The Vital Heart of the Flash Fiction Story

Catherine McNamara introducing, her Flash Fiction Course.

I didn’t fall for flash fiction straightaway. There was an attraction, but I wasn’t sure about this fleeting, incisive form until I tried to nail it. Not so easy. Pulled off, flash fiction is an acrobatic feat, leaving an arc on the air and a gasp in the audience. Several years after my first efforts I think there is a mutual understanding between us. With dozens of flash pieces out there and a collection to be published in February 2021 – I realise this form has taught me ruthless technique and a visceral understanding of story.

How so?

I would describe myself as a short story writer. A pretty wordy short story writer, trained in the compression and intimation and the dance-with-the-reader that is the short story form. Very quickly, I realised that with flash fiction these devices would not be enough. I would need more rigour, less flair and artifice, more cogent material. Plot? Well, yes. And also no. I realised I would be going into the gritty workshop of story creation – the cogs and wires, the oil and motion. What is story anyhow? And where should both the reader and writer end up in 800 words or less?

As with everything, I decided to feel my way. Of course, many of the same rules that govern the short story, the novel, even the screenplay and the poem, come into play. An investigation of our humanity and our place in the cosmos. Even in a story that speaks of stray dogs. And yet. We are playing a different instrument here. Word count requires delivery and displacement. The reader must be yanked in by the first syllables. It is not enough to delve and display.

I read the greats, and suggest that you do too. I also confess that I initially approached my flash fiction quest as an exercise – physical and gruelling – a daily sign-up to the first paragraph. An entry point. An idea worth climbing into. A search for a seam of words leading to story gold. I developed many techniques for squeezing stories out of anything. Some of us work visually; some of us with a clock ticking; some of us write succinctly and some of us must slash away at the page. One thing in common: a surrender to voice. And in the editing phase: a fearless discarding of the obsolete or obscure. The vital extraction of story.   

For the past four years as Litro Magazine’s Flash Fiction Editor, I’ve read a lot of flash fiction. All types. From the clichéd themes – lost loves, illness, dementia – to aliens having sex, visits from the Buddha, incandescent women, families and their fridges. As an editor and reader, I am happiest when my ideas are torn apart. When I fall for a piece with raining frogs or talking trees or a stringent conversation on a country lane. Anything can sing. Anything can climb above and grow wings.

This September/October I will be teaching the Litro Flash Fiction Masterclass where I will be sharing these ideas and putting you to the test.

You can sign up for the classes Here.

Catherine McNamara

About Catherine McNamara

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and went to Paris to study French. She ended up in West Africa running a bar. Her short story collection 'The Cartography of Others' is finalist in the People's Book Prize and won the Eyelands International Fiction Prize. Her flash fiction collection 'Love Stories for Hectic People' is out in May. Catherine lives in Italy and has great collections of West African sculpture and Italian heels.

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and went to Paris to study French. She ended up in West Africa running a bar. Her short story collection 'The Cartography of Others' is finalist in the People's Book Prize and won the Eyelands International Fiction Prize. Her flash fiction collection 'Love Stories for Hectic People' is out in May. Catherine lives in Italy and has great collections of West African sculpture and Italian heels.

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