For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn
is a short story allegedly by Ernest Hemingway, perhaps written to settle a bar bet or perhaps written as a challenge, but either way, it’s a complete work of fiction. It’s a piece of writing I think about a lot, and it’s one of my favorites. It’s evocative, powerful and clocking in at six words, it proves that it’s not necessary to blather on endlessly to tell a good story.
The Hemingway story is an extreme example of one of my favorite types of writing — flash fiction. Flash, also known as micro, sudden, short-short, postcard, minute, quick, furious, and skinny, is a type of story that has a limited number of words (definitely under 1,000, but in many cases, under 500). Typically, it has a traditional beginning-middle-end story arc, though of course it happens in an ultra-condensed form.
In my experience as someone who very rarely went beyond 500 words with pieces of fiction, I found that I’d often run into people (usually other writers) with the opinion that short-short fiction is okay, but it’s not the real thing, and I think that is an unfair way of looking at flash. Though I definitely make no claims of genius, I absolutely believe that when done by a master, it’s an incredibly fast read that lingers indefinitely. Like quick-moving shadows thrown on a late-night wall by cars passing on the street outside, it often takes a lot of thinking to understand what you think you saw, and with each analysis, its shape shifts and you find something different. Take the story “Little Things” by Raymond Carver (text here), which, at 498 words, is a brilliant example of flash fiction.
Even before I did 70% of all of my reading on a computer screen, I had no patience for unnecessarily long works of fiction. I suppose this is why I became (and remain) a fan of the ultra-short flash fiction. (And probably also why I can’t be bothered to finish Anna Karenina.) Flash is perfectly suited for online reading, and there are quite a few places that deal entirely (or almost entirely) in flash fiction. Flashquake, Smokelong Quarterly, Vestal Review, and Pindeldyboz are just a few places online where you can get your flash fix.
In honor of the subject at hand, I feel that I should keep this post short, so I’ll close by mentioning that Litkicks’s Action Poetry is a great place to make every word count by trying some flash fiction.