Michelle Elvy: Beyond word count

Mar 2023 | Flash, Small craft

AT THE BAY | I TE KOKORU is hosting a series of book competitions in 2023. These books include, among others, a single-author set of flash and micro fictions – the first prize of its kind in Aotearoa New Zealand.  This competition closes March 31.

Here, we include a few notes from editor Michelle Elvy, addressing questions around contents and framework for a flash fiction collection.


First, a definition

Flash fiction is defined, yes, by word count – usually up to 1000 words. People always ask about that first. But let’s not be focused only on word count. A small story can convey a world or a moment in a tiny space, and there is usually a good deal of focus around language, meaning and control. There is no prescribed way to do it: small stories range in style and form. Some are directly narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end; some are wily, even unruly. Some push at poetic boundaries; some are lists or fragmented explorations. There are so many examples of excellent flash fiction to take inspiration from, from the Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions anthologies, to online spaces such as Flash Frontier, or the National Flash Fiction Day and Micro Madness competitions, plus many international journals that showcase the small form and its many complexities. Read widely; there is much to explore.


How do you ensure your flash is the best flash in a collection?

My advice for writers working on a collection: Do not be afraid of word count or defined by it. Write about something you love to write about, and push yourself to break out of your own boundaries. Experiment and play. Find a groove that feels right and pursue it.

In a set of small fictions, consider the collection as a whole and think about the emotional and/or narrative arc. This might be interrupted or even challenged, but there can still be a thread (or multiple threads) that pulls the reader through. Each piece may be a standalone – of course. But there is common ground that makes each piece belong in the collection. Look at Airini Beautrais’ award-winning short story collection, Bug Life, or Frankie McMillan’s My Mother and the Hungarians (and other small fictions). In such collections, each piece is a discrete contribution to the book, but there are themes that emerge when you read the stories as a set – and each story is essential to the whole.

And what of the individual stories? Consider, in a collection of small pieces, that space where the lines are blurred – breaking down the barriers is exciting. Flash fiction might reside on that line between prose poetry and fiction: flash fiction may carry beautiful poetic elements; prose poetry may reveal a story. Where are there other lines that you might challenge? Consider how language drives narrative and how space accommodates the unsayable. Creative nonfiction elements can also illuminate flash fiction collections.

A memorable flash fiction will surprise the reader in the best possible way, and this can be said of a collection as well: it will enlighten, or touch down in an unlikely place, or meander slowly and subtly to its main point and generate such power that the reader cannot forget it. It may be poetic, or jarring – but it will most likely be language-driven. The smaller the space, the more language matters. There are many ways to write a ‘great’ piece of flash, but the thing that strikes me about excellent flash is that it demonstrates a careful attention to content and form; an excellent piece of flash will balance both.

For more flash fiction tips, see ‘Don’t Beat Around the Bush’, published at The Lascaux Review.


How many pieces constitute a collection?

There is no set number that is required. It may be that a small grouping of, say, 30 flash fictions carries weight, or there may be more. Keep in mind that a chapbook is usually a slimmer volume, perhaps 20-40 pages. We are looking for something with more heft – more than 50 pages, perhaps. But as I noted above, quality matters more than quantity. Also: it’s not enough to simply place all your individual pieces into a set of pages and call it done. While there is no page count rule, a very strong collection will be a set that is held together by thematic connections and explorations of linking ideas, works that resonate and echo back and forth. There is always a gentle push-and-pull in a collection: some stories that move the reader forward, and some that also offer more layers to something that is perhaps previously explored. However you do it, enjoy the process of seeing how individual works might be brought together and say something more, how the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

As you are looking at your collection, take your time and review how the individual pieces fit together. Step back from your writing and allow yourself – and the words on the page – time to breathe. See what changes with time.


The AT THE BAY | I TE KOKORU competition for a collection of flash fictions is open through 31 March 2023. For information about how to submit, go here


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