Flash fiction explained; submission cover letters for literary journals
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: May 13, 2008
|What is flash fiction? |
Flash fiction is a very short story, usually somewhere between 750-1500 words. This isn't a hard and fast range, though. Some flash fiction runs shorter. Some longer. And there are many names for this kind of fiction: postcard fiction, micro-fiction, short short story, and sudden fiction. These terms are sometimes differentiated from one another. For example, micro-fiction often refers to the shorter of the bunch, under 400 words. Still, there's a lot of wiggle room.
Flash fiction doesn't give you the permission to skate by with an anecdote or a vignette. You still need to adhere to the demands of story: crafting character and conflict, increasing the intensity of tension, and building a story arc. It's still a short story-just shorter.
Start with a focused conflict. Think small. You would need a novel to cover the emotional difficulties of raising a child who does not communicate. So, for a flash fiction, you want to narrow the scope. In Alice Schell's "Birthday," Lukie, a young child who hasn't connected to the outside world, seems to express interest in something outside herself for the first time: a doll. The story follows what happens when Lukie's father buys that doll. Schell builds tension-at one point, the doll breaks, and the father frantically tries to fix it-and gives a resolution by showing Lukie kiss the doll. The reader doesn't know if Lukie will go on to connect with her parents, but she's connected with the doll and that's significant. In 510 words, Schell illustrates the complex and powerful hopes of a parent through one very focused moment.
Writing flash fiction demands a heightened attention to the power of implication. You have very few words, so you don't have the luxury of stating too much-outside of the unfolding action-directly. Stay focused on the action and use details and characters' thoughts and actions to imply additional information. In Harry Humes' "The Cough," a man suffers from a cough brought on from working in a mine. Indeed, this issue of miners' health touches most workers and that's important to this story, but a flash fiction doesn't have much room. So, Humes implies this in a brief, precise detail: "Some of the men who stopped at our house to see my father had tongues like fish that stuck out between words. Gray-faced, shoulders bony, they all seemed about to cave in."
With fewer words you're limited in what you can do, but that doesn't mean flash fiction has less impact. If you use the space to full effect, you can write a staggering story.
What should I put in a cover letter when submitting to literary journals?
A cover letter should be short, simple, and to the point. Generally, it should state your business and briefly introduce who you are as a writer. Always read the journal's writers guidelines to see if they have any specific requirements for the cover letter.
As with any letter, address it to a specific person if possible. Use the name of the editor appropriate for your work. You can find this information on the masthead of the journal. Some of the university-affiliated journals have an editorship that changes yearly, so it's not always clear who will be in charge when your submission arrives. If you can't find the appropriate name or if you're not sure, you can address the letter to the more general title of the editor of the genre, such as Fiction Editor or Poetry Editor. (Some journals prefer this. Remember, always read and follow the writers guidelines.)
Keep the body of the letter short. Indicate that you are submitting a short story (or poem) for their consideration. Don't explain what the story or poem is about. Let the work stand on its own. A mention of why this work is particularly relevant for the specific literary journal is also helpful. It demonstrates you know the publication and have put thought into where to submit.
Next, give a brief run down of your qualifications as a writer. If you have published before, mention where your work has appeared. If you have several publications, you don't need to list all of them. Just select a few. Also, include any awards or honors you've received for your writing. If you don't have a lot of accolades yet, don't worry. Focus on whatever experience you do have-like taking creative writing classes-and don't apologize for or otherwise point out your inexperience.
End by thanking the editor for his or her consideration. Keep it professional and friendly.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
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