Matt Bell on The Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction

Dribbles, Drabbles, Micro- & Flash (Oh my)

a review by Matt Bell

Frances Theodora Parsons' How to Know the Wild Flowers — written under the pseudonym Mrs. William Star Dana, published in 1893, and acknowledged as the first true "field guide" — begins with a brief section explaining the purpose of its innovative format. In that section — entitled, helpfully, "How to Use This Book" — Parsons writes:

Many difficulties have been encountered in the arrangement of this guide to the flowers. To be really useful such a guide must be of moderate size, easily carried in the woods and fields; yet there are so many flowers, and there is so much to say about them, that we have been obliged to control our selection and descriptions by certain regulations which we hope will commend themselves to the intelligence of our readers and secure their indulgence should any special favorite be conspicuous by its absence.

In a similar manner, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, edited by Tara L. Masih, will not be all things to all readers. In their preface, press editors Kathleen Rooney and Abigail Beckel admit as much, noting that it is "not necessarily the case that you will be able, even hiking the whole path of this book, to see all the flora and fauna this particular 'field' has to offer." Nonetheless, what is collected here is a broad sample of the current state of writing flash fiction, including twenty-five brief essays by practicing flash fiction writers, editors, and teachers, as well as accompanying writing exercises, and story samples.

Rooney and Beckel claim that their aim is not to "pin. . . inventive forms down with strict definitions" nor to "sink their ever-changing manifestations beneath the weight of scholarly scrutiny. . ." Yet, perhaps inevitably, this is a book obsessed in part with both the definition and analysis of flash fiction as a form. In fact, the first task that nearly every essay in the book embarks upon is determining the definition of flash fiction, and, as a result, the form’s definition arrives piecemeal, and with far less certainty than that with which Parsons named and explained the illustrations in her original field guide. Where How to Know the Wild Flowers is clear in its separations of one species of flower from another — this is pink azalea, and only this — the essayists included in Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction have a more complex task in front of them, due to the widely differing definitions and sub-definitions of the term.

For instance, in her own introduction, Masih lists a number of "species" of flash fiction or short-short stories,

We now have 50 word stories (dribbles), 55-word stories (sometimes termed nanofiction…), 100-word stories (drabbles), quick fiction, fast fiction, microfiction, furious fiction, sudden and flash fiction, postcard fiction, napkin fiction. . . minute-long stories, smoke-long stories, skinny stories, vest-pocket stories and pill-size stories (from the forties), pocket-size stories, palm-size stories, and. . . I am sure there are others, with more to come.

Like many of the subcategories listed above, most of the definitions of flash fiction in the book come down to word or page counts, including Masih's own definition of "roughly 1-3 pages and 250–1,000 words and Randall Brown's own more specific taxonomy, where he notes that "At some point (500 or less?) it's microfiction, a few words more it's sudden fiction, then flash." Elsewhere, Pamelyn Casto claims that "flash fiction is difficult if not impossible to define — and should be allowed to stay so," before offering her own definition a few sentences later, noting "tentatively" that the best flash fictions are "short stories that manage to reveal the hidden, accentuate the subtle, and highlight the seemingly insignificant." Robert Olen Butler also cuts straight to his own primary qualifier, writing that a flash fiction "is a short short story and not a prose poem because it has at its center a character who yearns."

Even the term "flash fiction" is rejected by some of the essayists gathered here: Jayne Anne Phillips prefers to call them "one-page fictions," writing that "there's nothing flashy or spangled or shiny (superficial) about a great one-page fiction," while Tom Hazuka, editor of the 1992 anthology that lends the genre its most popular name, defines it variously, noting, "a little elasticity can be a good thing."

Luckily, most of the essays move beyond such taxonomy quickly, or else avoid it altogether, preferring instead to focus on meatier topics. For example, in his essay "Titled: The Title," Michael Martone writes, "I write long, long titles for my short short stories," because "for the prose writer, the title is as close as he or she will get to writing a poem":

A long title at the beginning of a very short story alerts in a reader's mind not so much the meaning, theme, or content of the prose but the slant notion of scale itself. A short short story may be about a lot of things but one thing it is always about is scale. It is about the strategy of concentration, compaction, compression, as if the prose were being squeezed by some piston to the point of spontaneous combustion. The title then works to machine this shrinkage. You work through the title like a sieve, a filter. Negotiating a title recalibrates you to this new world you are about to enter, no longer metered in meters but now in microns or angstroms. The title acclimates you through its distortions to the distortions to come, a zoom lens attached to the microscope.

