Use Flash Fiction to Step Outside your Comfort Zone (and step up your craft in the process)
by Charity Tahmaseb
Flash fiction is versatile. It might not always be easy to write, but it’s certainly rewarding. Sometimes, it’s even fun. Best of all? You can use flash fiction to push the boundaries of your craft and end up with something surprising.
So step outside your comfort zone and into something new.
Step into a new genre:
Want to try a new genre but not certain it’s for you or if you’ll even like writing it? Yes, you could spend several months and 120,000 words on an epic fantasy - only to discover you hate it.
Or you could spend a week writing several flash fiction pieces. This is the writing version of making little bets of exploring possibilities for your writing in a low risk, low time-commitment way.
If it works out and you fall in love with fantasy (or literary fiction, or mystery), you’ll have several pieces to submit while writing that novel. And if it doesn’t work? Then you’ll have sharpened skills and developed your craft in productive ways that will inform your other stories.
Step up your style:
Use flash fiction to play with form. Tell a story using a to-do list, a series of text messages, or old-fashioned letters, someone’s Tweeter-storm. Start with the end of a story and work backward or try your hand at a Rashomon (the same incident/story from different perspectives).
If you normally write in first person point of view, now’s the time to try omniscient third. If you always write in third, try first. Or, you could commit the ultimate writerly sin and go for a second person point of view.
Step into the impossible:
Take something impossibly big, like an epic fantasy, historical fiction, or a love story, something you wouldn’t expect to see in flash fiction. Now consider whether you can tell it in the fewest words possible.
Can you? It might be fun, and for me this is my favorite challenge, although I confess these stories don’t always turn out. But when they do, they can be amazing.
Flash teaches you that you don’t need to show or tell the reader everything. Often, what you leave out can be more important than what you drop in. This is something you can use in all your work, not simply short stories and flash fiction.
Flash teaches you to compress, condense, and at the same time, to focus on the sensory details, the tactile things making whatever is happening real. Take a single conflict - a thief desperately in needs a loaf of bread, a blacksmith who must shoe a villain’s horse - and let it represent the larger background struggle of the untold story.
Step into a new process:
Writers can be superstitious about their process. Why mess with something that works? Unless, of course, it doesn’t work, or at least, not always. Flash is a low-risk way of auditioning new tools and methods for your overall craft toolbox.
For instance, some writers love prompts. You give them one, and a week later, they have an entire chapbook’s worth of prose poems. Me? Unless I have a notion already brewing in my subconscious, I’ll see a prompt, and my mind will be as blank as a new Word document.
No matter where you fall on that continuum, prompts can be useful. I routinely scan theme calendars and calls for submissions. Sometimes, something sparks. More often than not, I use the notions as fodder for other stories. But every once in a while, I’ll sit myself down with a prompt, set a timer, and free write. Most often, it’s just good practice. On rare occasions, I’ll get something to works.
Makes it worth all the pain. And it’s one more way to make a little bet with your writing.
Embarking on a thirty-day writing challenge is another way of making little bets with your writing. Can you write historical fiction? Take a month and find out. Drawn to the literary genre but feel intimidated? Work through a series of flash fiction pieces and explore the genre in depth.
If you want to try this more structured approach, consider A Story a Day in May or The Southeast Writers Regimen. No matter your genre, one of the best reasons to write flash fiction is the confidence boost you’ll get from finishing one or more stories. You’re signalling to your subconscious, ‘Hey you can finish a story.’
Charity Tahmaseb has slung corn on the cob for Green Giant and jumped out of airplanes (but not at the same time). She’s worn both Girl Scout and Army green. These days, she writes fiction and works as a technical writer in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her short fiction has appeared in Deep Magic, Escape Pod, Cicada, and Pulp Literature.
She’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize Award, and her first novel 'The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading' was a YALSA 2012 Popular Paperback pick in the Get Your Geek On category.
She's recently stepped out of her comfort with two historical short stories. The Saint of Bright Red Things is currently available in The Binge-Watching Cure, and The Potato Bug War will appear in issue 19 of Pulp Literature.
You can get keep up to date with Charity via her blog - https://writingwrongs.blog/ or by following her on twitter @geekgirlx2