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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.