Sunday, 29 January 2006

Attention Deficit Fiction

Too many TV channels. Too many newspapers. And there’s the wide, wide world of the internet, breaking geographical barriers, putting more information at our fingertips — quite literally — than any generation before this could dream of.

If you’re a writer, and you name doesn’t happen to be Seth, the chances of anyone buying, and actually reading, your door-stopper magnum opus are, well, rather slimmer than your manuscript.

Today’s world wants its entertainment bite-sized. Even the traditional short story, usually upwards of 2000 words, can seem like an awfully long commitment to make in a world with so much information and entertainment jostling for your attention.

Flash fiction (also referred to as short-shorts, micro-fiction and other fancy buzz-names) could have almost been designed for this age, but digging around on the web tells me the genre’s origins date back to Aesop’s fables. So I won’t — or can’t — waste your time with a scholarly tracing of its history.

Flash stories are defined by their length. There isn’t a standard definition of what that length should be, but under a thousand words is safe. Most practitioners peg it rather lower, with maximum lengths of 500 words, even as low as 200. There are sub-genres that specify even lower, and very exact word counts, like the current online meme, “55ers,” which are stories exactly 55 words long, no more, no less.

Whatever the word count, it is generally accepted that they must be stories in the conventional sense, with conflict and resolution, protagonist and supporting cast, distinct beginning and end. Except that with the word-count restrictions, much of this is usually implied in the work rather than explicitly stated.

Is there a market for Flash, then? Most certainly. Many print publications and zines pay for Flash work they publish. None that I know of in India, but that’s bound to change. Plus there are contests (see the footnote to this article for one near you) with prizes on offer as well. If you want to study the genre, once more, the web is your friend. For the price of your internet connection (or for free, when you’re goofing off on your office computer), you can trawl through zines, free sites, writing communities, author showcases, and of course, blogs.

To whet your appetite, I’ll leave you with what I’m assured is a piece of classic flash by Ernest Hemingway, which takes the genre to the extreme. Here it is, reproduced in full.
For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
Peter Griffin co-moderates the online writing community, Caferati, which is helping the Times of India Kala Ghoda Arts Festival run two contests in the Literature and Writing section this year: Flash Fiction and SMS Poetry. See for details.

Published in the 29th January edition of Times of India, in the Bookmark section.

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