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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

June 2008

Writing the Short-Short Story

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

We welcome award-winning author and educator Bruce Holland Rogers back to Flash Fiction Online as he begins his new column, entitled “Short-Short Sighted: Writing the Short-Short Story.” Bruce is an American author of short fiction whose stories have won a Pushcart Prize, two Nebula Awards, the Bram Stoker Award, and two World Fantasy Awards. Bruce graced Flash Fiction Online’s inaugural issue with “Reconstruction Work”. His first column frames the question that will lead us through the rest of his columns: What exactly is this short-short story that we keep talking about?

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.
 Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

You’ll Know It When You See It

Just what is a short-short story? Or perhaps you prefer the term sudden fiction. Or flash fiction. Maybe in your view these three terms actually describe very different categories of writing, and you’re irritated that I’m treating them as the same thing. We’re barely four sentences into this first column, and at least a few readers are already disagreeing with my choice of terms.

Such disagreement is the nature of literary definitions. On the smallest scale, writers can agree on what an iamb is, or a trochee. In matters of craft, metonymy is a form of symbol-making distinct from synecdoche. Similes are a special class of metaphor using “like” or “as.” Agreed, agreed. But what is a novel? What constitutes a short story? Can a poem of fifteen lines still be called a sonnet? As soon as writers begin to talk about form and function on a larger scale, they start to disagree.

In this first column, I’m going to suggest some ways that writers can think about the definition of a short-short story, but I don’t intend to settle the issue of definitions. I don’t think there’s much point in settling it. Instead, I want to point out a particular way of thinking about short-short stories (or flash fictions or micro fictions or blasters or whatever you want to call them) that I think can help writers to write such work.

There is, of course, an editorial definition of various short forms. This definition has its origins in Collier’s magazine in the 1930’s. The editors invented a new feature, a story that would be printed in its entirety on one single page of the magazine, and they coined the term “short-short story” for these fictions. The original definition of a short-short, then, was based on how many words would fit pleasingly on a page of Collier’s.

For writers who wanted to sell a short-short to Collier’s, this definition gave them something to aim at. They could compare the word-count for a manuscript with the word-count for these one-page stories in the magazine to determine whether they had to cut their story or perhaps pad it a bit to get it to the size the editors wanted. But the definition of “fits on one page of Collier’s” is a definition for editorial convenience.

The same is true for most definitions that are based on word count. The editors of the original Flash Fiction anthology decided that they would include only stories that would fit on a two-page spread of the typical literary magazine, or 750 words. Jerome Stern’s contest for the World’s Greatest Short Short Story limited entries to the equivalent of a single type-written page, or 250 words. Eventually, Stern applied the name “micro fiction” to stories no longer than 250 words.

Now any number of editors who publish brief fiction are choosing arbitrary numbers, usually some multiple of 250, as the official ceiling for flash fiction. The Vestal Review won’t consider work over 500 words. The editors of the latest Norton anthologies of flash fiction have stuck with 750 words as their limit. Flash Fiction Online and Flashquake consider no stories beyond 1,000 words. The Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction contest used to be limited to stories under 2,000 words, though this has been changed recently to 3,000 words, which some would consider quite long for something called “Very Short.”

As convenient as arbitrary counts are for editors who are limiting what they will or won’t consider for publication, a particular word count has little to do with how a reader reads. Defining the short-short as under 500 or 750 or 1,000 or even 2,000 words doesn’t necessarily get at how it is different for a reader to read a book of short-shorts as compared to a book of short stories. In fact, I can imagine two books, one a collection of 2,000-word short-shorts, the other a collection of 2,000-word short stories, and the experience of reading the book of short-shorts would not be the same as reading the collection of short stories of the same length. So what is mere word count missing in its definition?

In her introduction to one of my short-short collections, Kate Wilhelm came up with the metaphor that I like best. A novel, she said, is a house where the reader is invited to explore every room, right down to snooping in the closets. Novels are discursive, apt to take side trips. A short story, according to Kate, is a single room in the house that invites the reader to lean in through the open window and see what’s happening in one room. Stories are artificially limited. And for Kate, a short-short requires that a reader kneel outside of a locked door to peer in through the keyhole. All reading is an act of collaboration between the writer’s imagination and the reader’s, but the short-short is crafted to demand the most effort on the reader’s part. Part of what makes a short-short is the paring down of everything that isn’t absolutely essential, and even some of those essentials may only be implied.

