The Writing and Marketing Show

How to Write Flash Fiction

February 12, 2020 Wendy H. Jones Season 1 Episode 4
The Writing and Marketing Show
How to Write Flash Fiction
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode award winning Flash Fiction Writer Allison Symes shares her top tips and advice for writing Flash Fiction. This form of writing is growing in popularity and with a number of major competitions and an increasing number of publishers accepting them, no writer can afford to ignore this form of the craft. 

spk_0:   0:02
Hi and welcome to the writing and marketing show brought to you by author Wendy H. Jones. This show does exactly what it says on the tin, it's jam packed with interviews, advice, hints, tips and news to help you with the business of writing. It's all wrapped up in one lively podcast, so it's time to get on with the show. Welcome to Episode four of the writing and Marketing Show with author entrepreneur. Wendy H. Jones. Today I'm going to be talking all things Flash Fiction writing with prolific flash fiction writer Alison Symes. Allison is my go to girl when I want to know anything about writing flash fiction because, as you'll find out, she really is prolific and she really is an expert. So what's been happening in my life? Well, not a whole heck of a lot, because I've got the same lurgy that everybody else has had. I've got a cold and I've got sore throat as you'll hear in my voice today and also in my guest's voice. However, we're both professionals and the show must go on. In the meantime, I've been working on my new marketing book, which I'm hoping will be out sometime in March. That's a new version of my original marketing book, and it's called Marketing Matters. I'm very much looking forward to that coming out. I'm also working on Book two of the Cass Claymore  Investigates series, and that is called Blood and Bones, and it's going to be a laugh out loud mystery. So what of Allison? Allison writes flash fiction and short stories and describes them as fairy tales with bite or quirky fiction. She's been published online and in print by Bridge House Publishing. Cafelit,  Iron Press and Chapeltown Books on. They published her first flash fiction collection, which is called From Light to Dark and Back again in 2017. She's currently working on another flash fiction book and a novel. The next Flash Fiction book will be out late 2020. The most recent story she published was The 1000 Word The Professional, which has been released in E book by Bridge House Publishing as one of the 15 winners of the 2019 Waterloo Arts Festival writers competition. The theme was transforming Being. What a cracking title, what a cracking theme should I say, for a flash fiction,Two of her flash fiction storiess, dignity and injustice  appeared in the best of Cafelit, which came out in December 2019. She also blogs for Chandler's Ford Today an online community magazine. That's usually on topics of interest to other writers. So a very talented lady, Alison, and I'm very much looking forward to hearing what she has to say about writing flash fiction. So without further ado, let's speak to our  guest.

spk_0:   2:54

spk_0:   2:54

spk_0:   2:54
Hi Alison. And welcome to the show. It's lovely to have you here.  

spk_0:   3:01
Thanks, Wendy. How are you?  

spk_0:   3:03
Well, I've got these bugs everybody's got, but apart from that, I'm chipper.

spk_1:   3:08
It's the time of year. And I guess it only proves getting bugs like that proves we're human and not robots. You don't want a robot writer?

spk_0:   3:14
Absolutely. But you might feel like you're being interviewed by a robot in a minute. When I get going, you're like one of those people on a a quiz programme, you know? Are you ready to face ...

spk_0:   3:25
Well, I guess I'm as ready as I'm going to be.

spk_0:   3:30
We'll start at the very beginning, then, to choose a phrase from a well known song. What is flash fiction?

spk_1:   3:36
Flash fiction is technically any story, which is 1000 words or under. Now. I personally prefer some 500 words because to me flash fiction is very short fiction, especially the 1000 word, and you're getting so close to a standard length short story there. My own natural preference is to write it in at the 100 to 250 word mark. The fascination itself is not particularly new. It's just the name by which we call them. Jesus's parables are flash fiction. All sorts of the old legends come in well under 500 words, so they would count as flash fiction as we know it now. In my time, I've known it called postcard fiction,  for a storey on the back of a standard size postcard. I've known it as short short fiction, but I think flash is a good name for it because you are getting literally a flash of illumination into a character's life for the duration of that short story.  I think It's a really good name for it. And I must admit I love the fact that it is taking off very, very well for both readers and writers.

