Beginner’s Guide to Five Flash Fiction Writers and Their Unique Styles by Mandira Pattnaik

Although much of what I write now is short-form fiction, when starting out, I had no idea what flash fiction was. The form, still largely unexplored in India where I live, fits the bill for readers like me perennially short of time.  I remember the Lydia Davis piece “The Visitor” was one of the first I read, following up with flash fiction by Kathy Fish, Cathy Ulrich, and Tara Campbell, along with many other amazing writers, with hundreds of nominations and awards between them. In no time, it was clear their eclectic and expansive body of work were master classes in themselves. However, there are other writers, some just as well known, some not, who were integral in my journey to flash fiction. Here are five flash fiction writers who I recommend reading as well, and why:

Bronwen Griffiths

Bronwen Griffiths treats both political and personal stories with amazing ease. Author of two novels, A Bird in the House (2014) and Here Casts No Shadow (2018), plus two collections of flash fiction, Not Here, Not Us – Stories of Syria (2016) and Listen with Mother (2019), in an interview she says the best thing about being a writer is “Creating new characters who almost become like real friends.”  The key to creating characters that ‘feel real’ is observation coupled with awareness of one’s environment, result of catapulting oneself into a precise frame of time and place.

Reading Bronwen’s work  “War Crimes,” written, as she says, after listening to the testimony of Syrians speaking at Amnesty in London, is illuminating: “The baby white and heaving, his skin grey with dust, a smear of blood on his forehead… He will not move again.” Notice how the form works brilliantly to compliment the plot. The narrative is built on a socio-political topic seldom touched by others, and dealt with empathy.

Bronwen’s more personal stories stand-out in the way ‘everyday’ women are accounted for, so as not to be overlooked in the consideration of the other supposedly major happenings in the world. “The anger of mothers at the smallness of their lives when lockdown was every day because of the impossibility of going there or here or anywhere. The only choice a walk along the street, the need for a pushchair if the child tired, perhaps a stroll to the park with its pond and dull ducks.” from “The Sky Between Us.” Also read “Sheets,”, the brevity is surprising for such an important theme.

If grappling with whether to write novel or the short form, she says, “I love writing novels but a novel is like a marriage. Writing a novel requires a long-term commitment whereas flash is more like a passionate affair—it’s often instant and exciting.”

Patricia Q. Bidar

I had the opportunity to ask Patricia Q. Bidar recently: When would she give up on a story she might have taken days and months to carve out? After how many submissions? Her answer was inspiring and hugely positive: Never, sort of. I absolutely retire some. But when I believe in a work, I trust my instinct and keep going. My record is 35 submissions before a story was picked up. That’s a lesson in perseverance!

Patricia’s “Stain” (New FF Review) is as much breathless, as it is about the exquisite details (windows lidded with wooden and peeked-through blinds/ citrus-y aftershave/ ​Alice’s tap dancing, sewing, straight-A childhood). Notice how Patricia keeps Alice firmly stationed in the Firebird during the course of the narrative, while her past, present and future is deftly accounted for. I recommend “Lucky Day” next. Make your way through the great detailing again, to get to the jaw-dropping last paragraph: “Beyond the floating drape splays Lake Pontchartrain, that talismanic ten-mile bridge. It would appear my luck is gone. I’m unensnared….” The writing is endearingly about characters who’ve tried, who have lost, but who haven’t let that pull them down. In “Before the Election,” consider the opening, “Like Judy in the movie, you are a fallen woman”. How it stuns the reader with the reference it draws, notice the seamless injection of contemporary events and wonder about the old man “who has felt pride”. For a taste of something different, try this story in Flash Frog, notice the use of disjointed events to build a piece that spans so much, space and earth, home and outside: “As if his sputtering light, the sounds he made, died before reaching me”.

In “Rat Girl,” inspired by Kristin Hersh, whose vocal style is frequently described as “softly melodic to impassioned screaming”, Patricia is brilliant. This piece went to nineteen places before Sou’wester Review printed it, and was reprinted in Fractured Lit! So you know why never to give up!

Finally, Patricia’s writing shines forth in “Over There” (SLQ). Look how she touches the beauty and complexity of family bonds, and how one can never really abandon those ties. “Over There” will also appear in next year’s W.W. Norton Flash America Anthology.

Mark Patricia’s wise words, “My stories are alive for me and continually communicate about ways to make them better. Simsub like mad—and revise as you go!”

Jo Withers

Jo Withers writes in the immediate, bringing her characters in active participation in the plot, and direct exposure with the reader. Her narrative urgency and sharpness awe me. Like this story in X-R-A-Y, the word ‘cross’ is delivered ten times, hammering into the reader’s mind the same emotions as the unnamed woman in the piece.