As a working definition, I like Kate’s assessment better than most. It’s more helpful than word count in getting at what the writer should be setting out to do with a short-short. But to the degree that it is helpful, it also sets up a hazard.

One reason that literary definitions are tricky is that they often go from describing to prescribing. For example, an editor of a popular magazine finds that the stories that his readers like best all start with a character with a problem, follow the character through a series of dramatic and unsuccessful attempts to solve that problem, and conclude with a change or insight that allows the character to attack the problem in a new way and solve it. The editor begins to think of this sequence as the essence of story. Now and then the editor writes a rejection that reads something like, “I enjoyed the writing in this piece, and it held my interest, but it’s not really a story.”

Writers on the receiving end of such rejections may adopt the formula, using it to write successfully for the magazine, and perhaps teaching other writers to do the same. Between them, such editors and writers may establish a culture of what constitutes a story, and reject any brief narrative, no matter how pleasing, as “not really a story.”

This can happen even with a definition as broad as Kate Wilhelm’s, so that a story isn’t a short-short if the reader didn’t feel that the story was demanding enough. “I felt more like I was snooping in the closet for those three pages, rather than kneeling outside of a locked door.”

I ask again: What is a short-short story?

Justic Potter Stewart memorably wrote in a Supreme Court opinion that while he couldn’t define obscenity, he would know it when he saw it. Well, that’s true of the short-short, too. Some tests for the short-short are this: Is it short? Is it more narrative than lyric? (If it’s more lyrical than narrative, it might be a prose poem instead.) Does it convince you that it’s a story, even if it breaks every rule of storytelling that you ever heard? But it’s hard to come up with a definition that anticipates everything that you might, once presented with it, consider to be a short-short.

That is, you’ll know it when you see it.

Is this terribly subjective? You bet it is! Does it potentially lead to all kinds of literary oddities being classified as short-short stories? Of course! That is, in fact, part of what makes short-short stories such interesting reading. They often break rules, and succeed. The poet and flash fiction writer Robert Hill Long even teaches his students that an essential ingredient of prose poems and flash fictions is that they subvert the usual categories and expectations of literature. I wouldn’t go as far as Robert does in this. Again, I’m wary of descriptions that threaten to turn into prescriptions. But I do think that a lot of flash fiction succeeds even as it leaves the reader thinking, Was that a story I just read, or what?

Where does this loose definition leave us as writers? If it’s hard to settle on a complete definition of the short-short story, how do I propose to show you ways to write one?

When I teach literature classes to my MFA students, my objective is to show them how to mine literature for ideas and techniques of their own. I say of the works that we study that we will be going through them as if these novels and stories were a stolen purse. We’re looking for the good stuff, the stuff we want to keep for ourselves.

In the columns that follow, I’ll be taking a somewhat similar approach. While I won’t always be examining published work to see what we can mine from it, I will be writing about general categories and types of short-shorts. When we survey the field of short-short fiction, I will ask, what are some of the kinds of stories that we find? For each kind of story, how would the writer go about writing such a piece? What are the essential ingredients for a short-short in that tradition?

Similarly, we’ll look at some particular methods of invention, starting not with the kind of story, but the kind of procedure that the writer can use to arrive at a short-short.

In the end, then, I’ll leave the question of broad definitions for you to resolve on your own. You can think of short-shorts or flash fiction as work of a particular length, say, or as work that places particular demands on the reader. You can come up with your own idiosyncratic definition if you like. My focus will not be on determining strict boundaries for flash. Instead, I will explore with you, one small region at a time, some of the various terrain that lies somewhere within, or near, those boundaries. Our focus won’t be on delimitation, but on possibility.

This column is the first in a series by Bruce Holland Rogers. You may also be interested in the next column or Bruce’s author page for a comprehensive list.

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About the Author

Bruce Holland Rogers

The eyes of Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.

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