I know it seems contradictory that writing flash fiction can help you to finish a novel, but it’s true. How does writing a 500 word flash fiction piece help you to cultivate the skills you need for novel writing when the two are at different ends of the writing spectrum?
Ways that flash helps longer works
A novel is a vast entity with an almost unlimited capacity to store words. What difference does an extra 500, 1,000, or even 5,000 words make when you’re taking about a word count of 80,000+? A big difference, that’s what. Novels are simply long stories, or a series of interconnecting ones, and like all stories should be treated with respect. They should be fed and nurtured and tended to in order to allow them to grow to their full potential. They are not a dumping ground for excess words the author can’t be bothered to prune.
Flash fiction has a word limit. To write it successfully, you must make every word count. There’s no room for hangers on. Flash fiction teaches the writer how to edit (and I mean REALLY edit). It teaches that, for a word to survive the cut, it must add to the telling of the story, to be more than just window dressing. Far too many novels could benefit from shedding a few excess words.
2. Character exploration
Flash is a perfect way to flesh out and explore a character’s personality. Use it to put them through their paces before you invest your time in writing their story. Use it to develop backstory and answer those all-important ‘What-ifs’.
Writing a novel’s going to take you months, even years, it’s only sensible to find out if the character is worth sticking with for all that time. Maybe there’s a better character waiting in the wings? Maybe the character isn’t all they profess to be? Maybe your character is just a dick? If I had a pound for every character I’d fallen out with…actually, I just have a pile of character bodies. Harlequin, you have been warned.
3. Just for fun
Picture this: you have a scene in which an immeasurably powerful spirit is meeting with a, slightly green, mage. The mage is trying to secure an item from the spirit, one that the spirit is never going to surrender. The mage needs this item to save someone’s life. How does he get it? Dunno? Yeah, me neither. I encountered this problem a long time ago, trying to find the solution to something that occurs in Harlequin’s backstory (It’s not even important to the plot in any of the books, but I NEEDED to know). What did I do? I wrote it out. I wrote sixteen flash fiction stories; each approaching the problem from a different angle. When I read back through them, I had my solution.
It happens to all of us. Half-way through your novel, you’ll encounter a problem you hadn’t anticipated. Brainstorm with flash fiction. It’s a great problem-solving tool, not to mention how much more fun it is than staring at a blank screen and willing the imagination faeries to appear (if they do turn up, let me know: the buggers owe me money). No problems encountered? Good for you, but why not use flash to consider alternate scenes you may have dismissed at the time? One of them could be the scene that lifts your novel higher up the bestsellers list.
4. Empty your mind
Ideas are like buses. You sit around for hours in the freezing rain waiting for one and then twenty turn up all at once. Trust me, when you start to write your novel, your subconscious batters on the door like a child, showing you all kinds of new and shiny ideas. Often it’s enough to exorcise the little menace by jotting the idea down in your notebook, but sometimes you have to bring out the big guns. Use flash to get that idea out of your head and firmly down on paper, freeing your sub-conscious up to generate ideas relevant to your novel.
5. Trust your audience
Something I see time and time again with new writers is over-explanation. This is often caused by a lack of confidence in their own ability to communicate their ideas. They worry the audience won’t understand what they mean, so they add a side note e.g. The green-skinned woman licked her lips with a forked tongue, because she wasn’t human. I know, I know, this is an exaggeration but not by much. I’ve seen things worse than this and, more than once, in (self) published work. Now, the forked tongue and green skin can only mean she’s not human (either that or body modification has gone too far) and your audience will pick up on that.
‘What’s all this got to do with flash?’ I hear you ask. The extreme limit on word count in flash fiction gives no room for detailed explanations, and I would urge anyone, especially beginners, thinking of writing a novel to give it a go. If nothing else, it will teach you to trust that the reader will pick up on clues and arrive at the same conclusion you did. They’re smarter than they look, give them a little credit.