One Night Stands for Novelists

I have friends who only want to write novels.  They have no interest in writing poetry or essays beyond whatever classwork might be assigned.  Left to their own devices, they would devote all of their writing time to novels.

I can understand that.  Novels are the most in-depth stories that most of us will ever tell.  They demand copious amounts of work, but they give us the opportunity to explore our characters and situations in ways that shorter forms don’t allow.  When you finish a novel, you know you’ve accomplished something special and you’ve gotten to know all of your characters as well as, or better than, you know your real life best friends.

And yet, I still write flash fiction sometimes.  For example, I enter the Tin House Plotto Contest, weekly five hundred word stories based on writing prompts from the book.  I missed entering last week’s deadline because I went to a convention.  I wrote the story anyway.

So where is the draw in flash fiction?  A story told in five hundred to one thousand words cannot give the writer or reader time or space to fully explore its characters or situations.  If a novel is an ocean, a flash fiction piece is a lap pool.  Flash fiction provides a glimpse into characters’ lives and hints about larger stories and details, while still telling an enjoyable story.

After I finished that most recent non-entry, I sat back, read it, and smiled.  I understood then that there is pleasure in going from idea to story in under a thousand words, satisfaction in both the achievement and the process of writing.  I dropped my printout and laughed with realization: flash fiction is a novelist’s one night stand.  Novels are our relationships.  They require devotion, sacrifice, and effort, but they fulfill, enhance, and complete us as writers.  They demand months or even years of our lives.

Flash fiction, in contrast, thrills us with novelty and instant gratification.  We spend a few hours in the company of strangers, characters whose lives we only explore to the extent that they matter for what we want: a brief, satisfying encounter.  We dally with them and leave with a story to tell.

The characters from our novels we will remember all our lives.  We might consider rekindling their stories and giving them more novels.  Characters from our flash fiction get no such investment; some may have an impact on us and we may revisit them, even explore a novel together, but others will be all but forgotten, just notches on our keyboards.

Now one would think that an advantage of this sort of one night stand would be that no one could accuse the novelist of cheating on a novel.  George R. R. Martin might disagree.  In 2009, online frustration over the release timeline of his next novel grew to such proportions that Neil Gaiman coined the now-famous phrase: George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.

Well, even if it frustrates readers on occasion, I don’t think anyone should be surprised to learn that even the most devoted novelist wants a little story on the side, from time to time.

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Submissions Update: I need to get off my butt and get some pieces out there.  I haven’t been submitting pieces enough lately.  I have a short story and several poems ready to go, plus a few flash fiction stories.  I should also probably start sending simultaneous submissions.  I have three pieces that have been out since last June and I can’t get a response from the editors to tell me whether or not they are still under consideration.  I guess that means I should withdraw them.

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  • Comments (4)
  1. Thanks for this, Stefon. I love writing and reading flash. It’s a different experience than novelling, but is deeply fun and rewarding.

    • Exactly, each has its own merits and flaws. Thanks for reading!

  2. It just takes ten times longer to write a novel than we think it will. And flash fiction is *so* satisfying. Thanks for the post, and the inspiration to get off my butt as well.

    • Yeah, but a finished novel feels wonderful too. But there’s no denying the pleasure of flash. Thanks for reading!


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