Daily Archives: March 31, 2014

Excuses, Excuses

100 words, or 1000, isn’t many. Every piece of writing has a word limit, whether it’s for a contest, a magazine or even a novel submission. Nowhere is this more apparent than in flash fiction. There are definitely some stories you can’t tell in flash fiction. But I have to admit it annoys me when people respond to constructive criticism by using word limits as an excuse.

I couldn’t fit it in comes back to me time and again, when I suggest that a piece would have benefitted from more clarity, an explanation of a particular point, or so on.

Well, you know what? Try harder. I am well aware of the restrictions of word limits; I write flash fiction once or twice every week, and I know how hard it is to condense a story, to rework it to fit a word limit.

Some stories just don’t fit into some word counts. Spot Goes To The Park will never be a worthwhile novel, and you couldn’t fit War and Peace into 1000 words for all the tea in China. So if the story really doesn’t fit the word limit, don’t use it. Sure, write it anyway, but write it for a different contest, or just for fun. Don’t write a poor version and then blame the word count.

But actually, the story that doesn’t fit is the exception. If you publish a novel, someone will probably need to come up with an elevator pitch (about 25 words) or the blurb for the dustsheet (100-200 words) or even just a summary (similar). In either case, they will be looking for the essence of the story. In flash fiction, that’s all you have. It’s not quite the same as a blurb, because flash fiction includes the ending, but it is quite like the summary you’ll be putting in your covering letters.

The two keys tricks are to make every word count and to imply everything. Don’t spend half your precious words telling us that a character is cruel, tell us in a single sentence that they stepped on a kitten because it was in the way, or even, in the perfect single word. Adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly, but are all the more powerful because of it.

As a general rule (to which there are obviously exceptions), I find that flash fiction works best if it’s either dialogue or not dialogue. Trying to fit both in is just too much for the space available. Back-story is out too, except by implication, but by implication it’s in in spades.

But I’m digressing from my rant. The point is not that I know how best to write flash fiction, or any kind of fiction. The point is that as a writer, I think one has a duty to write to the form. There is no kudos in writing a song and then saying “well, it would have worked better if it were a prose piece,” and word limits are no excuse for a poor story.

So the next time someone critiques your writing, think carefully about blaming the form. You don’t have to agree with the comment, of course, but if you do agree with the comment, you’re the one who can learn from it and improve, the rule-makers aren’t going to change the word limit just to please you.

There, rant over. Cheerier service will be resumed next week. Probably.

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