Essays like this begin to appear more and more often in the second half of the book, the portion most likely to appeal to practicing flash fiction writers, as a number of writers provide similarly complex explorations of both the form's qualities and potentials. For instance, in "Flash Fiction, Prose Poetry, and Men Jumping Out of Windows: Searching for Plots and Finding Definitions," Kim Chinquee suggests that in flash "plot is often presented in nontraditional ways, arising through other elements necessary to make a successful literary story — character, language, point of view, setting, structure, voice, each element can be accountable for plot," then proceeds to illuminate ways in which "event is not the only necessity of plot," as well as to discuss the blurry boundaries between the flash fiction and the prose poem.

In a similar vein, Deb Olin Unferth provides a close reading of Diane Williams' story "Marriage and the Family" before exploring the ways in which "the short makes us consider such questions as":

What is the essential element of "story"? How much can the author leave out and still create a moving, complete narrative? If I remove all backstory, all exposition, all proper nouns, all dialogue — or if I write a story that consists only of dialogue — in what way is it still a story? What is a story?

Her response to these and other questions raised by Williams' work is, in fact, doubly instructive. The editors have wisely chosen to include writing exercises and story examples alongside each of these essays. In the case of Unferth's essay, that means that readers are able to refer directly to the complete text of Williams' story, a luxury that is all too rare with critical essays in craft books.

Other highlights of the Field Guide include Stace Budzko's "Hanging Fire," which he calls "a meta-narrative on flash fiction," and Julio Ortega's "A Flash Before the Bang," who relates that he is writing flash fiction not as a genre "but as a sort of free notation, crossing borders and all genres" moving "across the short story, the prose poem, the aphorism. . . the parody, the notation of dreams, and free variations." These are exactly the kind of essays one hopes to find in a book like this: works that do not close down the form, that do not offer prescriptions and rules, but rather offer ways in which writers' minds might be widened, in the hopes that their enlarged sensibilities might then create new and innovative kinds of work.

Unfortunately, not all of the essays are as strong as those I’ve mentioned already, at least in the context in which they appear in the book. Mark Budman's "Expose Yourself to Flash" seeks to define what flash is, following a somewhat bizarre opening (and recurring) thread ("When I first heard the term 'flash fiction'. . . I imagined a tall man who opens his raincoat in public to show off his writing") before once again asking "What is flash?" At this point — 160 pages into a 200-page book — the question has been worn quite thin, and this essay adds little to the discussion, thanks in part to being somewhat scattered (the very opposite of the qualities it professes to admire). The weakest of the book's offerings, Steve Almond's essay "Getting the Lead Out," is perhaps the opposite of Unferth's generous and deeply felt inquiry into Diane Williams's work. Heavy on narcissistic self-deprecation and light on substance, Almond writes about a year spent composing "hundreds of poems," offering such insights as, "How was I able to sustain such output? It helped that my standards were appallingly low," before the essay's too-slim revelation: "The problem — and it wasn't a problem in the end — was that I wasn't a poet. I was a storyteller."

Thankfully, these essays are the exception in what is overall an excellent book — and, of course, these apparent failures also have bright points, despite their flaws. Almond's piece, for instance, is followed by an excellent writing exercise, suggesting a radical revision technique full of potential. Budman likewise provides an exercise well-suited to experimenting with the kind of compression so integral to flash, asking the writer to pen "three flash stories in which each consecutive one is half the length of the previous story in terms of the number of words," all while keeping the plot and characters the same.