spk_0:   4:50
Well, I've really been short changing myself because I was under the impression that it was under 300 words. Not, 1000. So that's come as a total surprise to me

spk_1:   5:00
Writing magazine have a 750 word short storey competition. But technically, that's a flash fiction story.  I personally prefer well under 500 words because to me, that's it. That's a more natural format for the genre.

spk_0:   5:23
Yes, but flash fiction gaining in popularity about amongst both writers and readers. Why do you think this is the case?

spk_1:   5:31
Well, there were loads of reasons for that, talking from the reader's point of view, firstly it's instant in impact, okay, and secondly, it's easy to read, whether you're reading it in a paperback book or on a Kindle or on your smartphone. I personally think that technology has helped the form really, really grow because you can read it on any size screen. IPad Smartphone, kindle, what have you. A mutual friend of ours Val Penny described. Flash fiction as the perfect bus stop read and that that's a great summary as well. Yeah, if you haven't got a lot of time to read you can read a flash fiction collection, you can dip in and out of it as and when you want.

spk_0:   6:17
Yes, I know it's a very good idea. And to be honest, I tend to read flash fiction between stops on a train or something like that. So it  is the perfect bus stop Read

spk_1:   6:29
 The Bridport Prize calls Flash the art of just enough. And I think that's brilliant, too. Flash fiction is going into schools now. I found this out from a friend of mine. He's got school age Children. Children are encouraged to write up to 500 words short stories and the reason they are doing this is because BBC Radio run the 500 words competition every year with the Oxford University Press. The competition's open to those aged between five and 13 and the theme is open. But I think that's a brilliant way to encourage imagination and hopefully even encourage a love of reading in young people. But it does mean more people e.g.  The Children and their parents are getting to know what flash fiction is. And that's going to help the market grow too

spk_0:   7:28
Yeah, that is good, actually, that we're getting Children interested in writing and they can see the end product. Yes. So that probably helps. Because if they want to write a novel, it's a bit long  but flash fiction - they can see the end

spk_1:   7:42
Exactly. And also, I must admit, my hope is flash fiction might be a way of drawing reluctant readers in precisely because, you know, asking them to commit too much in one go. Yeah, intermediate Flash Fiction Story. Who knows where they'll go from there. A longer short storey, a novella, then a novel perhaps? I mean, get them hooked on to reading first. Who knows? F rom a writing point, I feel flash fiction really has to be character led. I love creating characters. You must too Wendy.  It's one of the challenges and  the fun of flash fiction, I have to keep coming up with different people for different stories. I absolutely adore it. It has a lot to teach about editing? Learn what your wasted words are, know when to cut them. Whatever form of writing you do. Being aware of that is gonna help you improve your writing across the board. And that's gonna help increase your chances of acceptances and what have you?

spk_0:   8:48
It's a very good point. I mean, I was going to ask you why should  turn to writing Flash fiction. But I think you've covered it very well.

spk_1:   8:56
Well, I found out that I keep putting the words very, actually and that in stories when I don't really need to. So now when I'm doing the first edit, those are the first things that I have come out. I can't stop myself writing them, unfortunately, But I know what the wasted words are. They're the first things that get the red pen treatment. I mean, you have to learn. I also think of flash fiction is precision writing because you are choosing the impact you want to have on your reader. You will think about the choice of word very carefully because you haven't got the space of the novella or novel. You have got to be a very precise about what you're doing. And I know a very slipped in there.

spk_0:   9:45
I've got the equivalent of a swear box and you have to put a pound in every time you say it.

spk_1:   9:53
Well, I don't do that. I'll be broke. I've written flash fiction, which is set in historical times. I've written fantasy ones , crime, and even written one where the character was a ghost. You've actually got more flexibility. The most important thing is the impact you want to make on your reader. Then you think about the word count. I've learned over time much as I love writing the 100 word story, which is also known as the Drabble. Sometimes a story works better if I have 150 or 200. So I simply find a different competition or a different market for it. I do not water the story down. That's the other thing with flash fiction writing.If you are have a tendency topped that will stop you because she simply haven't got the room for it.

spk_0:   10:58
So it would seem that trying flash fiction would help any writer in a lot of different ways. So that's good thing.

spk_1:   11:06
Oh, very much so.

