Over the next few years I plan to publish a series of 50 super short stories. The genre is known as ‘flash fiction’. My stories will be 1,000 words or less, and will come completely self-contained, with everything a good well-told tale needs – including plots, themes, conflicts and compelling three-dimensional characters.
So why a thousand words?
Well, first off – why write anything of any length? Why write haikus? Why write sonnets? Why the hell write novels or trilogies? To be frank, why is a completely arbitrary question. I have no answers to why, other than the obvious – that brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and that shorter short stories are better than longer short stories. You can read them in the time it takes to skim a newspaper, and draft them in the time it takes to have a long polemical argument on Facebook.
As for why a thousand words specifically, well – a thousand is just a nice round number, that’s all. I like the discipline of a thousand words. But, of course, I might have chosen 981, or 1091, or 897. A straight thousand will do me just fine. The point is – I’m already writing longer literary works. I need a format that will help me get all the other ideas I have out of my system. Quite simply, flash fiction works best.
Let me say from the outset that I won’t be writing garden variety or <insert the cliche of your choice here> stories. These little stories will not be ordinary. I’m not doing this just to entertain you. Despite what you may think, I really wasn’t put on this Earth to relieve you of your daily drudgery. If my stories entertain you – I’m okay with that. But that’s not their principal purpose. My real intent is to present you with some tiny truths about life – one tiny truth for every story. So there’ll be one profound reflection or cutting insight wrapped up in the lives of characters who inhabit no more a thousand steaming turds, or about four double-spaced pages.
I started writing fiction at the grand old age of 13. The author who first inspired me to take up my pen was Robert E. Howard – the creator of Conan. Those familiar with Howard’s work will know what a gifted storyteller he was, for even if you don’t take to his stories it’s hard to deny their power and immediacy. If ever there was a natural spinner of yarns it was young Robert Erwin Howard, who weaved together histories and myths in startling new ways. By the time he died at age 29, he had a body of work that writers twice his age would kill for – from classic short stories that established him as one of the most important pulp fiction writers in the world, to poems with a rare lyrical potency. It’s been close to a century since he died, and he still casts a very long shadow on the unique subculture he created almost single-handedly – the niche genre now known as ‘Swords and Sorcery’.
The other towering influence on me as a younger writer was Harlan Ellison – an absolute master of the short story. I discovered him only a year or two later, at age 14 or 15, through classic volumes such as Paingod & other delusions, and Approaching Oblivion. I wasn’t alone in thinking he was an incredible talent. This was a writer who had won more Nebula and Hugo Awards than any other. His story Repent Harlequin Said the Ticktockman (a personal favourite of mine and one of finest examples anywhere of early flash fiction) still remains one of the most reprinted stories in the English language.
Like Howard, Ellison never took to longer literary forms. While both writers wrote the occasional full-blown work, unusually they both achieved their acclaim through the short story format. In doing so, they were both purveyors of a very compact kind of truth. Somehow, these two writers were able to find some kernel of reality in every story, in spite of the fact that both wrote highly ‘speculative’ forms of fiction – in Ellison’s case ‘Sci-Fi’, and in Howard’s case outright fantasy. Howard would access those core truths intuitively, directly from the unconscious, through the brute force of his talent. Ellison did so more consciously, and perhaps a little more artfully, through sharply constructed stories that achieved a remarkable degree of verisimilitude – stories that somehow made you question your reality, and forced you to reflect deeply about things you didn’t ever think about.
In the years since I first start reading these two great writers I’ve grown quite disdainful of fiction in general. I guess the cynicism has set in. There is just so much bad fiction around. Often I question the very point of fiction. Today non-fiction holds a much greater appeal to me, principally because it’s so much more unself-conscious about telling the truth. At least, that’s what I sometimes tell myself. But if I have to be really honest – there’s a great deal of truth to be found in fiction, and a lot of untruth to be found in non-fiction. And the way I see it – unless we take the time to engage that fundamental contradiction, we’ll never truly understand either.
As my homage to Howard and Ellison, who’ve remained enduring influences throughout my life, these little 1,000-word stories will hopefully illustrate my conviction – that really good fiction tends to reveal the truth in some way, and doesn’t simply help readers to escape reality. That fiction can also give birth to incredible alternate realities, and truths we never even considered.
There will be a lot of hardcore truths in these stories. Some may even be what you might call ‘profound’. Some may be so challenging that you might not want to accept them as any form of truth. Of course, if you don’t, you can at least console yourself with the fact that I didn’t waste a lot of your time, and that I was able to say what I had to say in less than a thousand words.
So please join me over the coming weeks, months, or years, or however it long it takes for me to complete 50 tiny stories – each with furnished with their own tiny truth. It should be a blast.
© Copyright Ron Lawrence Anderson