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A Report from the Flash Fiction Festival

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Flash Fiction Festival, a conference put on by Literary Cleveland. For my readers outside of northeastern Ohio, it’s an organization that helps authors explore diverse voices and discover their own style. The week-long event featured readings, workshops, an open mic night, and more.

Combined with client meetings and a writing class I’m taking, I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time on Zoom in my life and the “Zoom fatigue” is real—in fact, I checked out of technology for the entirety of last weekend to recuperate. But it was totally worth it to receive so much wisdom and creative instruction from four true masters of their craft.

Flash fiction is not just its own genre; it’s its own breed of storytelling altogether. A good flash fiction piece operates with the precision of a Swiss watch, with every paragraph loaded with meaningful detail. It immerses the reader in a single moment sentence by sentence, creating intrigue and ultimately lowering them into a poignant instance of surprise.

It’s poetic, yet it isn’t poetry. It’s a narrative, yet it’s brief and compact. It also takes a unique mindset and just the right idea to craft a flash piece. I know many writers who have said that it’s easier for them to write a 20-page story than it is to compose a 500-word story. For a long time, that was my personal experience with flash fiction. It used to be that an idea had to “want” to be flash, and I sat down to write it in the same way I would craft a poem. Before 2018, I had written exactly one flash fiction piece I would deem a success. But then, I started working as a copywriter. One weekend, about the time I was taking a copywriting course for my job, I attended a creative writing conference in Columbus where there was a session on flash fiction. As I listened to his presentation, I discovered that the speaker and the copywriting instructor were both saying the same things.

Both genres are about telling a powerful story in a succinct, compact amount of words. And then I got to thinking…if I could do copywriting well, then maybe I could also do flash fiction. I immediately started to experiment with writing flash, producing around ten pieces in the next couple of months. It made me discover that the compact space of the genre isn’t a limitation. It opens up endless possibilities for how to tell stories, with just as much and perhaps even more emotional depth than longer fiction. But it’s still something that I want to get better at as a writer. That’s why when I saw a Facebook ad for the Flash Fiction Festival, I jumped at the chance to sign up. I was not familiar with any of the faculty members' work prior to the event, but by the end of the opening panel on Sunday night, it was clear that they were literary masters with much to impart about the flash process. At each of the four workshops that followed throughout the week, we read powerful examples of stories, did energizing writing exercises, and stretched ourselves to discover our voices in new and profound ways. I took tons of pages of notes, and to say that it was worth the price of admission is an understatement. Therefore, I want to spend the rest of this post sharing the most important takeaways I had from the conference. If you’re a flash fiction writer or you’re thinking about trying your hand at it, these are authors whose work you’ll want to check out and expert tips you’ll want to follow.

Advice columns are a great place to find characters.

Amber Sparks, author of the story collections And I Do Not Forgive You and The Unfinished World, talked about how to use advice columns as inspiration for characters and stories.

The confessional, anonymous nature of these letters allows for untold possibilities for your fiction. We did an exercise where we took an advice column and made a list of all the personal and biographical details that we imagined were true about the author, then wrote a short piece where that character met either a close friend of ours or went to a place we know well. Of course, if the situation in the column you pick is unique enough and you think, man, no one can make this up, you can just totally rip it off. I took this approach to the prompt because the column I found was like something out of a Seinfeld episode, someone you can't just make up.

If you follow me on Instagram, check out my 10 Minute Writing Time segment from last Thursday, where I read my response.

The second person is really fun.

Christopher Gonzalez hosted a workshop about writing in the second person (“you”) and all the unique facets it can bring to your writing. In particular, my biggest take away was that even though a second person viewpoint can seem very general, the details you incorporate can lead to an ultra-specific experience for the reader. They become another character, have a unique experience, and form intimate relationships with other characters. Plus: we talked about the Choose Your Own Adventure books (remember those, fellow ‘80s kids?), which was a HUGE bonus. K-Ming Cheng’s writing prompts led me to write stuff that made me really uncomfortable.

Cheng’s workshop was about using experimental structures in flash fiction. We wrote about what hunts and haunts us and answered hard-hitting questions about mortality, suffering, and our bodies. We wrote about something we’ve swallowed (literally or metaphorically).

The experimentalism led me to write pieces that were really, really confessional and honestly kind of freaked me out. I wrote about being haunted by the voice of eight-year-old me in a family home movie, how my face is a carbon copy of my dead grandmother’s, and my phobia of swallowing big pills.

Maybe I’ll do more stuff with them in the future, maybe I won’t. Either way, it was fascinating to see how addressing these questions, combined with the example pieces Cheng brought to share, made my voice shift so drastically. Tyrese Coleman’s workshop on narrative movement brought me to tears.

I’m not kidding. I have never cried in a writing workshop before (unless you count when I cried in my apartment after my first grad workshop), but I shed very real tears with my Zoom camera turned on for all the world to see.

The structure of flash fiction has always been rather nebulous to me, but she outlined the common elements of effective pieces in such simple detail that it blew my mind. It also helped that she brought in examples of stories that pack a huge emotional punch, like this one. The biggest thing I learned from Coleman was that every effective flash story has a moment she calls “the shift,” where the story’s movement diverts and takes the reader to a place of understand about why they are reading it to begin with. In her words, it is “the moment of emotional resonance, epiphany, or resolution […] a ‘climax’ where the narrative momentum changes and moves toward the ‘falling action.’”

Now I can’t stop looking for “the shift” in flash fiction, not to mention my own work. It was truly a mind-blowing concept. This session alone was worth the price of admission and I see it impacting the way I write not just flash, but all genres for a long time to come. Like I said, I’m thoroughly burned out on Zoom…but also thoroughly inspired. I have no doubt that once my eyes recover, I’ll be back at it.

In the meantime…has this post piqued your curiosity about flash fiction? Do you want to learn more about it? If so, I’m proud to offer a free 30-minute Virtual Meetup, where we’ll spend some time together on Zoom drinking beverages and talking about all things writing, flash or unrelated. Just click here to find out more and grab some time on my calendar.

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1 Comment

Joshua Robinson
Joshua Robinson
Mar 02, 2021

Great writeup! This was my first experience with Literary Cleveland and I'm so glad I found them. It's been tough the past year, missing all those great meetups with fellow writers, and the Flash Fiction Festival was a real shot in the arm to get the creative juices flowing again.

The only thing I'd add is a shout-out to everyone who read at open mic on Friday evening. A lot of the pieces were freshly written and based on the workshop prompts. They crackled with that exciting, still raw energy that made every hit-you-right-in-the-chest line even stronger.

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