With its obvious value to individual writers, the Field Guide is equally useful as a textbook for creative writing classes structured around the flash fiction form. It includes several essays meant to introduce the form and its historical and contemporary incarnations. One of the highlights of the book is Masih's Introduction, a thorough history of flash fiction which traces the form from its earliest precursors — Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," for instance, or August Strindberg's "Half a Sheet of Foolscap," which Masih claims as the first published short short story — to the coining of the term "flash" by James Thomas in 1992 and then on into the present moment. Each contributor thereafter is allowed a short essay (some very short, but all under 2,000 words or so), a flash fiction writing exercise, and a story sample of either their own or someone else's work that illustrates points they've raised in their essay. It is an ideal structure for classroom use, as well as individual growth and exploration.

Read from cover to cover, the Field Guide progresses at an appropriate pace for students new to the form, beginning with units such as "Contemporary and Historical Roots of Flash Fiction" before diving into the more creative-leaning and perhaps higher concerns of "Imagery as Inspiration" and "Taking Risks." I found the second half of the book more engaging than the first, but that may be merely reflective of its intended nature as an introduction to a form with which I am already reasonably familiar. In any case, nearly all of these essays offered me something new to consider, and the best of them I've already reread a half-dozen in times — both in preparation for this essay and while composing my own shorter works.

Beyond the essays that provide the bulk of the content here, the editors have also offered a fairly lengthy list of recommended reading, which should provide readers with additional opportunities for exploring the form beyond the pages of this Field Guide. My only complaint about these suggested readings is that so few of them are available online, a quality notable only because flash fiction's recent rise to prominence seems so inextricably tied to the internet and the online journal. Considering that many of the writers here are widely published online or edit online journals themselves, I expected to see more notice given to the fact that, for many practitioners of contemporary flash fiction, the internet comprises the bulk of their publishing opportunities. It certainly provides an easy and affordable way to read widely in the form, especially less-anthologized experimental and innovative work. Again though, this is a fairly minor complaint, and it is perhaps an unfair quality to ask of a book more clearly aimed at the writing of flash fiction than the reading of it (although an argument can and should be made that those two processes are inextricably linked).

Perhaps this is the place where the "field guide" concept fails to translate fully: If the purpose of a field guide is to identify and enjoy its subjects — the flowers of Parsons' book or the birds of the famous Audobon series of guides — and if the birdwatcher or weekend botanist is the intended audience for those field guides, then perhaps it could be assumed that a reader of flash with no writerly aspirations might likewise be part of the audience for Rose Metal's book. After all, the birdwatcher does not want to breed the birds they catalog; they merely wish to identify them and enjoy their charms.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the essays here will hold as much interest for non-writing readers, at least over the course of the entire book. While there are perhaps no better books as yet — this is, as the editors note themselves, probably the first book devoted entirely to the writing of flash fiction — I would still suggest that readers looking for the first book devoted to the mere appreciation of them will have to wait or look elsewhere. There are glimmers here of what such a book might look like (in Masih's historical look at the form, for instance, or Unferth's essay on Williams), but the book as a whole will not serve as a reading guide. Writers looking for advice on how and where to publish their short-short stories should also note that this book is not particularly taken with that part of the process, with one perhaps unintentional exception — Jennifer Peironi's excellent "Smart Surprise in Flash Fiction" is a near-perfect explanation of my own admittedly limited understanding of her own aesthetic as the editor of Quick Fiction.

Taken as a whole, The Rose Metal Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction is an excellent starting place for the study of writing short short stories. For teachers of the genre and for writers still learning the form, The Rose Metal Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction will certainly satisfy, and perhaps become an indispensable desktop companion for some time. For more established writers, there's still plenty to be inspired by here, and I'm not sure that there is anyone so far along on their writerly journey as to completely disregard this concise volume. As the first in a planned series — a volume on the prose poem is slated for next year — this is a great addition to Rose Metal's catalog, and a fine furthering of their mission to promote and disseminate hybrid forms of writing.


Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, a fiction collection forthcoming in Fall 2010 from Keyhole Press, as well as The Collectors, a novella, and How the Broken Lead the Blind, a chapbook of short fiction. His fiction has been published or is upcoming in Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, Unsaid, Redivider, and many other magazines. He is also the editor of The Collagist and a member of the Dzanc Writers in Residence Program. He can be found online at

in this article

The Field Guide to
Writing Flash Fiction
edited by Tara Masih
Softcover, $15.95
Rose Metal Press