Feeling flash? Getting started in short, short fiction

A beginner’s guide to writing, learning, publishing, entering flash fiction competitions and building your writing community.

This is an article for beginners. Flash is a fantastic genre if you want to get your work published or have a shot at one of the many competitions that are run all over the world. Or just for fun. This article will offer links that will help you write flash fiction, source competitions and journals to submit your work to, plus there’s a reading list at the end. Like anything, there are also a few pitfalls to be aware of. Read on!

About me

My name’s Gillian, I’m a journalist, writer and professional reader. I’ve been writing flash or short fiction for several years now, before that I was a radio and news journalist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Perth. Journalism is a great background for any kind of writing because it teaches several useful skills: getting words on a page; editing your own work with a dispassionate eye; submitting stories and dealing with rejection. I love the genre of Flash fiction, it allows room to experiment, and to try new ideas without the huge commitment of attempting a novel and it demands very tight language. You’ll find the editing process is as rigorous as the initial draft, probably more so. It’s fun and challenging.

If you’ve always wanted to try writing fiction but don’t know where to start, flash offers brilliant pathways for new writers and will hone the skills of even the most experienced authors. Famous fans of the genre include Pip Williams, George Saunders, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway.

What is Flash Fiction?

Flash fiction is generally accepted as being a short story under 1000 words. It’s an umbrella term for short fiction in general, so it’s also known as nano fiction, short fiction, short shorts, etc etc. Micro-fiction is stories under about 300 words. Don’t stress too much about this. If you’re new to the genre, it’s pretty much all flash fiction. It doesn’t even have to be fiction, it can be a memoir, non-fiction or a mix of both.

Flash stories are complete narratives, so unlike prose poetry or vignettes which might describe a scene or a moment, flash has a beginning, a middle and an end. Even if the action is implied and a lot of the story happens off the page, flash is always telling a story. Good flash has conflict and a sense of urgency, so you’ll find it’s often ( but not always) written in present or even future tense. You’ll often hear the expression; start in the middle, in reference to flash. Because stories are so short, you don’t have time as a writer to faff around with backstory or to paint intricate settings to draw your reader in before you get to the action. You’re looking to make an impact quickly, to offer stories that linger and to capture a glimpse of a rich and fully realised world that exists beyond the page.

The best way to get a sense of short fiction is to read it widely. There are some suggestions for starting points at the end of this article. Then, like ripples, they will lead you to more and more brilliant flash stories, journals and lovely people in the writing community.

Getting started

There are so many online resources for writing and publishing flash fiction. Try googling ‘flash fiction’ and you’ll be inundated. There’s so much. So, it’s a good idea to whittle them down into something manageable. There are some great courses you can pay for but you’ll also find endless opportunities that don’t cost anything. A good craft newsletter is a goldmine of useful and free information.

Here is an excellent overview on how to write flash fiction from the author, editor and teacher, Matt Kendrick in Lucent Dreaming. And another, written by Kathy Fish for the prestigious Bridport Prize.

Online resources

Here are a few places to find more resources. Note: this list is by no means exhaustive. These are simply sources I have used myself and found useful.

SmokeLong Quarterly is an international flash fiction journal, edited by the incomparable award-winning author Christopher Allen. This journal is the pinnacle for many flash writers looking to place their work, and if you want to write good flash fiction, as with any other genre, you need to read good flash fiction. This is where you’ll find it. They do really useful author interviews which are excellent if you want to pick apart a particular technique. They run amazing courses and workshops and fabulous competitions throughout the year.

Kathy Fish is a writer, teacher and the internationally accepted Queen of Flash Fiction. She is a guru and if you want to work in this genre, you should immediately follow her on  Twitter: @kathyfish and sign up for her Substack: artofflashfiction.substack.com where you will find heaps of free resources including craft essays and writing prompts. She also runs workshops but they’re so popular participants are chosen by lottery. I have yet to crack that one! Writing prompts if you don’t already know, are a brilliant way of igniting your imagination, finding story ideas and learning some of the different techniques you can use. Highly recommended.

Matt Kendrick is a writer, editor and teacher based in the UK. His workshops are sought after, brilliant for any writer and really good value. He also has a free and brilliant newsletter packed with writing advice and craft tips. He writes for Lucent Dreaming, a great site for craft essays and competitions.

Tommy Dean is the editor of Fractured Lit flash journal and an award-winning author and teacher. He runs courses and competitions through Fractured Lit. He also has a free craft newsletter which has loads of useful craft advice, writing tips, and prompts.

Retreat West is an online writing community, they do workshops, publish and hold really good competitions. You can join up for a fee or dip in and out of their free resources. Their monthly micro competition is a fun one to start with and it doesn’t cost a lot to have a crack.

