When I was half-way through my novel Our Endless Numbered Days, without any knowledge that it would be published, I read Jean Hegland’s novel, Into the Forest. I loved it, and for the first time ever I wrote to an author to tell her how I felt about her book, and that I was waist deep in writing mine. She sent me a lovely reply saying that novels are “Are huge, unwieldy beasts,” but in her experience “nothing’s more engaging or gratifying”.
It’s an interesting statement. They are huge, unwieldy beasts – I’ll certainly give her that and more: they often have to be wrestled to the ground and still continue to fight back. But is nothing more engaging or gratifying for a writer? I’m not so sure.
The first pieces of serious writing I did (aged 40) were flash fiction – stories written to be read aloud in five minutes (I can tell you that’s about 800 words). From these I went shorter; joining an online group called Friday Fictioneers which I’m still part of. Our ‘leader’, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields posts a photograph every week, and inspired by that picture, writers around the world produce many 100-word stories. Meanwhile, at the other extreme, my novel finished at about 83,000 words (which is fairly short as novels go).
If flash fiction is peering through the keyhole at a slice of what’s beyond the door; the novel is opening it wide. Aside from word length, both provide interesting positive and negative constraints for writers.
Very short fiction allows the writer to take risks, to try something out she might not have the time or courage to do with longer pieces. Want to see what it’s like to write in the second person present tense, or from the point of view of an animal, or have a go at a ghost story? Try it. There’s nothing to lose except a few hours, and very little writing is ever wasted. And if writing flash fiction is quicker, then so is revision. If a short piece isn’t working it doesn’t take much time to go back to it again and again, but with a novel each revision can take months and it still might not be right.
One of the things I like best about flash fiction is how specific it makes my writing. I examine each sentence and word to make sure they should be there, and if they pass, that they are the right ones. Very few adverbs ever make it into my flash fiction; I will always try to find a stronger verb as an alternative. And there’s very little space for unspecific nouns and an accompanying adjective: willow instead of large tree, grin instead of wide smile.
The other happy constraint that writing only 100 words brings is that history or backstory can only be implied. My favourite pieces of writing are ones which make the reader do some of the heavy lifting – reading between the lines to work out the full story, and flash fiction is the perfect vehicle for this.
For example, the final line in this piece, called Dogged, hopefully suggests a history between the narrator and her father:
Halfway home I turn and see him.
‘Shoo,’ I say, stamping my foot. ‘Don’t follow me, dog.’ Something in the way he looks at me squeezes my insides, loosens my bowels. I turn and walk fast, breaking into a trot, but can’t resist looking back; he’s still there, keeping pace, mouth closed, ears up, relentless. The day is hot, but my blood is cold. I stop and pick up a stone from the path, throw it. When it bounces off the dog’s shoulder he doesn’t even flinch; he just stands there looking at me, with my father’s eyes.
One of the downsides of writing short pieces is that generally with each one (unless they are interlinked) the writer needs to reinvent the characters, the location and the event that makes the story happen, whereas with a novel, when the writer sits down at her computer each day, some of that work will have already been done. However, on the flip-side if she’s the kind of writer with lots of ideas but not a lot of tenacity, sitting down at her computer with the same set of characters is the last thing she’ll want to do.
Characters in a piece of writing as short as 100 words don’t usually have an arc – they are unlikely to change. In something as long as a novel the writer gets to know her characters inside out and so one of the benefits of working for a long time on one project is understanding when something isn’t right. I might get to the end of a first draft and realise that I’ve drawn a character incorrectly. It’s only in a very long piece that I can learn this and have the opportunity to change it.
What’s more, novelists can play with themes and issues, there can be sub-plots, minor characters and cliff hangers. However, although these are fun, it’s also very nice to know that with a piece of flash fiction I don’t have to worry about making sure my readers will turn the page; I only need to get them to concentrate on one paragraph.
There is a place where flash fiction and novels come together. I’m not a planner and there were points as I was writing my manuscript when I didn’t know what would happen next. Writing flash fiction helped to overcome these moments of hesitation. I would place one of my novel’s characters into the location suggested by the Friday Fictioneer’s photograph and write a hundred words. I expanded and edited several of these short pieces and many of them made it into the published book. Likewise, it can be helpful to treat the novel like a piece of flash fiction. When I’m editing and the ‘huge, unwieldy beast’ becomes too difficult to handle, I find it helpful to break it down into 100-word sections and imagine I’m editing a piece of flash fiction. I forget about the rest of the novel and focus only on the paragraph in front of me.
Writing constraints for either long or short fiction shouldn’t be seen as bondage, something to struggle against and try to wriggle out of. I would encourage all writers to embrace them and use them to their advantage.
Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott prize for debut fiction and is a current Richard & Judy, and Waterstones Book Clubs pick. It was published in the UK by Penguin, and has or will be, published in a further eight countries including the US and Canada. Claire lives in Winchester with her husband and children.
Follow her on twitter @ClaireFuller2
Category: How To and Tips
Sites That Link to this Post
- In the Media: January 2016 | The Writes of Woman | January 24, 2016
- Top Picks Thursday: 01-21-2016 | The Author Chronicles | January 21, 2016
- The Huge, Unwieldy Beast versus Flash Fiction | WordHarbour | January 18, 2016