forms that seem to exist purely to constrain word-count so that... What? A publisher can get a dozen stories into a book, optimising the print costs? That seems a little forced to me. I suppose it could be so that there are more categories at awards ceremonies, so that lots more people get gongs for their work, and can advertise themselves as award winners on their blurbs. Is that cynical, or is that just me?
I recently submitted two stories for a competition that required short stories of fewer than 2200 words. My first story, and the more accomplished of the two had something in excess of 900 words. It won’t win. It won’t win because its length defines it as flash fiction, and that is not what the competition asked for. The competition is run by a magazine. Having worked in that arena, I happen to know that a feature section will already have been set aside for this competition on the magazine flatplan. The flatplan needs to be organised months in advance for the purposes of defining adspace, which has to be sold. I also happen to know that a feature generally runs to around 2500 words, so that’s 2200 words of story with a neat 300 word introduction.
The second story I submitted was almost exactly 2200 words. It’s a good story, but not as good as my other story, and probably not as good as some of the other entries, since this is quite a prestigious competition that attracts some real talent. Someone else with something else is probably going to win. It’s tough enough to sell adspace at the best of times, and no one wants to sell an extra page at the last minute because a feature has come up short. They could, I suppose, use some large pictures to illustrate the piece, but they might have to pay extra for them, or, I suppose, they could use the subscriptions page, but competing magazines will see what they’ve done and capitalise on it.
Yes, we live in a commercial world, and yes, I perfectly understand that what I do as a writer must have some commercial value or I won’t have a job for long, but, once in a while, can we please just be allowed to do what we do best without having to be constantly concerned about the size and shape of every last story?
Surely, by definition, the best of what we do ought also to be the most successful.