If you’re in Perth (where I am based) and keen for some face-to-face action, Night Parrot Press (which is run by the brilliant Linda Martin and Laura Keenan) holds workshops for beginners and prints a flash anthology every year, plus they run the annual Flashing the Cover competition with Writing WA. Laura and Linda have pretty much single-handedly introduced Western Australia to the genre and are local legends. I learnt most of what I know through their workshops, and had my first ever publication in their first anthology, Once. Check out their website for workshops, craft advice and upcoming opportunities. They have a new anthology coming out in October which will feature new work by established and emerging Western Australian flash writers. They are also publishing acclaimed WA author, Susan Midalia’s new collection of flash, Miniatures in July.

Competitions

Competitions are a fun way to put your work out there and potentially get published, either online or in a hard copy anthology. Even if you don’t make the winner’s list, they give you a focus to write, a word count, often a prompt, and a deadline, so a reason to stop tinkering and submit that sucker. That said there are a lot of dodgy dealers out there, so make sure you choose a reputable comp.

Be wary of competitions that cost too much to enter, ($20 is the top end of what you should expect to pay in my view and the prize money should match.) Many lit mags are run by volunteers and use income from competitions to keep afloat, so it can be a good way to support the writing community, but it’s ok to be wary. They will often have some free entries for those who can’t afford the entry fee so worth checking.

Lucent Dreaming via Betas and Bludgers has a very handy spreadsheet of available comps, inc. word count, prize money, deadlines and entry fees. You’ll find it here.

If you’re in any doubt about a comp’s credentials, feel free to drop me an email and I’ll try to investigate for you.

Books

The glorious hard copy book of craft advice is still one of my favourite resources. They’re few and far between in this genre though. There are a couple coming out soon, highly anticipated works by Kathy Fish and Tommy Dean.

Nancy Stohlman’s Going Short is contemporary and very comprehensive. (pub: Ad Hoc Fiction, 2020)

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers and Writers in the Field. (The Rose Metal Press, edited by Tara L Masih, 2009)

Unlocking the Novella-In Flash by Michael Loveday (pub: Ad Hoc fiction, 2022)

Twitter

Look, I know what they say about Twitter, and they’re right. It IS a minefield of unfettered outrage and a conga line of keyboard warriors. But it is also a great resource for the writing community, you’ll find lit mags to read and submit to and you’ll make friends from all over the world. Other writers might share your work and will cheer you on. If you aren’t sure, maybe start with some of the journals and writers I have already mentioned. You’ll soon find more.

Also check out, El Rhodes, an award-winning author and teacher from the UK, who is a delightful angel who befriends new flash writers like myself. Just shadow her every move online, like I do. She hasn’t had me arrested yet. Plus Amy Barnes is a great writer and editor, and occasionally posts excellent craft essays on her Twitter account. And Mandira Pattnaik blogs great material for beginners also. It’s a rabbit hole of resources and great contacts, and most importantly brilliant stories you can read and wring out for inspiration for your own blossoming writing career.

If all else fails, follow me at @GillOshaughness and stalk who I stalk- just be prepared for obsessive Freo footy chat as well as flash fiction.

Submitting your stories

Most writers want to be published. It’s a joy. There are countless lit mags that specialise in flash fiction, some will pay for stories, some don’t. Be very wary of lit mags that ask you to pay a submission fee to have your work read. Make sure your work is as polished as it can be first, try to find someone you trust to read it for you, check it for errors and give you honest feedback. If you think your story is ready, don’t just send it to every journal out there. Look for one that you think is a good fit. You will know this by reading the publication first, to get a sense of the kind of work they publish.

Every good lit mag will have submission guidelines. Read these carefully. They will give you word limits, formatting guidelines, let you know if they pay, and other really important information you need to know. Many read blind for example so it’s important you don’t put your name on your story, it will be instantly rejected. Look for publications that offer respectful and professional communication, including, (especially) when it comes to rejections.

Don’t take rejections personally, they are much more common than acceptances and don’t argue. Be aware many publications can take several months to get back to you. Again, their guidelines will let you know. Always be professional and polite also. It’s a small community.

Like anything, it’s good to know if you’re submitting to a reputable journal. There are many. This list put together by author and editor of Flash Frog, Eric Scot Tryon is a wonderful start. As he says, it’s by no means exhaustive, but it will give you a good firing-off point to read and submit your own work.

Readings

This is such a small snapshot of the resources available. If you have any other suggestions, I’d love you to add them in the comments.

