I recently posted a new flash story of 500 words in my online writers’ group and received a number of critiques. These ranged as ever from ‘I really liked this! Perfectly judged,’ to (more or less) ‘I don’t really get it’. This is very much the nature of writers’ groups and is often an indication of the writing styles of other members rather than their ability to offer constructive criticism, but it led me to ponder the issue of ambiguity in fiction.

I love an unreliable narrator – it’s my favourite thing, both to read and to create (see Crossed Lines, Mother’s Pride etc). While it must be quite hard to keep it going over the course of a novel (I’m currently reading Gone Girl and am finding the clues a bit heavy-handed but check out The Dinner by Herman Koch for one of the best examples) it is relatively easy in very short fiction.

Even if I write a story in the third person, I like to create some ambiguity so that readers have to join some dots for themselves. I much prefer this approach when I’m reading someone else’s work rather than have everything laid out for me on a plate, because it then includes me as an active participant in the story and brings the reading experience to life.

But where do you draw the line? What proportion of readers need to ‘get’ it to let the writer know he or she has done enough ‘signposting’? Perhaps I am too cavalier about this, but if only one reader clocks it, I am well on the way to letting the story go as it stands. However, if a critic indicates that a tweak in a particular place will enhance the tension and lay another subtle clue, I am definitely and gratefully up for that.

Last year I parodied the Government’s hideous bedroom tax with a flash by the same title. I set out to be completely ambiguous in an effort to create mystery and humour, and was rewarded by this comment from John Hudspith, writer and editor: The huge level of intrigue and boundless possibility almost made my brain explode, and I just know I’ll have some good nightmares tonight. So thanks for that. As for the title I wouldn’t change a thing. It sits there like the malicious tin opener it really is.’ It was the perfect reaction, yet another reviewer wanted more clues! Which proves that it is down to you to assess and decide which type of reader you’re writing for. The Bedroom Tax was published last year in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Eating my Words but you can read it here. I would love to have your comments if you have a minute.

For myself, physical details are rarely necessary or desirable in very short fiction, where every word counts, unless it has a crucial part in the story. I might mention grey hair or gnarled hands if I want to indicate age, but not so the reader can see a character if appearance is unimportant to the meaning of the piece. The shorter the piece, the more implications each sentence has to carry to earn its place in the whole. Where a novel may take a whole chapter to reveal a critical character trait, flash fiction must achieve the same reader understanding in a couple of sentences. There is no time to dwell on eye colour!

So I will continue to put my stories up for criticism on the understanding that the same people will like them and the same ones will always need a fuller explanation. When those who usually ‘get it’ also need an explanation, that’s when I’ll know I’ve got more work to do. Just because I know what’s going on, doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve put it across. Hooray for second opinions!

In other news, I’m pleased to report that my flash, Message Understood  made the final twelve to be published in this year’s Twisted Tales anthology, so many thanks to the judges. I have also just heard that all three of my 300-word submissions to the Worcestershire Literary Festival flash fiction anthology will be published! I am obviously beyond thrilled about this. A Stash of Flashes will be available in October and launched with readings in November. More details on that nearer the time.

My reading in Bristol went really well to a packed house and I had lots of lovely comments. I decided on Bye Bye Blackbird in the end, which you can read here.

And that’s it for now. All comments and criticisms cheerfully received!

BristolFlash ReadingsI am really looking forward to National Flash Fiction Day’s Bristol event at Foyles on Saturday 27th June, where I will be reading one or two flashes. I haven’t decided which as yet, but there’s a five minute slot for each reader and it’s up to us how we fill it. One thing I have learned from my reading aloud experiences is that you almost can’t read too slowly, so I may confine myself to one five hundred-worder.

But which to choose? I have had a good couple of weeks with a short-listing (only ten writers long) in the Worcestershire Literary Festival’s flash fiction competition, a current short-listing in the annual Twisted Tales competition, and one of my favourite stories, Countdown, selected for Landmarks, the official 2015 National Flash Fiction Day anthology. I am tickled skinny and that’s a totally painless way to lose weight!

Everyone is welcome at Foyles and it’s free! The coffee bar will hold its usual temptations and there will be lots of chat, both writery and otherwise.

