How writing Flash Fiction helps writers on the path to writing Novels.
Hi, I’m Kelly, Editor over at Great Jones Street. This essay by Katey Schultz is one of many we’ve asked our writers to submit to help give you ideas, confidence, encouragement in your own work.
For me, writing about war seemed as far-fetched as putting penguins on Mars. I’m a civilian who has never been to the Middle East and never experienced a war zone. I’m not from a “military family” and, when I wrote Flashes of War, I didn’t know anyone serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. I have experienced suffering and loss in my lifetime, but I also live pretty darn comfortably. In short, even though flash fiction is my first love, I had a lot to learn when I set out to write my first book.
Which is why I tell people that it took me a year to learn how to dress my characters, another year to figure out how they should talk, and about six months to make them move around and do stuff. In other words, I was worldbuilding — a term often reserved for sci-fi and fantasy writers, but a term I embraced fully with each day spent researching, revising, and researching again.
It took a lot out of me, but once the work was done and the world was built, all I had to do was lean in with my writer’s microscope, so to speak, and look closely. Where were the moments a character’s life could have gone one way, but instead, turned another? Where were obstacle and desire coming to a head, and how did that impact everyday life? These were questions I asked myself and questions that, ultimately, confirmed my suspicions that flash fiction was definitely the right form for my early war stories.
Why? First of all, the short form lends itself well to moments of duress. Anytime you have a situation that outsizes the character (war, for example), you’re automatically set up for short form writing because there is no need to explain the circumstances. The story is not about whether the war should be fought, because it’s being fought regardless. The story is about what we do that is uniquely human in reaction to those circumstances. Pages of backstory are not necessary. A few deft sentences will let you hit the ground running so you can focus on detail, image, metaphor — the fun stuff!
What this means is that, once you’ve built the world or established the circumstances, all you have left are the human elements — the tiny moments and impossible decisions brought to bear by this unique world, this particular circumstance. This was a thrilling discovery for me, because it meant that I didn’t have to understand the history of Afghanistan to write a war story. That I didn’t have to be an embedded reporter to tell a true war story.
Experience is not the only teacher. As much as I believed that, I had to prove it to myself by writing as effectively as I could. Empathy was my teacher. Research was my teacher. Precise imagination was my teacher. And compression — the ultimate criterion of all short form writing — was my teacher, too.
What’s more, learning to write tight — to write flash — prepped me for writing compelling scenes a few years later, when an agent approached me about my war stories and asked me to write a novel set in Afghanistan. I couldn’t imagine long, narrated passages of prose. But I could imagine scenes. I could imagine circumstances that outsized believable people facing believable problems. I started there, with what I knew, and later — drafts and drafts later — taught myself how to stitch it all together.
Katey Schultz is passionate about short form writing and provides mentoring and feedback to writers via email instruction. You can read her stories “Paddy the Albino” and “The Last Thing They Might Have Seen” over on Great Jones Street.