Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction

Apparently, a proper flash fiction piece requires a long title. Like this: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field. Kinda says it all, doesn’t it? If the SEO requirements of this WordPress site would allow it, I’d call my review of this book “A Work of Art Carved on a Grain of Rice.” Why?

A long title at the beginning of a very short story alerts in a reader’s mind not so much the meaning, theme, or content of the prose but the slant notion of scale itself. A short short story may be about a lot of things but one this it is always about is scale. It is about the strategy of concentration, compaction, compression, as if the prose were bring squeezed by some piston to the point of spontaneous combustion.

Michael Martone, “Titled: The Title” in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, edited by Tara L. Masih (Rose Metal Press 2009)

Like its companion volume on writing flash nonfiction, this guide offers theory, history, and lots of fun exercises to set your short short story on fire. That, in a nutshell, is what flash fiction is all about.


But first, I am not charmed by this flash fiction field guide. The opening essays sound defensive and obsessed by size. 50 words is a dribble, 100 words is a drabble. A short short story can be called a smoke-long, palm-in-the-hand, sudden, furious or flash.

It’s funny to learn that the golden standard of 750 words is based on an outdated print restriction. 750 words is exactly enough to fill two facing pages. But I’m not very interested in the history of flash. I want to learn how to write it.

I often ask students to write one-page fictions: the form demands economy, precision, and the attention to every word that is necessary in each line we write. The form demands a great title, a title that is redefined by the story, and attains more layers of meaning, each time we read the story. One-page fictions demand an individual lyricism, a musical sound, a rhythm and stress in each phrase. The form demands an end line that is conclusive, perfect, powerful, and moves beyond the page

Jayne Ann Phillips, “‘Cheers,’ (or) How I Taught Myself to Write”

Easier said than done

Scattered across the last two-thirds of the Rose Metal flash fiction guide are essays that appeal to my writing sensibility. For example, I have a weakness for a long title (see above). I also never know whether my stories are too short or too long.

As a test, I have taken to writing multiple versions of the same short story, each version of which is a radically different length. I may start with 5000 words and cut back to 50, then double with each new iteration until I feel like the story’s span of tension is unbearably taut. How wonderful to learn that other writers play similar tricks on themselves.

I would never have written the short short story without having written the longer story and failing. Worrying the story, pushing that Sisyphean boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again and again, was all in preparation for this flash of insight

Lex Williford, “Forty Stories in the Desert”

I like the exercise Mark Budman offers. Write three flash fiction stories, using the same plot and set of characters, in which each consecutive version is half the length of the previous story.

Robert Olen Butler tells me that the difference between a short short story and a prose poem is that a story has, at its center, a character who yearns. Plot, in fact, is yearning challenged and thwarted. What a wonderfully concise, poetic way to summarize fiction of any size.

Time travel

A while ago, I sat in on a flash fiction course taught by my friend Megin Jimenez. Her theory is that flash is all about a portrayal of time. It could be a single moment of significant weight that explodes. Or, a story that compresses a long period of time into a small space. Yet another variation on the time element is flash fiction as a slice of life. The key lies in choosing the right details.

Let yourself freefall. Think about objects and details, about how they happen in real time. Focus on them. These are the things that will keep your story rooted in time while you’re not thinking about plot:

Half open door. Remember last summer? Muted light. The neighbor’s Chihuahua on the loose again. That breeze. The tiny barking. I need to call Martha.

Sherrie Flick, “Flash in a Pan: Writing Outside of Time’s Boundaries”


As a writer who works in multiple genres, I often wonder whether my story wants to be short (flash) or long (novel) or perhaps not fiction at all (essay). I’m not often tempted to veer into poetry but I will consider it now.

Stop whatever story you’re working on and convert the whole thing into a poem. This will be a much shorter piece, in which you bid various extra words and characters and subplots goodbye. (There is no need to wave to them.) Don’t worry about whether your poem is any good. Just make your decisions as honestly as you can. Once finished you may, at your discretion, remove the line breaks and examine the resulting piece of prose.

Steve Almond, “Getting the Lead Out: How Writing Really Bad Poetry Yields Really Better Short Stories”

Some of the exercises and writing tips from the Rose Metal flash guide will work terrifically for lyric essays. Back in 2009, when this guide was published, there was no term for a story (or essay) that takes on the form, say, of a list, a rejection letter, an encyclopedia entry. Now we know they’re called hermit crab essays and here’s how to test them.

If the story [or essay] is a found/form piece (i.e. dependent on using the matrices of a nonnarrative), which is increasingly common these days, how does the form subvert the narrative in satisfying ways, and what can you do to enhance that?

Rusty Barnes, “Editing and Revising Flash Fiction: How to COAP”

If we’re going to be working with (found) forms, why not have some fun? Choose a random number (say, 69 words) and work inside that tight space. Or, adapt a poetic form like a sonnet or a villanelle to prose. Math nerd that I am, I like the idea of a Fibonacci sonnet.

The word counts of sentences and the relative proportions of the paragraphs are determined by the sequence of Fibonacci numbers. In the first paragraph, the sentences are of a set length in words: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21,34, and 55. In the second paragraph, the first sentence is again 34 words long and counts the same series back down: 21, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 1.

Bruce Holland Rogers, “Writing Fixed-Form Narratives: Who’s Going to Stop You?”

In other words, you can do pretty much whatever you like with flash fiction. All you need to do is pay attention. As Ron Carlson says in the closing essay, stay alert. Don’t mess up page two.

20 Dec 2022 | Karen Kao