Earlier in the day there will be a free flash fiction workshop upstairs at Bristol Central Library from 13.30-16.30 with Calum Kerr, the Director of NFFD, and Ken Elkes, a prize-winning flash author. It should be fun, whether you’ve written very short fiction before or are a complete beginner to creative writing. The atmosphere will be relaxed and encouraging but you can always go along in disguise if you prefer!

There are many such events planned around the country, so please go and support your local writers. And even become one…

Have a great National Flash Fiction Day, wherever you are!

Are we mad?

The floodgates are open again for one week from today for your fabulous flash fictions, culminating in a special issue of the journal to run throughout National Flash Fiction Day, on Saturday June 27th. Send your stories on any subject, any style, any length up to five hundred words, and make sure it’s your best work because it may be in the running for inclusion in a future FlashFlood printed anthology! Not to mention the 190,000+ readers the journal has attracted so far…

The team has recently reread all the stories from the first three issues of the FlashFlood Journal and whittled them down to around seventy for the very first FF anthology and it was one of the most difficult challenges to date. The flashes were all brilliant, otherwise we wouldn’t have chosen them in the first place! So it really does represent the best in flash fiction. The book should be available within the next week and I’ll post a link when I have one.

So beat your ideas into shape and then follow the submission guidelines – remember, no attachments, please. We’ll look forward to reading a rich variety of work over the next few days. Please spread the word.

Good luck!


I haven’t done much in the way of submissions recently because (drum roll) I have been busy writing new stories. They’re all short (some only 140 characters) but are new stories nevertheless and that gives me great satisfaction.

wpid-fine-linen.jpg.jpegSo I was thrilled to hear that my submission to Fine Linen, a new Literary Fiction magazine, had been successful. ‘Dressing Up’ is a flash fiction of which I am particularly proud and started as an opening sentence that popped into my mind and wouldn’t leave, as with most of my successful stories. It is a gift that arrives apparently out of the blue and I count myself exceptionally lucky to receive it now and again.

Fine Linen Magazine is a curious and original ‘pack’. It consists of several parts, including an A5 magazine containing half the stories and an A3 full colour fold-up broadsheet with the remainder. There is also a little factsheet, a suggested reading order, a mini-bookmark displaying ten-word biographies of the issue’s contributors and another linen one.  It’s lovely but I’m not sure what to do with it! My other printed pieces are in conventional magazines and anthologies which can be casually(!) displayed on the coffee table or retrieved easily from shelves. Unfortunately, I think Fine Linen will remain in its envelope to keep the elements together and stop them getting dog-eared, which is a bit sad, especially because a remarkable coincidence occurred in this issue.

Fine Linen is based in the US and yet two of this quarter’s contributors (myself and Simon Kewin) live fifty yards from one another in a tiny English hamlet! As the list of selected stories numbers only fifteen out of hundreds of submissions, we were astonished to find ourselves back-to-back in the broadsheet. I’d like to think it was because I’ve trained Simon so well but, alas, he has a good many years of publishing successes on me!

You can subscribe to Fine Linen by following the link.

I was also delighted to be approached by the Editor of a new online Literary Fiction magazine, The Writing Garden, for permission to print ‘Decorated Hands’, which she found on Readwave, in her third issue. This is a story I wrote over ten years ago after sitting opposite a woman with decorated hands on a train following the death of my mother. Everything that happened around that time is still very clear in my mind and the story I wrote, though having nothing to do with death, has a great deal to do with loss. It is a story that has had many lives in print and online and I am so pleased it continues to travel independently.

And finally, please get your submissions in to National Flash Fiction Day’s micro competition (100 words) and anthology (500 words) by midnight on May 15th. I have nothing to do with the judging of either of these but you will recognise the names of all this year’s judges if you follow the flashing scene. I’ve got my three hundred-worders in but am still mulling over the theme of ‘Geography’ for the anthology. With only a week to go, I’d better get cracking, and so had you! Please use the links to spread the word.

Cheerio for now, Sue.

FlashFlood was bigger and certainly better than ever this time – many thanks for all your entries, and to Calum Kerr (Mr Flash Fiction) and my fellow editors. Social media was used very effectively by contributors and we really were flooded with flashes. The standard of submission has soared since our first outing and, in the case of some writers, all three submissions were of such a high quality, it almost impossible to choose one – a very nice problem for an editor to have. If you got more than one story accepted, hats off!