To finish off, here are a very few of my favourite examples of the genre. I will add to this list as more come to mind to build a collection of great work and fabulous journals, so check back. This is just a start. Again, if you have any suggestions, I’d love you to add them in the comments.

Company by Patricia Bidar in Atticus Review

Seven Minutes by Eric Scot Tryon in Longleaf Review

in ache by Melissa Llanes Brownlee in SmokeLong Quarterly

19 Owls by Elisabeth Ingram Wallace in The Forge Literary Magazine

Undergrowth by Melissa Bowers in SmokeLong Quarterly

I’m Vincent Van Gogh and I Painted That Way Because I knew it Would Look Really Sweet on a Mousepad by Audrey Burges in McSweeney’s

Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild by Kathy Fish in Jellyfish Review

A Practical Guide to Making Rain by Myna Chang in The Citron Review

The Shoal by Jiksun Cheung, Wigleaf.

Sticks by George Saunders

The Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Wants a Divorce But Does Not Want To Be The One To Ask by Jo Withers in X-R-A-Y

Between the Nail and The Skin by Hema Nataraju in Janus Literary

The Diamond Factory by Helen Rye in Matchbook

Romans Chapter 1 Verse 29 and Crushing Big by Kit de Waal, Bridport Prize.

Chicago by Kathy Fish, in Wigleaf.

Black Annis by Matt Kendrick in New Flash Fiction Review.

How to Tell a Scary Story by Sara Hills in X-R-A-Y

Hold Pressure by Eliot Li in SmokeLong Quarterly

Alice, Some of the Time by Abbie Barker in Atlas and Alice

Seeing Ghosts at Bed, Bath and Beyond by Kristina T Saccone in Twin Pies Literary

Lawn and Garden by Timothy Boudreau in Monkeybicycle

Matzo by Kelle Clarke in Flash Frog

Thirteen Letters by Stephanie King in Ghost Parachute

‘DP Camp 713, Aschaffenburg, August 1948’ by Alexandra Otto in National Flash Flood

A Succession of Silences by Electra Rhodes in Books, Ireland Magazine

My year of writing dangerously -or how to write fiction when you don’t know what you’re doing.

A few days ago, a Facebook memory popped up in my feed, back when I was shortlisted in a writing competition for the first time. Hurray! It was the London Independent Story Prize in the UK and a piece I wrote about a golden-orb weaver spider. I didn’t win but it felt great. I get the same feeling anytime a fictional piece I have written gets published. I think it’s to do with making something from nothing.

I’ve been writing short fiction for over a year now. For the most part I’ve been feeling my way as I go, learning what I can from people who know more than I do. I’ve had some small successes but the vast majority of my work remains unreadable, well out of the public eye in bulging folders on my desktop or in the many notebooks I have lying around the house. You can’t have too many notebooks. I’ve been crippled by writer’s block and emerged from the other side scarred and fragile. What a ride.

In that time, I’ve met lots of fellow aspirational wordsmiths who want to have a crack but don’t know where to start. Not everyone has an idea for the great Australian novel but there are so many different ways to explore creative writing that don’t involve huge debt or another degree. Obviously there are many, many experts on the subject and I am not one them.

What I do have, is experience in being inexperienced, I remember what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by the weight of my own expectation, deeply shy, with only a vague sense I wanted to try, and no idea how to do it. I have been that new leaf ready to unfurl and turn its tender face to the sky only to be scorched into ashes under the harsh glare of a burning sun so fast, it barely knew it was ever even alive. It’s called journalism. It teaches you how to write tightly, but just as importantly, it teaches you resilience and it was an excellent background for this particular new leaf.

I thought I’d share, a year on from diving in, some of the excellent advice I’ve been given that has helped me as I venture into writing short fiction.

Journalists (hopefully) learn to not take themselves too seriously pretty early on, and I can’t tell you how brilliant that life lesson is generally and when it comes to writing. Take the work seriously, but not yourself. For every time you start feeling too pleased with yourself in a newsroom, there’ll be a sub-editor to wave your carefully crafted copy in the air over their head, (back in the days when we wrote on paper) shrieking WHO WROTE THIS CRUD in front of your colleagues. They’ll summon you to stand over their shoulder as they peer at your story with narrowed eyes, shake their head in apparent wonder such incompetence could exist in a professional workplace, eventually flex their shoulders as if bracing themselves for the Herculean task ahead, and tap out a new version in seconds that makes, you’ll both agree, much more sense. You can’t take it personally. A thick skin is useful in any environment.