spk_0:   11:08
Are there any specific rules that we need to know in order to write flash fiction,

spk_1:   11:14
The general one is less is more. You haven't got room for description. So you have to think about conjuring up an image in as few words as possible. Everybody knows that you shouldn't use cliches in fiction. But with flash fiction it's a little bit different. You can subvert them. I did this for the lovely Veronica Bright who ran a flash fiction workshop at Swanwick Writers Summer School a year or two ago, and for the exercise she set my story. I had to use the phrase Take the Biscuit, but I didn't want to use that phrase because it's a cliche, of course. So I got my character to take the Garibaldi and I read my work out and it got a big laugh as it was meant to do. Using just that one word I was able to give in that one word, a sense of social class, of the character. If I had said something like he'd taken the rich tea, I could have done it in a couple. You learn tricks to how to convey an image without going into purple prose and loads and loads of description. The other thing I found which I didn't expect, is I've been writing far more in the first person because is a great way in to take you into your character's thoughts. The reader can pick up from their attitude, what this character was likely to be like, and then they can then use the rest of the story to find out if their assumption about that character was right. That's been good fun to do. Flash fiction is the best tool I know for sharpening up your writing. Overall, it really is.

spk_0:   12:58
Well, it sounds like it is to be honest, and I love that cliche thing.

spk_0:   13:04
I've done it with titles as well. Titles are important in flash fiction. They are for any story, but because of the limited word count. Titles can convey the mood. They have to.  Try to come by a sense of the mood of the story wherever possible. One of my stories is called Punish. The innocent not only had punished the guilty but immediately. I've got the hook in the title, I've set mood. You're likely to guess from that. It's a crime Story against injustice. And I hope it'll intrigue the reader. Want to find out more, But you can have fun with that. You can offer cliches. Known phrases make very good themes.. Sometimes I've used the most used titles like Time Waits for No man makes a great title. You can take that in any direction, and it's all about having fun with your characters. Given it's a very short form of writing is I've still found that outlining it is extremely useful. But what I'm outlining is mainly the character. I've got to know their voice before I start writing anything about them, that is where I do plan out.. Then I'm good to go with the actual story itself, knowing that I know this person inside out like and then write their tale.

spk_0:   14:39
That takes me to The next question I was wanting to ask anyway, is that many of us know how to go about planning a novel. But how do you go about planning a piece of flash fiction

spk_0:   14:50
Different flash fiction writers will do it differently? But my way as I mentioned just now was to plan the character out because you haven't got room, even even if you go right up to the 1000 word limit. You haven't got a lot of room for a lot of characters. I generally would recommend sticking to one or two at most, especially if you're writing under 500 words I often actually only just have one major character in mind, but they referred to others as  part, the Story. And again, you're getting a feel for what the main character is like by what they say about the others. So I plan out in detail what this character is going to be like. I don't necessarily need to know what they look like, but I need to know what their major traits are. Their attitudes to life, their attitudes to others. Are they greedy? Are they capable of committing a crime? Would I like, would I like to meet them in a  dark alley? And sometimes you got to that one is a further no, but that's the way it should be. But I planned the character and from that I will get the story because if I've got a feisty characters who is greedy, there's probably a crime story in that.

spk_0:   16:00
That's a really good point that starting with chatachterisationworks well in flash fiction , so good tip.

spk_1:   16:09
Fun to do. And that's where the challenges for the writer is. Well, because you've got to keep coming up with different characters for different stories, although ironically, I'm working on a flash fiction collection. At the moment I've started to do linked flash fiction, which is new to me. It's good fun to do. I've got one character in one story, but they are referred to in another in another storey. One of my favourite flash fiction books is The Great War  which is literally 100 by 100 words stories, with characters all set in and around World War One, it's beautifully done. Ah, the characterisation is amazing and that is very inspirational, but that's the challenge for a flash fiction writer. You've got to keep coming out with different characters who are leading that story. You want to take the reader with you. I use scrivener as my main, my main processing tool. They have some excellent fiction templates, which I cannibalise for my own use. They do one for characters, one for settings. I actually use that sometimes for flash fiction as well, because sometimes the setting connects the character. But most of the time you need to decide what you want to know about your character before you write their story and plan that out. And then the writing goes relatively smoothly. Whenever I had a story, it hasn't happened very often. I'm glad to say I've only abandoned two stories  in my time and I've been writing for goodness knows how many years now and in both cases is because I hadn't planned out properly.

