Kevlin Henney writes shorts and flashes and drabbles of fiction and articles and books on software development. His fiction has appeared online and on tree, including with Litro, New Scientist, Physics World, The Pygmy Giant and Kazka Press, and has been included in The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013, The Kraken Rises!, Flash Me! The Sinthology, Scraps, Jawbreakers and Kissing Frankenstein & Other Stories anthologies. He helps organise the Bristol-based events on National Flash-Fiction Day and is a judge in the NFFD micro-fiction competition. He lives in Bristol and online (tweeting here, blogging here and posting links to some of his stories here).
It's been around a long time and been called many things, but in the last twenty years the term flash fiction has become its most popular name. For as long as there have been short stories, there have been short short stories, stories under a thousand words long, even under a hundred. The last few years have seen a rise in the form's popularity. There are competitions with flash-fiction categories (e.g., the Bridport Prize), flash-only competitions (e.g., Flash 500), anthologies of flash, flash authors winning major awards (Lydia Davies may not like the term flash fiction, but a rose by any other name...) and it even has its own day (National Flash-Fiction Day). As well as being short, flash is current.Much of its growing popularity is certainly down to medium and opportunity: flash-fiction length and blog length are surprisingly similar; flash is easier to read on phones, tablets and PCs than longer stories; flash can fill a gap in the day; and, most democratising of all, the length lowers the barrier to entry than for longer short stories or novels — it is said that everyone has a novel inside them, but with flash it is easier to let the stories out onto the page. Some have also sought a correlation between falling word count and falling attention spans but, in an age where few blockbuster films are shorter than two hours and the appetite for box sets of ever-longer TV series knows few limits, such cultural commentary seems to beg the question rather than answer it.That said, these days there is more to fill the day, whether it's work or media that competes for our schedule. For the writer — who is rarely just a writer — flash fiction offers a form that fits more easily into the time slices of fragmented weeks and compressed days. The satisfaction of half-finishing something cannot begin to compete with the feeling of actually finishing it, whether a story, a marathon or a piece of Ikea furniture. And just to be clear, a flash fiction is a complete story. It may be short, but it's neither an extract nor a snippet, and nor is it a summary. A flash fiction tells a whole tale, and its words should be the best words to tell that tale. The reader should be left with the feeling that it is whole — any longer and something would be lost, either in word homeopathy or unnecessary plot meanderings.Of course, not all stories can or should fit the flash mould, any more than they must necessarily all be told as short stories, or all be told as novellas, or all be told as novels. Each story has its length; one of the many skills of writing is to match the story to its length — telling a novel-sized story as a short or a micro-fiction as a novella is going to frustrate both reader and writer.What flash can offer writers is a chance to experience completion more often, a chance to experiment more freely, a chance to improve their craft, a chance to experience a different kind of relationship with story and reader or a chance to find a new form in which they are most comfortable. Writing flash is not simply an exercise, although it obviously suits that role well and can flow out of it easily. Many of my flash stories started life as exercises, but I don't consider writing short short stories just an exercise — they're still stories, and that's what I want to tell.With a low word count there's no bandwidth to spend on purple prose, extended backstory or garnishes of adverbs and adjectives. The writing must be sharper, yet it must leave more unsaid; it must assume more from — but work harder with — the reader over its short span. I sometimes read longer short stories and novels where I wish the author had some discipline in flash fiction, that they better understood the value of the words they were putting in the reader's path.As for experimentation, I don't mean that to write flash fiction you must write experimental fiction, although it is easier to get the reader's permission (or indulge their forgiveness) to do this at the shorter end of the reading scale. But if you want to experiment with genre, point of view, tone or any other aspect of story and writing, you can do so more freely and still have a complete story with flash than if you are bound up in a novel-writing project with no other creative outlet.To improve your writing, you need to be able to look back at it, look back it whole, not in just parts. You need to finish things, and flash fiction is easier to finish than a novel. That's not to say it's trivial — you will still vex over first and last lines, word choice, point of view and, yes, whether or not that comma should be there — but you will experience this more frequently and reach closure more often — more first and last lines, more story set-ups, more points of view — and therefore be confronted with and learn from your own work more often. As Neil Gaiman observed, "You have to finish things — that's what you learn from, you learn by finishing things."