Or, “The Last Party” (Furious Fiction winner) with the fabulous opening line that almost tells a story on its own: “We’d practiced the drill for months, since the rifled men snatched power.” Using sound effects (gunshots, mother’s voice, furniture scraping floor, objects breaking, roaches) seldom done by flash writers, Jo builds the tension, alternately using patches of silence so the scene comes vividly alive. Notice how effective the trick is.

One remarkable highlight is how Jo Withers makes the titles work for the prose that is to follow. Consider both “Contents of the Dishwasher Twenty Years After Our Arranged Marriage” (Splonk) and “Things The Witch Thinks About While Not Drowning” (Ghost Parachute), notice how much the titles tell you about setting, plot and character.

If you’re looking to write dark with a hint of character(s) emerging stronger, read Jo’s work. Speaking about her SmokeLong Comedy Prize winning story, “The Reason Wolverine and Deadpool are Flambéing on the Barbecue” Jo says, “I like to explore the dark shadows lurking in life’s lighter moments and the fragile luminescence of hope that fragments the bleakest times.”

One story that could perhaps be an aberration of her style, is “Yesterday’s Tide.” Consider the repetition which helps to reimpose the dominant emotion in this piece. It’s a piece that loops onto itself, like a tape, or rope, choking on itself, precisely how the storyline is intended.

Jo’s writing can also be found in Best Microfiction 2020 and Wigleaf Top Fifty 2021.

Rosaleen Lynch

Rosaleen Lynch’s brilliant use of the watermelon imagery (seed, vine, entwining and growing toward light, rinds) in “Watermelon Metropolis,” is a lesson on how to choose a theme/image/object and build-on its distinct characteristics. As writers, we know it’s not easy unless there’s comprehensive homework behind it. For more ideas of how it’s done, read “Twenty-one Species” (OFFP, First Place). With its pace and lush language, see how the perfect atmospheric tone is created with sardines, mermaids, scales, sailors, pirates.

Rosaleen’s work is the result of what she calls ‘cross pollination’. The author says, “Twenty-one Species of Fish Called Sardine started off as a phone note for a title, after an episode of Qi, becoming fifty-eight words in May from a mermaid prompt, and a breathless paragraph from a pirate prompt, picking up bluebell sap from twitter and cactus clouds from another prompt, and five rejections and edits later, it won the OFFP!” So you know, a piece that appears just perfect on the top of the podium has undergone multiple changes and conceals within itself a lot of patience and industry from the creator.

Finally, I’d like to point you to “The Alligator Clock.” The stop-start-stop mode of it, and flawless earnestness: “when we came home twenty-seven times three fingers or toes later, the room was full with smoke of potatoes burnt to black shells in the pot, the fire alarm silent on the ceiling and a roast chicken cooked but cold…”

Sara Hills

“When Neil Armstrong Walks on the Moon” (First Place, 2020 NFFD Micro) was my first encounter with the writing of Sara Hills. Notice the opening sentence: “The GIs puff like bánh bao dumplings and drink until their pockets leak.”, how it plants the reader right into the setting and timeline. Her effectiveness in getting the setting and time right in the first line itself is exceptional. Like in “Trip-trapping” (NFFR): “The autumn I turn ten, we leave my dad and the crusted expanse of Arizona desert, hard-packed sand dotted with dried grass and shrivelled cacti, for the suburbs of Chicago”. As beginners struggling with openings, no workshop or course could possibly teach you how beautifully it can be done except keen readings. I’d also highly recommend “Lions in the Amazon” (SLQ) because there are no lions in the Amazon and the reader is immediately intrigued by it. Through the exploration of a picture book, the children in the story travel to Marrakesh, Rome, Mexico and Brazil, while their mother “tells fortunes”. You can’t help but marvel at the poignancy of the line: “I see humans eating humans.” About the story Sara says: “When I was really small, we hid from the landlord when the rent was due, and so in part, I was calling upon that distant memory and spinning it out into a worse scenario.” Fiction is therefore, part memory, part imagination and part art. How much to say, and what to leave off the page, is essentially a choice the writer exercises to enhance their idea.

Flash has thus enabled “democratization of voices,” and I believe by reading, assimilating, and practicing enough, new and emerging writers may bring in more and more diversity of ideas and seedlings of big important stories.

Mandira Pattnaik is a writer published in more than 150 magazines/journals. Mandira is also a Regular columnist with Reckon Review and Trampset. Fortnightly, Mandira Pattnaik writes craft essays for the blog and also lead writing workshops.

3 responses to “Beginner’s Guide to Five Flash Fiction Writers and Their Unique Styles by Mandira Pattnaik

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