The winners of our 2019 Flash Fiction Contest will be announced next Tuesday, which means it’s time for one of our favorite series! Our editorial team had a hard time narrowing the shortlist down to only 15 stories, so we can only imagine how tough it was for Kathy Fish to make her selections. After our discussion, we recapped the common things we noticed in the stories on the shortlist and why the ones that didn’t make the cut just missed.
COLE MEYER: A couple weeks have passed since we sent our shortlist to Kathy Fish for the Flash Fiction Contest. I’m anxiously waiting for her decisions, and I’m sure she’s going to have a difficult choice ahead of her. The three of us had a really good discussion about the 40 or so pieces that were on our longlist. A lot of pieces that ultimately didn’t land on the shortlist came pretty close for us. What were some of the things that we saw happening in those that maybe held them back in the end?
BRANDON WILLIAMS: The thing that really stood out to me was how well-aligned we were. While we all had our personal favorites, the top 15 or so were pretty close to unanimous (I think we only had two or at most three that we disagreed on), and then the next grouping were, as you said, all very close. At least to me, these twin truths (our unanimity, and the closeness of the next batch) suggests that the successful pieces managed to wield all of the following: an interesting and/or new conceit; strong writing; engaging characters; and incredible writing. At least the way I’m remembering them, the pieces which ended up not quite making the cut were doing one or a few of those things amazingly well (I’m thinking of a couple pieces that built an incredible premise, and at least one or two that blew me away on a writing level), but some of the other elements weren’t quite as well-tuned. We read quite a few, for instance, that were almost entirely static on a plot level, where a character sat around thinking about the stuff they were telling us had happened before, and that lack of tension was enough to push them down into the “We love it but we probably can’t take it” category. Also, a whole lot of narrative summary, which is something that is often overused in longer stories, but really stands out in flash where there’s already so little space—allotting page time to summaries and therefore sinking the propulsion/tension of the piece was one of the big issues we (okay, I probably yelled the loudest about it) kept citing in our very last cuts, in our final choices one way or the other.
Perhaps less related to your question, but something I’ve been thinking about: The thing that I keep learning every time we do this flash contest is how good flash fiction has to at least feel like it’s in perfect control of everything at all times. I can recall a few larger stories in previous contests that we’ve passed forward knowing that one element of the piece isn’t as strong as we’d like, but we’ve fallen in love with the characters or the plot or the conceit of it and that holds us through multiple pages. In certain ways, a larger piece can get away with good writing rather than great, or with a plot that meanders for a bit, or characters that are just the slightest bit stock, or a conceit that we’ve seen before, because there’s so much space and time for us to get wrapped up in something else, plot or character or setting or language or thought. That leeway simply doesn’t exist in flash: If everything isn’t firing in those first 100 words, it’s hard to get back on track for the next 100.
CM: You’re so right—I didn’t feel like there was much disagreement as far as our top 15 went. We had different ideas about how well certain pieces were functioning on one level or another (be it plot, character, language, etc.), but largely we agreed about which pieces were successful overall. Often in these contests when we’re deciding our shortlist, there’s a piece or two where we say Oh I hope the the judge picks this one! but for this contest in particular, there were several up there in the top tier (so to speak) that I felt very strongly about. So many of the stories on our shortlist stood out in a way that others didn’t. We had a lovely story set in Antarctica; we had a story in which two children in rural Minnesota, living in a house with a bunker, find the strength to fight back against their father; and still another story featured a man dissolving—literally—as he crawled backwards into the ocean. This is to say that no story on our shortlist was remotely similar to another in tone, character, setting or plot. That’s what I love so much about the fact that we have no defined preference or style (though I do recognize that it can be frustrating for submitters): We always get such a wide array of excellent submissions.
To your second point, I absolutely agree. Flash is deceptively challenging to write. Just like how short stories don’t have the same opportunity for “fluff” that novels do, flash is even more restrictive than short stories. The piece has to be firing on all cylinders to really make an impact. I’m thinking of one story in particular which we all agreed was quite polished in its language, but the plot and characters were forgettable. It got left off our shortlist, despite being one of the most well-written (mechanically, at least) of the pieces on our longlist.
MELISSA HINSHAW: Hey gang. First off, flash is such a RELIEF to read through. This is more a tip for regular submitters than flash submitters, but when you open a piece and see it’s 20 pages long your heart just kind of sinks and you subconsciously click over to another tab on your browser before you eventually mosey back to what you were supposed to be reading—this never happens during flash contest season! It makes me think about why we love good flash: It has all the power and feeling of longer works packed into one tiny space. It’s truly the art of the Twitter era and a culture that wants a pill-to-fix-everything, and while those things might be problematic, the successful fiction coming from this moment is beautiful and epic (can you say epic when something isn’t long?). This is also why flash fiction poses such a great challenge to writers, as we’ve all pointed out already: it’s very easy to write that much (or that little); it’s very, very difficult to make it great. Since successful flash commits so hard, so our final selections usually look a lot different from one another. Some span one second or moment, “Bullet in the Brain”-style; others span years. Some get deep in the mind or heart of one character; others touch on a whole crowd. Some are hyperreal, some feel like dream sequences, some are straight grit. What we love from a good batch of them—like our final 15 here—is this feeling of being truly unable to choose, that pieces are so so disparate but so so enamoring we can’t cut or compare.
The thing that trips me up the most when reading is separating a vignette from flash fiction. A lot of pieces that feel like they’re working really well and do make me feel something or connect or engage like we’re talking about cause me to ask, “Wait a second—could this be just a page of a novel? Or the beginning of a movie script?” If I can answer yes, that’s what makes me decline those pieces that come really close. Because as nice and full-feeling as they are, they’re still lacking something that our finalists pieces aren’t. This is a mistake I make when I write flash myself: ah yes, it’s beautiful, but what is it completing? Has it set up and solved some problem? Has it shifted from one question to another? Pieces that stick on one question or problem can feel like meditations or homages or elegies, which are often very lovely or poignant, but aren’t what I’m looking for specifically. Ooh, talking about this makes me want to do very specific contests for just those thing instead.
BW: Oooh, I agree with your last point really heavily. For this contest, I want to feel like the story itself is contained entirely in the piece. If it feels like the first page of a story, even a story that I desperately want to read more of (we had this conversation at least twice when deciding), it’s really hard to argue that as a successful piece of flash. We only have the page in front of us, and that has to be the entire journey of the story in this specific moment.
CM: Seconded! (Or thirded?) I’m thinking back to our winner from last year, “How to Spot a Whale“. That piece grabbed us from the start because it was all of these things: It was a moment, but it was something bigger. It had a clear arc on the page but there was an arc suggested beyond the piece itself. We wanted to read more, yes, but the story on the page was compelling on its own. And this makes sense: In her interview, Jacqui Reiko Teruya says the idea for the piece came struggles she was having with a longer story she was working on. She knows the arc that’s suggested beyond the story, and even though that never makes it onto the page, it’s quite evident to a reader that the author knows.
Thanks as always for having this chat with me, folks! Our winners for this contest will be announced next week. I can’t wait!