Start small if you want. You don’t need to write the world. I wish I could sit down and bash out a novel, have a solid story in my mind and the will and drive to write it. But we can’t all be Craig Silvey. It’s absolutely ok to write for fun. In fact, given by far the vast majority of writers won’t earn enough to pay for a new set of shoelaces you might as well decide to write for fun from the outset, then anything else is a bonus.

Choose your genre lightly. Try some different stuff and see what you enjoy. It all helps. The skills you learn from writing essays, short stories, flash fiction are transferrable. I have never got further than that but I’m going to assume those same skills will come in handy if I do ever decide I have a compelling idea for a book. I love short fiction, for myriad reasons and it lets me experiment without committing myself to a huge project.

Everyone I imagine, goes about it in their own way. Use your computer or try handwriting in a notebook. Keep a journal. Give yourself a time limit, maybe ten minutes, whatever works. I like to write to prompts or tasks. It helps me if someone tells me to write about chickens for example, something in my brain responds well to direction whereas if I am left to my own devices I get a bit lost. You can get prompts by joining a writing group, google writing prompts or advice for writers. There is so much out there when you look.

You don’t need to get caught up writing a complete story to start with. Just get some words out. I like to start with fragments of a memory, then make things up and I don’t stop for anything. You can go back and worry about spelling mistakes and narrative arcs later.

Once you have some words on paper, you can edit. I always start new drafts in a separate document and keep the old version in case I get carried away with my flame thrower and wreck the story. This is why most of my writing is not very good. I keep it all. My notebooks and computer are full of half written stories that go nowhere, a gazillion drafts of a gazillion stories, it doesn’t matter. Editing is so much fun if you can get past your own head telling you every word you write is either a luminous gem to be nurtured at all costs, or the worst thing anyone in the history of the world has written. Neither of these is helpful.

Put yourself out there. Even if it’s just reading a story aloud to a writing group. It’s terrifying but it gets easier. Look for small micro or short fiction competitions like Furious Fiction which is free to enter and runs every month, there’s Retreat West, Reflex and Bath. You don’t need to win, although that’s brilliant, it’s about developing the habit, having deadlines and a purpose if you’re starting out and you aren’t really sure what you want to write. I promise it will help you. Join Writing WA or the equivalent in your area to keep updated with competitions and resources and sign up for newsletters or author websites where writers offer tips to help you improve. For flash fiction, my genre of choice, I highly recommend Kathy Fish and Tommy Dean and Matt Kendrick. Also, SmokeLong Quarterly and Fractured Lit have excellent examples of short fiction and great craft articles. Many offer fantastic short courses.

Link up with other writers. Twitter has a terrible reputation for snark but it is a fabulous source of good writing communities. I am in three writing groups, two of them are small with trusted close friends who fill me with joy every time we meet, one is much bigger and I use it for resources mostly, but we all support each other as well. You’ll know a good writing buddy when they offer specific solicited advice that makes your work better and they lift you. Anyone who offers unsolicited negative advice should be crushed under the iron heel of your stony indifference.

Writing is such a lovely thing to do. Don’t suffocate your passion by worrying about having something important to say or even who might read it. You’ll find out soon enough if you enjoy it if your only motivation is the writing itself.

Editing is a process you can learn and it’s a really valuable skill. There’s also lots of good articles and resources online free. Hemingway is one good option.

Here’s some of the editing advice I’ve been given over the last year or so that’s worked well for me.

  • Focus on the first and last lines. Make them really strong.
  • Look for cliches and cut them, find a new way to say what you want to say.
  • Look for filler words like ‘that’ and ‘just’ – and cut them if you can.
  • Look for any words or phrases that are repeated and change them or make sure you know why they belong.
  • Add detail. The more precise the better, smell, sound, a tiny image. A window is a window, but a wooden window where the paint has peeled and the glass is cracked, takes you somewhere specific.
  • Burn your adverbs. Burn them all. If you don’t want to because you are convinced they make your story sound better, try taking them out for fun to see. Then burn them fast before you’re tempted to put them back in. (I think there are 24 in this piece- it could use a good edit.)
  • When you think you have something that’s ok, read it aloud. Print it out. Get the Read Aloud function on your computer to read it to you. WA author, Susan Midalia gave me this advice and it’s a jewel. It’s something we always did at work with news copy or radio scripts, and it works with fiction, you pick up mistakes you don’t otherwise see and it’s a good way to see if your writing is conversational. Changing the font, (thank you Megan Anderson) helps to see your work with a new eye as well.
  • Remember for every rule, there is an exception.

By far the single most helpful piece of advice I have found that I come back to time and time again is this. If you know who said it, I’d love to have the reference.

“You aren’t required to write something good every day, you are only required to keep showing up and hoping.”

