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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Expectations in Flash Fiction

I've been shopping around a piece that is dear to my heart because it's an ode to my marriage, both its misfortunes and its strength. At less than one thousand words, it's officially considered a flash fiction piece. I want so much to share it with the world! I think it's a funny little glimmer of joy in a sad world. But it seems not enough people "get" it. It's admittedly pretty unusual to want to celebrate marriage and love in an exaggerated, absurdist style, but if I'm not striving to write things no one's written before, am I not wasting everyone's time? (It's not a rhetorical question. Feel free to weigh in.)

I sent it for consideration for publication to Everyday Fiction, and wonderfully, helpfully, and unusually, they included the evaluations with the rejection letter. There were no less than four different reviewers (showing the quality of the venue!) Two readers seemed to really get it, which was heartening. A third called it "unique" (hooray!) but seemed overwhelmed by the tightly-woven sequence of action -- s/he used the word "packed," which I would have thought meant the reader gets a lot for their money/time investment. I always think flash fiction is short enough that the reader can look it over many times instead of just the once, so it's okay to really jam it full because they'll pick up on more details the second and third time, but I respect a differing opinion.

The fourth reviewer, in my humble opinion, was completely misguided. I think I made the exaggerated, absurdist style apparent in the first sentence: "It rained so hard, the wicker baskets were overflowing." How much would it have to rain to fill a wicker basket, much less to make it overflow? Pretty exaggerated and expressed in an absurd manner. Yet the reviewer seemed to think I was trying to be true-to-life when I talked about 200-mile-per-hour winds in Nebraska. Sorry, I was trying to exaggerate, which is not easy when you're talking about wind in Nebraska. So that was utterly puzzling, but perhaps his attitude can be explained by another comment, in which he worried about a flash flood coming through the ceiling. That's not what happens in the story, so I can only assume he wasn't paying attention. Totally misapprehended the entire plot at a basic level because he was expecting something else. It grieves my heart when that happens, but there's nothing to be done about it.

The other major flaw in his critique seems to be widespread among critiquers, so I'd like to take this opportunity to explain why I think it doesn't work for flash fiction. He wanted more of a "basis/description of the actual love between them." I just don't see how I could ever do that with the word count limitations of flash fiction. If I were to start really getting into what holds this couple together, it would become a novel, and I already have too many big projects on my plate. For me, flash fiction is all about small details to suggest a whole, so it relies on the reader to activate his/her imagination. If anyone can clue me in on how to achieve a balance between suggestion and explanation within one thousand words, please do so.

I've come up with this mental framework for flash fiction after years of reading the best of it and years of crafting some of my own, so it's not like I'm whinging like a baby over my first attempt here. And I want to express my sincere gratitude to Everyday Fiction for providing the readers' comments. It's the most basically useful thing a writer can see, yet we hardly ever get to see it.

In the end, the story is a love letter I wrote for my husband as we were packing up to move to Arizona with most of our belongings in storage, to show him we could make it though anything. I may not ever find a magazine that's willing to celebrate perfect love between imperfect humans in a vastly imperfect world. But I'll keep looking.