I recently enjoyed a week-long gig as guest editor for SmokeLong Quarterly Magazine, a revered publisher of flash fiction with a story limit of 1,000 words. The magazine editors charged me with choosing 1 story for publication from amongst all the submissions received in that week.
A record number of 84 stories came in, all of which I read blind. After a lot of reading and agonizing, I chose 1 story for publication and highly recommended 4 others. The winning story will publish on November 3rd and the 4 stories I also loved will be further considered for publication by the magazine editors.
Out of the 84 submissions, 16 stories rose to the top and I strongly considered each for the win. I read the 16 stories at least 3 times, ruthlessly rejecting until the strongest story, and the 4 ‘so damn close’ stories, emerged. Through the process, it became clear it’s often difficult to quantify what makes a story great, and much easier to identity why stories fail. It also became clear just how many factors go into selecting and rejecting work, not least of which is the personal tastes and biases of the editor, the aesthetics of the magazine, and the limited space available in any one issue.
Some stories I read once and knew immediately they weren’t working. The particular challenge of the short-short story is to craft with conciseness and precision work that conveys urgency and a sense of something at stake. The work and its character(s) must take risks and the character(s) must have a central desire. The work must also focus on an important moment in the character’s life. There has to be trouble. I noted, too, amongst the strongest stories I read that the writer utilized great imagination, language, obliqueness, and a compelling central image that threaded the entire piece.
The stories that didn’t work felt familiar and lackluster, and started too soon and finished too late. What was omitted in these stories wasn’t artful, but confusing and dissatisfying. With the exception of the two strongest stories, every story would have been strengthened by tightening (every word must count, must perform) and by deleting at least the last couple of sentences.
Ultimately, short-short work must–in the fewest possible words and with the most selective of craft choices–grip the reader and make us care.