Au Contraire writing workshop – Ripley Patton on flash fiction

Ripley Patton is a lovely person. I’m just going to lead with that.

For the purposes of the workshop Ripley defined flash fiction as any piece of writing under 1000 words. Definitions are different all over the web, so it was good to have this as a spring board. She further defined it as: a fictional story of extreme brevity. They can be a little bit subversive. In the first place, they subvert the regular length of a short story, but also it’s a rebel form of story telling, playing with structure and conventions.

OK, so what’s a story? In terms of flash fiction it is “any narrative that fulfils the reader’s desire for a story.” That means what we are working towards in flash fiction is reader satisfaction. Flash fiction is also a great form for experimentation, and it’s a short time investment. You’re not going to need a couple of years to get it finished.

Why write flash?

Ripley mentioned this quote from Mark Twain “Every story has its true form.”
Some ideas are best in the tiny form. You can experiment by taking out something that doesn’t work and rework it as flash fic. What will you lose?

Writing flash can improve your craft. Even for novels you need to be able to write blurbs, synopses, elevator pitches, the text on the back cover of the novel etc. They are basically flash fic pieces of a longer work. In flash you are forced to work out what elements are essential to the story, because some things will have to be ditched for length. You’re also given great practice at editing and trimming. Ripley mentioned that you shouldn’t have the word count in mind when you start writing the story (unless you’re going super short, like twitter fic) just write the story as it needs to be and then trim it back to fit the word count.

Flash if fun and quick. Ripley likened it to speed dating for writers. (Where writing a novel is getting married, and a short story is a fling ;p )

There is a large market for flash. The internet loves flash, because it’s quick and easy. Exposure is good. If you get your work out there, more people will read it and the more people who read it the bigger your chance of catching someone’s eye.

Ripley talked for a while about the different forms of flash fic (Twitter fiction = 140 characters or less, 55 word or 69 word stories. Drabble = 100 words no more no less, etc.) I have a hand out covering them all but it feels a bit like stealing to copy it out here. She detailed a couple of types of flash as well, for example the Organic found form, where you write like a field guide, or an instruction booklet or a tour guide.

We talked a bit about twist endings, which are over used in flash. There does need to be a punch at the end of a flash fiction story, but twist endings aren’t always easy to use and they can be used incorrectly. If you get the twist wrong the reader might feel cheated rather than satisfied. The reader should be able to read a story with a twist two ways: once not knowing the ending and once knowing. There can’t be any information left out, you just have to lead the reader to make an assumption that is wrong.

Then we took a break to write some flash fiction. In the 15 minutes we had I wrote a 69 word story which was a bitchy wee thing about the correct way to act in writing workshops (not sure what I’ll do with that one…), two twitter fics (one of which I have since sold to nanoism) and a 55 word story which I published on this blog on Saturday. I read out the second twitter fic for the group and had a very positive reaction from everyone, which is probably why I felt like it was good enough to sell.

Ripley then talked us through her things to think about when writing flash.

Break the rules – combine forms (make an organic found 55 word story for example). One person in the course wrote a column of numbers down the margin and wrote a word for each, that’s how he did a 25 word story. Unlike in most story writing, you need to tell not show. Flash fic has to be about telling because you don’t have the luxury of description. You can use dialogue to tell, but it’s alright to just tell as well.

Start with something familiar to the reader as well as to yourself. The reader will add the details in themselves which means less work for you.

Farm other stories – you can use the same ideas for a flash fic that you use for a longer piece. The longer form is still usable.

Punch – you should pack a punch with your writer. Like a joke’s punchline. Ripley mentioned Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons as an excellent example of flash fiction. You can use Far Sides for practice by writing a new caption for them. Play around.

Brevity stick to a maximum of three characters, one point of conflict and a maximum of three scenes. You should use as few setting elements as you can.

Word count. Kill your darlings. Every word has to count. Don’t be afraid to cut what looks like too much. You can always add back in if something doesn’t work.

Random wisdom from the end of the workshop included the best ways to submit fiction online: story in the body of the email as much as you can, word count is crucial; follow it exactly, follow the magazine’s guidelines or you’ll win no friends, check for whether the title of the story is included in the word count or even if they want one. Flash fic usually doesn’t have a writer’s contract so don’t be surprised by that.

Ripley recommended selling reprints as much as you can, there are a number of markets that accept reprints and again, the more exposure the better. Response times are slow from magazines, they have so much to get through, and be wary of markets which don’t state a response time. (They might be extra, super slow!)

Go hard on promotion. In a lot of cases you are the only person who will promote your work, so promote yourself as much as you write. Ripley suggested having a writing blog/website separate to your private/personal one so that you have a more professional platform. I’m still thinking about that. You must also be findable online, if someone sees one story of yours somewhere and wants more, they should be able to Google you and find more.

Payment = don’t expect the world. Flash fic will not make you rich! But it’s worthwhile exposure.

Cool links:

Flash fiction markets:
Flash Fiction Online
SmokeLong Quarterly magazine
Vestal Review

Awesome stuff for writers:
Duotrope Digest is a market finding tool and freaking amazing. You enter what kind of story it is, how long, whether you want to get paid, etc and it will come up with a bunch of matches you can try submitting your work to. is an online community where you can trade criticism of work. They also have a black hole which tracks the amount of time markets take to get back to you after you’ve submitted. has a similar feature, tracking response times.
Sonar 3 from Spacejock software is a free, easy to use programme for keeping track of where you’ve submitted what and when. It is amazing! Up til now I was just trying to keep notes in a book and it was *not* working at all. It tracks how long since you submitted as well, which can be good for chasing up if it’s been too long.


4 thoughts on “Au Contraire writing workshop – Ripley Patton on flash fiction

  1. Jenni,
    What a great write up. I have plans to write up all my notes and put them on the SpecFicNZ site, but the earthquake has stalled a lot of my plans for the moment.

    Anyway,thanks for calling me a lovely person:) And congrats on your twitter sale to nanoism! I’m so glad the workshop inspired you.


  2. Thanks guys!

    And yes, Ripley, your workshop and Jay’s were the most inspiring workshops I’ve ever attended I think.

    (Jay’s workshop write up should be up tomorrow.)

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