My First Flash Fiction Writing Competition

A few weeks ago I submitted a portion of my “Kathy Fiske” story as an entry in the 2015 Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize Competition.

This obscure competition—hosted by a small publishing house in Durrus, co. Cork, Ireland—opened in August and will remain open through February. The 10 best unpublished works of flash fiction, defined by Fish Publishing as “300 words or less,” will be published in the 2015 Fish Anthology.

The judge for this competition is Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This and Professor of creative writing at Harvard.

I’m going to be honest here: I have no fucking idea what flash fiction is.

I’m not sure what can be done in just 300 words. And I don’t know what Bret Anthony Johnston is expecting of me here. (As you might expect from the title and the previous three sentences, I have never entered a competition in flash fiction. But, I am competitive. And I like to write. And I want to improve. So here goes nothing.)

The entry fee was 14 euros (~$17), with the additional optional cost of 30 euros (~$36) to receive a “critique.” (From whom, I’m not entirely sure. Their website is not clear. Hopefully Bret Anthony Johnston…)

Thirty euros isn’t cheap. Especially on my less-than-princely income as a Real Estate blogger. But I suppose a one-time investment to receive a critique from a serious writer—and/or a Harvard professor of creative writing (maybe)—might be worth it. Fuck it.

I’m basically throwing away $53 to be rejected. I’m paying somebody $0.18 per word to read some garbage I have written in a writing form with which I’m not familiar. I guess my only reasoning behind entering a flash fiction competition is because maybe everybody feels like this?

I only need to be in the top 10 to get published. How competitive could this possibly be? *Gulp*

I submitted my application and paid on December 23rd. Today, I heard back!

Here is what my critique said:

Flash is the perfect genre to capture these small intense snapshots of life and the tension and emotion held within them and the opening paragraph creates a strong sense of place and mood offering the reader’s imagination clear entry into the story and raising expectations. No explanation about who the character might be is necessary as the writer has trusted the reader to find the answer through the language presented which in turn motivates us to ask all the right questions essential to propelling the story forward. There is a robust emotional charge in this piece created by the soft muted soundscape and the flow of the prose rhythm which sustains the tension throughout the piece.

In terms of the story’s shape, the traction wavers slightly in the resolution; everything in Flash is either set up or pay off, and there is an argument for returning to what is suggested is the central conflict i.e. the ‘him’ of the opening line and the character’s sense of loss. One can assume perhaps that he might be a father but the focus on the Dakota Hills landscape of the protagonist’s childhood takes this principal concern perhaps too far out of focus. If this thread could be more finely woven all the way through the piece then the story would have real grip.

The title could work harder for the story. Looking to a title that may enhance the subtext or prompt the reader to consider the story in a new light will allow the narrative to attain more depth of meaning and greater resonance.

This aside, the language is nicely paced and controlled and overall the writer has created a compelling work of flash fiction.

Wow. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I didn’t foresee something so detailed and well-written. Maybe it really was Bret Anthony Johnston…

In that critique alone I feel like I’ve learned a lot about flash fiction. Apparently “snapshots of life” are perfect for the flash fiction genre—that’s good to know. (Although I’m not sure what else you could really accomplish in 300 words.)

Titles are important. I should have intuited that, really—it’s basically an opportunity to sneak in more words. And “Kathy Fiske” is an exceptionally lame title. I really should have seen that one coming.

I like the bit where it says, “everything in Flash is either set up or pay off, and there is an argument for returning to what is suggested is the central conflict.” I’m particularly stuck on “there is an argument.” That right there leads me to believe that maybe flash fiction is still not as concretely defined as some other forms of fiction writing. Maybe.

I really wish I had another 200 words or so to touch back on the ‘him’ that my reader (correctly) intuited as part of the central conflict. (But incorrectly intuited as the father.) Overall, though, I liked the 300 words that I chose. Each one was carefully selected, and I don’t think my choices would be dramatically different now, knowing what I know. (Which is good, because I can’t edit or change anything.)

I’m glad that the reader seemed to like the piece. (I think…?)

He or she commented on the tension that I was trying to convey, which was nice. And I started to feel warm and fuzzy when I  read the sentence: “the writer has created a compelling work of flash fiction.” That’s not something I hear every day.

But honestly—now that the warm fuzziness has subsided—unless this Flash Fiction piece actually gets published, those nice words will mean nothing to me.

I would rather have a scathing, honest review that ultimately leads to my improvement as a writer than a flowery, nice review that serves no purpose other than to make me feel good. I can make myself feel good for less than $36 if that’s the case.

Let’s see if my poorly titled, less-than-finely-woven, “compelling work of flash fiction” gets chosen as one of the 10 best.

I really need to get published somewhere better than Thought Catalog. Maybe this will elevate my writing credibility to the next level.

Thanks to my mystery reader, I feel like I understand Flash Fiction a little bit better now. Maybe the one-time $36 expense was worth it after all.

Now it’s time to play the waiting game to see if my story is selected as a finalist. I will update when I know more.

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