spk_0:   17:56
Right. Planning is key, just like is it is in novel writing. Moving on. Are there any specific tropes, you know, with regards to writing flash?

spk_1:   18:08
You could set your character whenever and wherever you like. If you're writing a science fiction flash fiction, please say you can use any tropes you know associated with science fiction or with fantasy or what have you? `This is where I do love the flexibility of the form for me it's all about the character. I write what I call fairy tales with bite, which are often humorous stories with magical characters in. I've got a standard fairy godmother with a standard wand, you know, But, you know, I'm using that as a short cut because everybody knows what a fairy godmother looks like. Everybody knows what a fairy godmother should have in the way of equipment. I don't need to spell that out in the story itself.

spk_0:   19:06
Yeah, now that's a good point. I loved your title stories with bite.

spk_1:   19:12
Yes, fairy tales with bite. I've always been a huge fan of fairy tales. It always annoys me when people think these things are twee, they haven't read Hans Christian Andersen because they're anything but tweei. Especially the Little Mermaid. Disney couldn't have filmed it the way Hans Christian Andersen wrote it. 

spk_0:   19:32
No, no, are there any genres that worked better for flash fiction Or can you use any genre?

spk_1:   19:39
I think you can use any genre. Still I think this is down to the individual writers preference. I've recently written historical flash. This is a relatively new development for me, but I'm loving it. I will always have a soft spot for fantasy and fairy tale. So that will always be a major part of my work. So it's down to your preference and what you want top write. 

spk_0:   20:07
Yes, I mean, we've all got preferences, for one thing and another, but sometimes it be good to try out different things in a shorter form. 

spk_1:   20:16
It's a good way to experiment, isn't it? To see whether you'd like to take it further? Yeah. Yeah, Well, and why not? I mean, there are certain genres that, you know, I've done what I would call a little bit of light horror, but the stories in from Light to Dark and Back Again, those are about as dark as I get and that's it. And that's fine with me on. But, yes. Flash fiction is a good vehicle for experimenting with form. Very much so. I mean, I've written the odd flash fiction story, you know, where the first letter of each sentence spells out a word and it looks really good in visual format, I've known others that will write flash fiction in the form of a poem. But it is a flash fiction Story,  just done in a poetic form. Have fun, experiment, play with words. Flash fiction is very open to that.

spk_0:   21:11
Have you got any hints and tips for opening flash friction stories?

spk_1:   21:17
You've got to hook your reader. I mean, this is true for a novelist too. Basically the same rules apply. You've got to intrigue your reader so they will want to read on. This is where a promising title works wonders. I will often take, um a reader straight into the head of my character so you can see their thoughts and attitudes. Other times I will set up an interesting opening. So hopefully the reader won't have to find out what happens. One of my stories, The Circle of Life, I start with people throwing kittens into the river here. I hate that. It's so cruel. What can I do? That's the opening paragraph. Very short sentences. I know you will know from that. This person is going to do something. Then they're not going with the crowd.They hate animal cruelty. They're going to do something to stop it and hopefully you will want to then find out what it is they do and if they're successful in doing it. So it's hook, hook, hook all the way.

spk_0:   22:18
Yeah, you have no time to waste words. Really. Your first sentence must be, you know, it must be focused on what you want to convey about this short storey. Is that what you're saying?

spk_1:   22:30
Very much so. But again, this is why it's a brilliant tool for writers because this is one great example of sharpening up your writing. Getting in there, cutting any waffle out. You have to cut it. You have to start with the action. Sometimes the action's inside the character's head, but you can see it. You know the reader is being shown a character plotting something as was the case with that opening line. Other times you can just set up a situation where something has got to happen and you've got to find out. You've got to find out what, and sometimes it's just about intriguing your reader. I mean, in my story, Rewards, which is one of by my longer pieces I start with - she must go. Becky thought.

spk_0:   23:29
Oh, no, that's a good start. Yeah, that's a cracking opening.

spk_1:   23:34
Exactly. You know, who is she and who is Becky? And is she going to go?

