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The O:JA&L Masters Series
Flash Fiction
Craft Essay

Featured Writer Peter Conners

PLENTY: How to Write Very Short Fiction

To explore or download selected offerings from Peter Conners,
click on the title PLENTY: How to Write Very Short Fiction
to access the latest chapbook in the O:JA&L Masters Series.

Ceres by Alice Pike Barney

The key to writing very short fiction is to not write very long fiction. The best way to do that is to tell the story with fewer words. A very famous example of writing a very short story with almost no words is one often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, which, it appears, he didn’t write: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In 2013, “quote investigator” Garson O’Toole published an article debunking the connection between Hemingway and that little story. In the well-researched article which features variations of this story published as long ago as 1906, O’Toole states that he, “located no substantive evidence that Ernest Hemingway composed a six or seven word story about an unworn pair of baby shoes or an unused baby carriage.”

Does this mean that writers are liars? Some are, I suppose. In this case, it doesn’t appear that it was Hemingway who lied though. A literary agent named Peter Miller published the anecdote about Hemingway in his 1991 book, Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing, and from that point on, it was taken by many to be fact. But it isn’t fact. Not fact at all. Apparently, Miller was told that Hemingway wrote the tiny story by a “well-established newspaper syndicator” in 1974, and he ran with it from there. Does that make Miller a liar? For a long time, I assumed that what I’d heard about Hemingway writing that story was true. I’m sure I propagated that lie too. Does that make me a liar?

I will tell you the truth. One solid truth that you can sink your teeth into. An absolute truth with no lies in it whatsoever: If you want to write a very short story, you must use very few words. That is the key to writing flash fiction. Beyond that, if we are to call it a story, there has to be some distinct parts to it as well. A story contains some aspects of a beginning, a middle, and an end. If it does not, then it is not a story. It is something else with words. Keep in mind that the end doesn’t have to be a wrap-up that ties the whole story together. No, it certainly does not. The ending can open outward into a myriad of possibilities with regards to meaning. It can challenge the reader to extrapolate meaning from the very few words that are provided by the author. Oftentimes, these are the stories that both writers and readers appreciate the most. Personally, I like those types of stories. The fake Hemingway story is like that. It makes me wonder: What happened to the baby? How are the parents carrying on? Wouldn’t it feel overly macabre to go and buy these shoes from them? And so forth. But not everyone likes those types of stories. No, not everyone at all. Some people get very frustrated when stories aren’t given an ending that wraps-up loose ends from the narrative. They feel, in some way, cheated. Perhaps they even feel that they’ve been lied to by a writer who, it appears, doesn’t know the ending either.

But let’s not worry about those people. There are enough stories with tidy endings to satisfy them. For a very short story to succeed – by which I mean, stay with the reader long after they finish reading – it is best to have an ending that opens outward. One that requires that the reader think hard about the connections made in the writing and draw their own conclusions. In requiring that of the reader, the writer (perhaps you are one?) performs a small magic trick in which they very nearly – not quite, but almost – turn the reader (which you are right now) into a co-author of the story. The reader must bring their own imagination to the process in order to complete the act of reading the story. That is my idealistic view of what happens anyway. A less idealistic view is that they throw the story away and never want to read anything like it again. “I hated that,” they may say aloud, or think to themselves.

But we aren’t worrying about those people now. There are other things for them to do that would occupy their time, and, most likely, feel more satisfying for them. I doubt they would appreciate this essay either. They may say something like, “I read a craft essay, but it said almost nothing about craft!” And the listener might respond, “Well, what did it say?” And the reader might answer, “I have no idea! It literally said nothing.” And the listener might ask, “Really? Nothing?” And the reader might say, “Not really, no. It said a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It said small stories use very few words. I’m pretty sure the guy called Ernest Hemingway a liar too.” And the listener might say, “Really? Hemingway was a liar?”

But, dear reader, I am not saying that Ernest Hemingway was a liar. He may have been, but I don’t know. Even if I knew more, it is not my place to judge. These are delicate and personal matters. What I do know, and what I will tell you right now, is that to write a very short story, you must use very few words. Isn’t that enough?


About the writer:
Peter Conners has published 10 books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Those books include the prose poetry/flash fiction collections, Of Whiskey & Winter, The Crows Were Laughing in their Trees, and Beyond the Edge of Suffering, all published by White Pine Press, as well as the PP/FF novella, Emily Ate the Wind (Marick Press, 2008). He lives in Rochester, New York, where he works as Executive Directory & Publisher of the literary publishing house BOA Editions, Ltd.

Image: Ceres by Alice Pike Barney (1857-1931). Pastel on canvas. 18 x 14.8 inches. 1901. Public domain.

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