Deb: Flash Fiction, an interview with David Marusek

“Flash fiction offers me the equivalent of instant gratification,” says Fairbanks author David Marusek.  “Also, the shorter the length, the more puzzle-like the writing becomes, and I find that rewarding as well.”  Knowing Marusek will present on flash fiction at a retreat in Fairbanks next month, we asked him to tell us about the genre.  We’ll follow up with a post by another Fairbanks author, Michael Engelhard, when his anthology of flash fiction comes out from University of Alaska Press later this year. 

First, some background. What is flash fiction? How did it start? How is it developing as a genre?

Flash fiction is fiction of ultra-short length. Any story–with a beginning, middle, and end–of 1000 or fewer words can be considered flash fiction. The lower limit for a complete story seems to be six words. Other popular lengths are 55 words (the 55er), 100 words (the drabble), and between 250 and 500 words. Recently, Twitter-length stories of 140 characters (or about 25 words) have appeared on the scene.

While writers have always produced stories of very short length, flash fiction wasn’t considered a separate genre until the 1980s when James Thomas and other editors began publishing anthologies of shorter and shorter story lengths. In 1992, Thomas put out a volume of 72 very short stories called Flash Fiction. The stories ranged in length from about 250 words to 750. The original idea was to find stories that could be read without turning a page, that is, stories that could be apprehended “in a flash.” The name stuck, even as the Internet blossomed, blogs were invented, and people started reading fiction on their cell phones.

What prompted you to write your first flash fiction piece?

The editor of the British science journal Nature asked me to write one. They were devoting the last page of each issue of their venerable periodical to a fiction feature they called “Futures,” and they invited science fiction writers around the world to submit stories. The word limit was between 800 and 900 words. This was way shorter than anything I had ever published and so it was a challenge for me, and a lot of fun.

What special challenges and rewards attach to the writing of flash fiction?

It seems to me that every story you may want to tell has its own inherent ideal length, and that part of your job as a writer is to discover what that length is. Is it a meaty, chewy story that needs the legroom of an entire novel? Or a slight, incandescent glimmer of a story that wants only a paragraph or two? The challenge of writing flash fiction is in finding the right story to tell in the first place.

Think about what can happen in a novel. An entire life can be laid out for examination, an era can be reproduced, or a new world discovered and explored. A person can be redeemed in the course of a novel; civilizations can clash; Time can march on. Not so much in a short story. A short story typically has enough space to contain a single event in the life of single character. It may be a very important event to that character, and it may lead to a major epiphany or change in that character’s life, but it is necessarily limited in scope. A piece of flash fiction, with an even smaller scope, has enough space for a startling impression or flash of insight, and not much more.

I generally work in longer lengths–novels and novellas. I seem to like the broad canvas. A project of mine takes months or years to complete. And thus flash fiction offers me the equivalent of instant gratification. It’s a place to park all those neat ideas I have that have no other home. It’s an opportunity to keep my name in front of my readers between novels. Also, the shorter the length, the more puzzle-like the writing becomes, and I find that rewarding as well.

What are some good markets for flash fiction?

These days I seem to stumble across flash fiction opportunities at every turn. Even NPR has gotten in on the action with their Three-Minute Fiction contest, which asks listeners to send in original stories of 500-600 words. If you search the web for “flash fiction” you will get over 400,000 results covering the gamut from contests to paying markets. But if you’d like a frequently updated compendium of flash fiction opportunities, I suggest you join Pam Casto’s Yahoo flash fiction group. It’s a brilliant and free resource.

What’s in the works for your Flash Fiction retreat at Writing in the Dark in Fairbanks on February 13?

The Fairbanks Arts Association’s annual retreat is a great chance to mingle with other writers during the dark days of winter. It takes place in the beautiful conference setting of the Four Winds Foundation. We’ll start the all-day event with continental breakfast. Then I’ll be sharing some of my favorite flash fiction discoveries to illustrate storycraft, with examples of both popular and literary styles. I have spent tens of hours over the last few years collecting little gems and exemplars of the genre. And flash fiction is a great form for exploring the mechanics of fiction because the stories are so short. Workshop participants will then take time to try their hand at writing their own stories. We break for lunch. After more storycraft, discussion, and writing time in the afternoon, we’ll share our results at the end of the day.

The cost is $30 (until February 1, $35 at the door) and includes continental breakfast and lunch. For more information, call 907-456-6485 x227.

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