Painting: Mavis by Deborah Watt.

‘A Room of One’s Own.’

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Virginia Woolf.

In all my 54 years I have never had a room of my own. Until now.

I have wanted one all of my life. But there’s always been something in the way. As a kid I shared a room with my sister, to be honest that was harder on her than it was on me. I was messy, she was tidy and her makeshift room dividers consisted, at various stages of our childhood, of a line of cupboards down the middle of the room or masking tape and if neither was available, an imaginary barrier marked out by herself held in place by threats. None of these methods worked for long. We both felt ripped off.

At 19, I had a daughter on my own and not much money to say the least, so anything extra went into trying to give her as much as I could with what I had. I had an old table for a desk in my bedroom but as anyone who has coveted a room of one’s own will know, it isn’t the same. I was working too hard to think about it much.

A proper room of one’s own is more than an area in a house. It’s an attitude, a decision, a philosophy, a political act. It’s making space and time for yourself, having even the most humble of means to do it, without the relentless pressure of something else or someone else being always more important. It is massive privilege on myriad levels. For many women, this is the story of our lives.

So here I am, 54 years old and for the first time I have created a room of my own. How did that happen after so long? I’ll tell you.

First, I gave up my job last year. It was a great job, and I’m immensely grateful, it just stopped being a great job for me. It took all my time, left nothing for my family or my friends let alone myself, more energy than I had to give and I had done it for so long it didn’t excite me in the same way. I had stopped feeling occasionally afraid in that way you do when you try something new and you don’t know what you’re doing. The kind of afraid that reminds you why you’re alive. Which is not to say I had nothing left to learn, I had just stopped wanting to learn that job at that time. I wanted to learn something new. And when a series of opportunities came along to do that, with a small income, not huge by any means, but enough to mean I wasn’t setting my life on fire when women my age are in the fastest growing demographic for poverty, I took it.

Then I started trying all the new things I did want to have a crack at. Some of which made me very nervous. I gave a keynote speech, took some writing classes, wrote some short stories, submitted them, accepted a part time job, made marmalade, picked my granddaughter up from school and took days off to stroll into Freo on a weekday for breakfast, holding hands with my husband.

Another step was a writing competition I won. Hurrah! It paid just under two-thousand Australian dollars and I bought myself a writing desk. It wasn’t an expensive piece, I bought it from a Swedish chain furniture shop but it was mine and I bought it with money I earned doing something I love for no other reason than I wanted to. My story was inspired by my grandma, Molly, who suffered severe depression and died when I was four. She had no room for herself, even in her own head. In a way I can’t articulate, I felt connected to her through this process.

Slowly I have taken over the spare room, and I’ll note again, a spare room and a room of your own have very little in common. I cleared out the junk, put up pictures I love, arranged the furniture how I like it, placed my desk by the window where the northern light streams in, it’s the only room in the house that gets that glorious sunshine. I bought a cheap day bed and a bright yellow rug. I buy myself flowers (the first hyacinths of winter this week) and arrange them in a vase on my desk. And on Monday I drove north of the river to buy the glorious quirky secondhand bookshelf you can see in the picture. A hundred and fifty bucks and I did not haggle. The fact that my husband looked at me quizzically when I proudly unveiled it because it is not to his taste, only makes me love it more. I love the home we have built together, but I also love having a small place where only my opinion of the furniture counts.

What I have is not just a room in a house with my stuff in. I have taken space for myself. It could be a corner in our bedroom, or a regular trip to the library if needs must and circumstances don’t allow anything else. Even that small shard of freedom is beyond many. The point is it’s deliberate, I can, without apology or explanation, do what I want to do with some of my time. Well mostly without apology or explanation, I am still new to this. Which is not to say being a mother or a wife prevented that, my husband and my daughter are the loves of my life, and would be the first to applaud. Because I have more time in my day for everything I love, it’s been easier to add myself to the list of things I need and want to take care of. And now I’m there, I think it would be really hard to take myself off that list too.

Virginia Woolf in her essay, A Room of One’s Own was making a complex point about women finding their way in a literary space dominated by patriarchy, essentially summed up by that enduring quote above, it’s among the most significant contributions to gender equality in literature. My own particular interpretation here is not an urgent feminist manifesto or anything close but more a quiet realisation and a series of small personal observations I have made in the last year or so.

As it happens, this is the first time in my entire adult life I have have been able to make some big choices based on what I want to do, not what I have to do to get by. The only thing standing in my way now, is myself. I have been interested to see how ingrained old habits can be. And what a difference small changes make. Like buying hyacinths and cheap second hand bookshelves just because I like them. Small things, profound privilege. And a very full heart.