spk_1:   23:39
And now I need to know

spk_1:   23:41
 Exactly. You want your reader to start asking questions. You want them to be curious You want we have to find out more moment. So, yeah, I hope the main.

spk_0:   23:54
I think you've touched on this already, but is there anything specific that a writer needs to know in order to edit flash fiction?

spk_1:   24:02
The first thing is, look for weasel words. Look for anything that is not adding to your story in some way, and cut it. I mean, when you think about it, what does 'Actually', actually add to the story? Absolutely nothing. So out it comes. You've got to ask yourself Is every line, every word, literally moving this story on? Is it something the reader has got to know? If it has, then it stays in. If there's any doubt, out it comes. If I took this bit out would the story still work? Would the impact of this story on the reader be stronger or weaker. If it's stronger without it then it comes out.

spk_0:   24:48
That's a good point, actually. Going through everything and addingto the story. Just keep your word short.   

spk_0:   25:00
Lovely thing is you also improve your grammar no end with flash fiction because hyphenated words count as one word which is brilliant. You learn which words you can hyphenate and  which words you can't But where you can is a great short cut. I mean, if I came up with, she wore a red coat. Now that will conjure up all sorts of images for you. For me, it conjures up little Red Riding Hood or  a favourite red coat that I had as a kid and always wore for Sunday best. I could see it in my mind's eye. if I add in one hyphenated word she wore a moth eaten-red coat. The images are  very different and the mood of the story changes immediately, too. One of my own favourite storiess is Calling the Doctor, which is on my book trailer for for From Light to Dark and Back Again on. I've got a character who knows they're coming to the end of their life, but are there on their own. They've got no family and they're worried about what's gonna happen to them. But they have found a friend who's going to sort it all out for them. The final word of that story turns the mood of it completely on its head. I can't say anything more than that without giving it all away, but I would say if anybody would like to know more. . I've got it on Facebook. I've  got two pages I've got my Alison Symes authorone, and I've got one for From light to dark and back again. The book trailer's on there. Go and have a look and you'll see it as part of the book trailer. That is another aspect of the fun of flash fiction. Placing your words in such a way. You know, you can turn the storyy on its head. That is huge fun to do. I must admit I love it when I'm reading. Particularly crime fiction is great fun reading a crime novel or short story thinking you know where the author is going to take you and sometimes you're right and that's fine. The author's delivered on the promise. That's great, but it's even better when they wrong foot you. Because you think, yeah, I should have seen that, and I didn't and I love that, and you can do it with flash fiction a lot, literally. The placing of a word in the right place completely turns the mood of the story.

spk_0:   27:22
Really good tips. So how do you go about getting flash fiction published? Are there any specific publishers that my listeners should approach?

spk_1:   27:33
Right now, I'll start by saying my way in because I startedwriting short storeys and I was published by Bridge House Publishing and still am.The Cafelit Website, then issued a 100 word challenge. And I saw that and I thought I'm sure what most people would have thought. 100 a storey and 100 words. What a proper story. You've got to be kidding me, right? Are you going to get a proper beginning, Middle and end in such a short time space? But I've got to give it a go, so I did. They liked what I did and I soon found I was hooked to the form. Later they issued invitations for single author collections and I gathered up all that I had I had written for them and wrote more material. And that's what led to the publication of my first flash fiction collection. Now other ways in, I can't recommend this guide highly enough. Myslexia have issued an indie press guide. There are loads and loads of publishers in there that'll take short story collections and flash fiction collections. I cannot recommend that guide highly enough. Writers and artists. Yearbook is also useful from tracking down magazines . Look out for Competitions  as people like the Bridport Prize have actually added flash fiction as a category to their long standing competitions, Which is great. I mean, it's very good prize money on the first prize for the flash fiction in the Bridport prize. £1000. Wow, Yeah, exactly. Very generous. Naturally, there's a lot of competition for that one. There are flash fishing competitions all over the place. If you put a Google search on loads and loads and loads will come out, there's one for the Association of Christian Writers that's coming up soon. The prize for that is publication in our magazine and book tokens. The American market for Flash is huge, too. Also, any subscribers to writing magazine will already know this, but they bring out the competition guide, they do it twice a year. They cover the UK. You've got a wealth of competition detail in there and an awful lot of the short story competitions will also accept accept flash or It's a separate category now. Well worth looking through. My way in was online and then into anthologies and then  single author collection with the traditional indie publisher.  Building up material builds up catalogue for you.

