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6 Essentials for Writing Flash Fiction and Nonfiction

Author and editor Gina Barreca gives her top 6 tips for writing striking flash fiction and short short nonfiction.

All good writing reflects and illuminates life; flash fiction and nonfiction hold up a compact mirror.

While it’s delicious to believe short-forms of writing are merely grab-and-go exercises, great flash fiction and nonfiction—creative works sliding in under the 1000-word wire—are, in reality, not any easier to write than 10-page essays, 30-page stories, or 400-page novels.

(What Is Flash Fiction?)

The good news is that publishing opportunities for flash fiction and nonfiction are growing to meet the appetite of an increasingly large audience. For many writers figuring out how to write effectively within the confines of a reduced word-count, though, the process can feel like stuffing a size-10 foot into a size-8 shoe, wedging a full-size person into a clown car, or at the very least, holding your breath to get that belt to cinch in just. One. More. Notch.

I’ve developed several strategies to help writers become more adept at the form. This advice was formed by necessity: over the years, in addition to authoring ten books, I’ve been the proud editor of a number of collections of original works by a wide range of authors. Volumes I’ve edited include Don’t Tell Mama: The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing, Last Laughs: Perspectives on Women and Comedy, Make Mine A Double: Why Women Like Us Like to Drink-Or Not, and many others.

During 2020 and early 2021, I’ve been preparing for the debut of a new collection and working with NYT bestselling authors as well as writers who are seeing their first works in print. Titled Fast Funny Women: 75 Essays of Flash Nonfiction, it’s the initial volume in a new series I’ll be editing for Woodhall Press. All good writing reflects and illuminates life; flash fiction and nonfiction hold up a compact mirror.

Fast Funny Women

Fast Funny Women: 75 Essays of Flash Nonfiction edited by Gina Barreca

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Here are my top six pieces of advice to help the writers I’m working with grasp what’s expected of them from the “flash” literary form.

1. Writing is like real estate: finding, decorating, and making a home out of a 500 square-foot studio apartment can be trickier than setting up a three-story house. So you’ll put the microwave on top of the refrigerator and wash pans in the bathtub. You’ll sleep in a hammock. You’ll be inventive, you’ll adapt, and eventually, you’ll regard additional room as superfluous.

2. Stories, regardless of length, live or die on details. The brief and snug works in “Fast Funny Women,” for example, are as complete and self-enclosed as eggs. Although they’re about a specific moment, feeling, or idea, each tale is memorable and will giggle, rumble, thump, or echo through the lives of most readers. With audacity, resilience, intelligence, and playfulness—a deep sense of skepticism and a deep sense of delight—the writers in the collection invoke a kind of call-and-response with their audiences. They hit their marks because they know their targets.

(9 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Pay Off for Writers)

3. Feelings are what your readers expect from your flash fiction and nonfiction: they want a vital sense of power accompanied by a third-rail intensity. The word “flash” is there for a reason: The pieces have to sizzle, hiss, glow, and dazzle. The very constraints of the short form increase the force language, story, and structure are under and make the moments of brilliance in each work even more astonishing. You want to ignite, in your readers, the range of responses they’d have watching fireworks. You want to create a sense of anticipatory breathlessness in your readers, including perhaps curiosity and trepidation, then embrace their wonder and enchantment—or surprise and distress—and then offer them relief when the ordinary colors of evening reclaim the sky while being certain they’ll remember the moment you shared when nothing looked as if it could be ordinary again. (And don’t confuse firecrackers with fireworks—a little bang and puff of smoke aren’t enough to make a lasting impression.)

4. Emily Dickinson wrote “Tell the truth but tell it slant/Success in Circuit lies,” but I’d shorten Dickinson’s advice to “Tell the truth,” and apply it to flash fiction as well as flash nonfiction. I’d also edit it to read, “Success in Directness lies.” Short forms are rarely the place to explore unnamable emotional miasmas any more than they’re the best vehicle for, say, historical romance (although having said that, Carolyn Dever’s “Flame of Love,” included in “Fast Funny Women,” actually falls into that category). Even in the most inventive forms of flash fiction, where new universes and life-forms are imagined, the truth of the experience has to be made accessible to the reader’s feelings.

6 Essentials for Writing Flash Fiction and Nonfiction

5. Whether it’s Jane Smiley, Marge Piercy, Fay Weldon, Dawn Lundy Martin, Darien Hsu Gee, Jo-Ann Mapson, Susan Shapiro, Mimi Pond, Liza Donnelly, Maggie Mitchell, Nicole Hollander, “Judge” Judy Sheindlin (who happened to be my next-door neighbor when we were growing up in Brooklyn), or one of the 36 previously unpublished writers included in the book, every contributor brings a signature sense of self to the page. Read a paragraph from stand-up comic, writer, and educator Leighann Lord’s piece on the lessons she learned from her father (including how to distinguish between “dumbfounded” and just “dumb”). Then read one by Patricia Russo, Executive Director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, about how she decided not to be a nun—to her mother’s chagrin— but, instead, go to work for Bella Abzug. You’ll realize that an editor can file a lot of different perspectives under “family stories.” One thing they’ll all have in common? Each is entirely memorable. You’d never mistake one for the other.

6. In the flash form, you must select a tone and stick with it. This is a short ride. You can mix emotions—be amusing and nostalgic or hilarious and vicious—but you can’t throw all the emotions you’ve ever had into the word-blender and hit “liquefy.” The flash form is not a literary smoothie.

Research, interview, and explore the subjects that interest you. Then write about what you've learned in Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals. Writing nonfiction is a great way for beginner and experienced writers to break into the publishing industry.

Research, interview, and explore the subjects that interest you. Then write about what you've learned in Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals. Writing nonfiction is a great way for beginner and experienced writers to break into the publishing industry.

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