Going Short—An Invitation to Flash Fiction by Nancy Stohlman

–Reviewed by Neil Campbell–

I came to Nancy Stohlman’s Going Short (Ad Hoc Fiction) with some trepidation. I’ve been writing for the last seventeen years and when I first started out I looked at a number of ‘How To Write Fiction’ books, but there was just too much information in them. I really only ever found useful a book by Rust Hills, on short stories, and the short, wonderful essay by Raymond Carver called ‘On Writing’. Hemingway also had a lot of good stuff to say, and the book with the title Carver borrowed is also worth a read.

Going Short - An Invitation to Flash Fiction book cover featuring a swirling vortex through an open door

The term ‘flash fiction’ has its critics. In a subtle gatekeeping power play, the Edge Hill Short Story Prize (note the title of the award) was awarded to a collection of flash fiction in 2020, thereby opening up that award to flash fiction and marginalizing all the flash fiction awards out there in the process.

The term ‘flash’ is also disliked, mainly by those who don’t write it, those hidebound by the consecrated forms that weren’t consecrated when they first emerged. I had my own doubts at first, but if that’s what people choose to call it then fine, who am I to disagree? For me the word also has positive connotations: a flash of inspiration or a flash of insight or a flash of light. If you don’t like the word you are disrespecting a lot of magazines who specifically use it like New Flash Fiction Review. Let’s be honest, the term ‘short short’ is clumsy clumsy in comparison. Perhaps the canniest are those magazines that combine both, like Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine, based at the University of Chester, a splendid magazine with a patchy rate of publication.

That this book is set out in flash chapters is a great idea and makes the information easier to digest than in one of those four hundred page books on the short story that come out of creative writing programmes at U.S. universities.

When Stohlman writes about ‘implicating the reader’ we are in Hemingway territory of a hundred years ago. Stohlman is refreshing in that she mentions Hemingway more than once and doesn’t try to pretend that all aspects of flash fiction are something newly invented.

There is great advice in this book, useful advice for cynical sods at it for seventeen years, and absolute beginners: try writing a flash in less than ten minutes, completely rewrite a story that doesn’t work, have different kinds of story come later in a collection to surprise the reader, get rid of your last line and use it as a title, use your first line as title, switch paragraphs around, use bay leaves, don’t be too keen to get published.    

Ad Hoc Fiction (as opposed to Ad Hoc Flash Fiction) seems to specialize in flash fiction, KM Elkes’ collection being a splendid example, as is the annual anthology based around entries for the Bath Flash Fiction Prize (not the separate Bath Short Story Prize).

This book could become the definitive introduction to the form. It’s admirably lean and devoid of ego.

This is also a good book for creative writing courses and, even better, a book for that old fashioned entity, the solitary writer, the one excluded from academia by not having thousands of pounds.

You could read this book in an hour and go back to it for years. And there’s a hundred prompts at the back for those of you feigning ‘writer’s block’.

Find out more about Going Short—An Invitation to Flash Fiction on the Ad Hoc Fiction website.

Neil Campbell

Reviewed by Neil Campbell — Neil Campbell’s third novel Lanyards (Salt Publishing, 2019) is out now. From Manchester, England, he has appeared three times in the annual anthology of Best British Short Stories (2012/2015/2016). He has published three novels, two collections of flash fiction, two collections of short stories, two poetry chapbooks and a poetry collection, as well as appearing in numerous magazines and anthologies. He is currently working on new books and looking for an agent.

Twitter: @neilcambers | Website: ncampbellwriter.wixsite.com