spk_0:   30:49
Well, that's a lots of places. Again I'm surprised, but it's good that there are all those places that you can approach with your flash fiction. Is it worth bringing out a book just with your own flash fiction?

spk_1:   31:02
It can be. I mean, it's not the way I have gone, but I see absolutely no reason why you couldn't do it, because it would be great advertising for your other forms of work.  I mean, there's absolutely no reason why you couldn't self publish your own collection of short fiction. It's not the way I've gone, but I see no reason why not. I mean, to be honest the Big Five publishing houses aren't interested in flash fiction collections by unknown authors, and they're not interested in standard length short story collections by standard authors but the indie press are  more open. Which is why I recommend the Myslexia  indie press guide because there's a wealth of information in there

spk_0:   31:48
You've got one coming out soon. Can you tell us what the title of that one is?   

spk_0:   31:53
It's going to be Tripping the Flash Fantastic, and that's going to be coming out. I haven't got an exact date yet. I know it's gonna be by November. I'm hoping it will be this summer. That's a follow up collection, too, from light to dark and back again. I'm very much looking forward to working with Chappeltown Books, again.  So I'm very much looking forward to that.  I will be shouting the word about that more when I've got a definite date. I do love titles, which set the mood. In that case, it's setting the tone as well, which is great. People will know what they're getting, and it will be coming out in Kindle and paper back because Chapeltown do both.

spk_0:   32:53
So I'm interested. If writers get their flash collection published or it is accepted for publication? Is it something where they get paid for it?

spk_1:   33:05
It depends where you go. I mean, I get royalties. Also competitions if you re lucky enough o win.There is often a cash prize. Some off the American Journals, I believe, do pay if they accept your work, but again, get a copy of the rights. Check, check, check what the listings say because there will be people out there who will take your work and who will pay you for it. But it's a question of finding them. There are so many journals now online and some of them will pay. Some of them won't. Some of them will give you a free copy of the magazine your story appears in and that sort of thing, 

spk_0:   34:30
Are there any other pearls of wisdom you would like to give my listeners. T

spk_1:   34:37
The main thing I would say is enter competitions, which is a great way of getting in. Just check everything. You can't be too careful, there are charlatans in every industry. And sadly, publishing is no exemption, you know, just check, the terms and conditions of any competition never sign away all your rights. I'm sure you could get me on that one, Wendy. Yes. Check that. Make sure the price you have to pay to enter a competition is reasonable. For example, a low level competition charging £23 Say something like that for entry is not going to offer you a mega £10 million first prize.. If somebody is asking you to send in £10 for one flash fiction Story and the prize is about 20 quid, somebody is raking it in and it won't be you. Just be careful. Never be afraid to ask questions on the writing forums and the society of authors. And I'm sure the Alliance of Independent Authors would also give helpful tips there as well. You see, this is the great thing about networking with other writers. Whether you do it at conferences or day events, you find out so much.

spk_0:   35:59
Well, it's being absolutely fabulous talking to you, Alison,

spk_1:   36:03
I hope you readers find it useful.

spk_0:   36:08
I'm sure my listeners will find it very useful. I found it very useful. I'm itching to write short storeys now. L

spk_0:   36:18
Let's see some crime flash fiction from you then. Wendy.

spk_0:   36:22
 Yes, absolutely. So thank you for your time. Thank you for your advice.  

spk_0:   36:27
  You're welcome, .And thank you for having me. 

spk_0:   36:33
You're welcome. Bye bye.

spk_0:   36:36
That brings us to the end of another show. Thanks, Alison, for sharing your wisdom with us today. It's been a pleasure having you with us. I'm Wendy H. Jones, and you can find me on and I'm Wendy H. Jones on Facebook, Twitter, instagram, Pinterest and any other social media you would like to try and find me on Thank you for joining me today, and I hope you found it both useful and interesting. Join me next week when my guest is award winning crime writer Alex Gray, who is going to talk to us about writing crime books. See you next week. Have a great writing week.