Now that the dust has settled, I thought it might be a good idea to reflect again on what makes a good piece of flash fiction. But first, because the list is shorter, it may be helpful to say what flash fiction is not.

It is not a stream of consciousness that begins and ends in an arbitrary time and place, unless you are particularly adept at guiding your readers through a series of experiences to their satisfaction. There must be an underlying purpose with thoughts juxtaposed in such a way that the reader feels the undercurrents of emotion, links the ideas, and understands the meaning, otherwise it is an aimless and self-indulgent ramble. Despite the poetic nature of the prose, there were several stories that left me wondering, what the heck was all that about?

The other thing flash is not is a truncated novel. Simply relating a series of happenings in an arc with a beginning, middle and end but without the depth of character and plot development a novel allows, does not constitute a satisfying piece of flash. Again, the underlying themes must convey meaning and intent: it has to be about something more than what is sitting on the surface. We turned away some very well-written pieces because they made no impression – they were just carefully arranged words.

So what is flash? If I had to sum it up in one sentence I’d say it is a piece of writing, however short, that makes the reader think beyond the words.

This means a good flash will imply a before and after (though not necessarily at the beginning and end) and will be understated, yet have the richness and depth conveyed in longer pieces. It often presents as a pivotal scene, at the end of which the reader should be in no doubt that something has irrevocably changed.

As ever, there were some common themes running through this year’s entries, the most popular being death and dying. This is bound to be the case because it is a universal fact and obsession but, this time round, I was very impressed by the diverse directions from which our contributors approached their subject. It was treated with mystery, yearning, anger, sadness and even comedy.

The other common theme, not entirely unrelated to the above, was the degradation of the environment. This is something that most of us are assimilating into our thoughts, so it isn’t surprising. In fact, I expect to see a lot more of it. However, most of these stories took a very literal approach – of landscapes and wildlife devastated by human greed. There seems to me to be a wealth of interesting and entertaining ways this theme could be tackled and I hope, next time round, to read some.

The mechanics of good story-telling are well documented but in flash fiction it is more than usually important to kick off with a crackingly good sentence – one that pulls the reader in and plunges him or her into the middle of a situation. In other words, it is essential to start the story in the right place. How the situation is resolved (or not) must be satisfying and integral to the story but not necessarily a foregone conclusion.

The title’s importance is often overlooked. Make it work for you. Don’t waste words but use it as a subliminal signpost for your readers to carry throughout at the back of their minds. Several titles felt tacked on as an afterthought, which is a trick missed.

I hope these thoughts are of interest and will help in your quest to write the perfect piece of flash fiction. Please do have a read through some of the Journal and take what you can in tips from the successful entries.

We will be doing it all again to coincide with National Flash Fiction Day on 27th June, so please add the link to your bookmarks and send your brilliant new flashes when we open for submissions. We’ll look forward to reading them!

FlashFlood awaits your entry!

Posted: April 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

Just a brief post to let you know that we are now accepting flashes of up to 500 words for one week to coincide with the launch of National Flash Fiction Day 2015. Please read the submission guidelines – we never open attachments.

Good luck!

bookmuseFFoF Front Cover 2014Just a quick update, if anyone’s interested. Last Sunday I read my 300-word story, Care, at the launch of the Worcester LitFest Flash Anthology, Fifty Flashes of Fiction, and was thrilled to find that two of my flashes had been longlisted and included! The other was In Living Memory, which was previously shortlisted in Flash500.

Despite the complimentary glass of wine I was very nervous and black spots started to appear on the page as I was reading. It was a good job I knew it by heart! It was a good event and I was very impressed by the standard of writing and reading. It was also nice to meet some writers I had met before, and a couple with whom I had communicated on social media. I also have another nice book to add to my collection.

I had not really intended to enter the Words with Jam Spoof Genre Competition but the afternoon before the deadline an idea popped into my head, which I wrote down and sent off with no thought of winning, since my usual style is to agonise for weeks over a single word or phrase. Anyway, I didn’t win, but was a runner-up, which meant my crime spoof, The Pot Thickens, was included in the Bookmuse Journal, and a lovely little book it is too.

So that’s about it for now. I hope to get back to hosting Guest Blogs in the New Year, so if anyone has something interesting to say on a personal writery theme, please get in touch.